Author, screenwriter, pundit and talk show gadfly, Gore Vidal has loomed large in American letters for nearly half a century. He has always played the acid-tongued provocateur, first with the homosexual themes of his early novels and later in his public brawling with literary heavyweights like Norman Mailer and the late Truman Capote. A trenchant observer of U.S. politics, Vidal ran unsuccessfully for Congress from New York in 1960, and somewhat more whimsically for the Senate from California in 1982.
Now Vidal, 67, is on the hustings again—onscreen that is—in Tim Robbins’s political satire Bob Roberts. As Sen. Brickley Paiste, a liberal incumbent hopelessly overmatched against a guitar-twanging, right-wing demagogue (played by Robbins, who also directed), Vidal says, “I realized I was playing my grandfather [Oklahoma Sen. Thomas Gore], who at exactly my age had been defeated.” (Vidal is a distant cousin of Al Gore Jr.’s.) He also has a best-selling novel, LIVE from Golgotha—an irreverent yarn in which a TV news crew goes back in time to cover the crucifixion of Jesus—and a new collection of essays about the movies, Screening History.
For the past 20 years Vidal and his companion, Howard Austin, have divided their time between a multilevel villa in Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi coast (“where I can breathe the air,” he says) and Los Angeles. Now finishing a movie script for Martin Scorsese, Vidal recently visited New York City, where he met with correspondent David Hutchings.
What did yon think of your first major acting role, in Bob Roberts?
“Acting” is too strong a word for what I do. It’s performing. I’ve been performing for 40 years, on television. I’ve done Johnny Carson, and if that’s not acting, I don’t know what is. You’re surrounded by comics, singers and actors whose great chance this is; if they blow it, there goes fame and fortune. So they’re all backstage vomiting and out of their minds with hysteria, and that’s rather contagious. Even I get a little shaky.
I think my greatest performance was right after [Sen. George] McGovern lost to Nixon in 1972. I was in Boston giving a lecture to 2,000 people. My speech wasn’t going well, so I cut straight to the questions and answers. A woman asked why Massachusetts was the only state to vole for McGovern. I said, “Well, I could flatter you and say, ‘Here we are in the Athens of America,’ but I won’t. I’ll tell you why. From the beginning of the republic, Massachusetts has been the most corrupt state in the union, and you know a crook when you see one!” It was like a sound bomb went off with the applause and shouting. That’s performing, not acting. I like being the playwright as well as the actor.
Having worked with many directors as a screenwriter, how did you get on with Tim Robbins?
To be quite candid, most directors are perfectly terrible. They’re wedded to the script—it’s their security blanket—and don’t know what to do if anything goes wrong. Tim Robbins had worked with Robert Altman on The Player and learned from him. Altman always has his eyes open to see if anything is going on that he might have missed and should throw in. He also listens. Tim’s the same. He takes chances.
You’re gotten rave reviews for Bob Roberts. Will you do more acting?
Actually, I’ve gotten three tentative offers, but then you know the heartbreak of showbiz. I want all the Sydney Greenstreet parts. I’d love to be the sinister fat man in a white suit and Panama hat chuckling mirthlessly. My good friend Paul New man rang the other day and said, “I want to congratulate you on your new second career.” I said, “I’d rather skip the second career, Paul, and go straight to the salad dressing!”
Your new satirical novel, LIVE from Golgotha has Shirley MacLaine at the crucifixion, channeling the story back to NBC News, and lots of sex among the disciples. What was your aim?
I’ve always found Christian doctrine intrinsically funny. I was brought up in the Episcopal Church, but I was already an atheist as a schoolboy. I do not intend, as some of my critics accuse me of doing, to hurt the feelings of good people with simple faith in Jesus or Jehovah; that’s their business. But I want the religious right to stay out of my life, law and politics. The only reason the religious groups have power now is that they are tax-exempt. I want to tax them all.
As for the sex, I’ve always thought Saint Paul and Timothy was the greatest love story never told. Embarrassing stuff, that New Testament.
eYou’re well-known for your talk show appearances. Has life on the IT circuit changed?
There is no place where you can go and actually talk anymore. It’s so sound-bitten now. I remember the early days of The Today Show when I’d go on with Hugh Downs and there would be just the two of us and a copy of that morning’s New York Times and we’d talk for an hour. Then some young genius came and said that the public’s attention span is only seven minutes. But look at the people like myself who love C-Span. I watch CNN in Italy all the time.
What do you make of the set-to over Murphy Brown, “family values”and “the cultural elite”?
What it really says is that we have no politics. Except for the marginal Ross Perot, who should be commended for his ads—a true novelty—we can’t talk about the main issues, which are the deficit and the corruption of government and Pentagon overruns. The idea that there is a cultural elite is nonsense. The media by definition is the most conservative component of our corporate stale because it’s there to sell the goods, and if you’re selling the goods, you’re going to represent mainline America. When they take on Murphy Brown, these spin masters are falling into a trap, because Murphy Brown, as they must know, represents the taste of the American people. And in America you don’t take on somebody bigger than you are. Nixon forgot that. He dared take on the ownership of the country, specifically one Kay Graham [owner of the Washington Post].
What other issues aren’t getting talked about?
The big question mark now is, who is going to take on the Russian account—us or the Germans? Only Richard Nixon and I seem to understand that’s the only means for the U.S. to survive as a major player in the world. The Russians long to be consumer-society Americans. Unfortunately, we don’t have any money to give them, but we can give them technology and help run their industries so that they would then be able to buy our consumer goods. Luckily for us, Germany is hung up on reunification. This is our great chance to economically unite with Russia.
What do you think of Ross Perot?
He’s probably the worst sort of man to be President. He’s a totalitarian, with dictatorial longings. It’s conceivable that some Americans might really want that. Certainly there has always been a fascist tendency, particularly in the name of the fetus and the flag. In a morbid way, I would be interested if they were to go that route. Then the whole place would blow up and we might start again.
What about your own political aspirations?
Good God! I wouldn’t want to be President during this period of decline. I’m much more high noon than twilight zone by character. Look at New York City; every day it’s worse. Ditto Los Angeles. The police are rioting now—a very ominous development—and it’s not going to get any better. The press notes all of this but seems not to realize that we’re in the middle of an escalating race war, aggravated by a damaged economy.
As for the Senate, I wanted to go there when I was a kid because my grandfather did. But I was born a writer, and you can’t do both. Writers must tell the truth, or try to, and politicians must never give the game away. I remember watching the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and thinking, “Why in the world would I want to be a member of that club?” I mean, better to work for the Cosa Nostra than with this group of oddballs.
Whom will you vote for?
I vote locally, but I haven’t voted for President since 1964, when I voted for Lyndon Johnson—the peace candidate. I would never dream of being had again.