“Envy is the Central Fact of American Life“ – Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia + Director Q&A
By Greta Hoffman
On 11 November, the Frontline Club hosted the screening of Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. Finished less than a year after Vidal’s death, the film gave an intimate and in-depth insight into Vidal’s life and career as a writer and political commentator. The screening was followed by a lively Q&A with director Nicolas Wrathall.
The film starts with Vidal standing next to the tomb he has picked out for his companion Howard Auster and himself – it already has his name on it. From there, it takes the audience on an emotional journey through Vidal’s childhood and adolescence with his politician grandfather Thomas Gore, right up to his own career as a writer, political commentator and public figure. The film also touches on his friendship with famous people such as John F. Kennedy, Bruce Springsteen and Tennessee Williams, portraying a man “who was everywhere at once, all the time.”
In one of the final scenes of the movie, Vidal, who has just lost his lifelong companion Howard Auster, warns the Americans against forgetting the mistakes that have been made in the past in order to not repeat them in the future: “It is the United States of Amnesia” Vidal says, “we miraculously forget everything. So the lessons that we should be learning we probably will have forgotten in no time at all.”
After a long applause for director Wrathall, the first question was raised from the audience. How he could ever find a beginning with all the material that Vidal’s life provided? Wrathall responded that he first thought about making the film after 9/11 and Gore Vidal’s commentary on it (Vidal had stated that the United States had had it coming). However, he only had the opportunity to meet Vidal for the first time in 2006 through his nephew Burr Steers. In the film he mainly wanted to focus on Vidal’s politics. He added that it was easy to make the film with him as Vidal loved being in front of the camera.
Towards the end of the film the relationship between Vidal and Christopher Hitchens was discussed – specifically how Hitchens fell from grace when he declared Vidal’s opinion on 9/11 as mad. One member of the audience asked humorously whether Vidal thought that maybe Russell Brand would be a good dauphin for him. Wrathall answered that Vidal had indeed been a supporter of the Occupy movement – which Brand also supports – and thought that it is good that people like Brand are out there.
Another subject that raised questions was why the director had left out the years of the Kennedy assassination, despite the fact that Gore Vidal and JFK were good friends. The answer was simple: the Kennedy’s had been reported on from every angle and there had been a need to be selective on the material. Wrathall had, however, included the footage of an afternoon of sport shooting with Vidal, Kennedy and Tennessee Williams.
The screening was held two days after publication of a New York Times feature, in which Vidal’s half-sister Nina Straight and nephew Burr Steers claimed that they had evidence that Vidal was “not mentally competent when he changed the terms of his will the year before he died”, leaving his entire estate to Harvard University. The piece also suggests Vidal had sex with underage men. When asked about these recent revelations, Wrathall said:
“The Steers are currently trying to do damage control on this as they have been misquoted. . . . As far as the question about Harvard is concerned, he bequeathed all of his estate and money to Harvard which is very surprising to me and many people as he never went there. . . . There was quite a lot of bitterness and confusion in his family, who didn’t understand this. His will was changed in 2011 and I did interview him around that time. He was still sharpish, not quite the person he was in 2006 when I knew him, and he was drinking a lot…”
The film is currently being shown at festivals all over the world and will be in theatrical distribution in the US from April 2014. View the trailer here: