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Tag: Gore Vidal

Get Hur! How Gay Subtexts Became Ancient History

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Out.com 18 August, 2016)

We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.

Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.

But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.

As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’

Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.

Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.

According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’

A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’

Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!

Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’

Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.

Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’

Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).

But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.

Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.

It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.

Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.

Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.

Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.

Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.

Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.

The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.

Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.

Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.

Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.

The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  — because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

Edmund White’s Vulgar Fag-ism

I’ve always liked Edmund White’s refusal to get with the contemporary gay hypocrisy program and shrewishly condemn promiscuity in the hope that this will deliver lots and lots of wedding presents.

In contrast to that pasteurised movie Milk, which lied shamelessly about gay men’s sex lives in the 1970s to make it easier for them to lie about their sex lives today, White, a veteran gay-libber who first started libbing around that time – in bath-houses, back rooms and along the piers – insists on telling it as it was, genital warts and all.

That said, I’ve frequently found his work to be insufferably gayist. Edmund is a five star, old school gay chauvinist – so literally fucking proud to be gay and so obsessed with ‘coming out’ (and attacking those that refuse to join his party) that sometimes I just want to slap him.

Which is why I laughed out loud when frail old Gore Vidal, veteran dissenter from the orthodoxies of sexual identity politics, recently reached out of his wheelchair and did just that, repeatedly, in The London Times. Asked about White’s fictionalised portrayal of Vidal’s letter-writing relationship with the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in the play ‘Terre Haute’, The Gore lambasted White for portraying him as ‘another queen’, only writing about how ‘being a fag is the greatest thing on Earth’ and – in a fantastic phrase that will stay with White forever, like an immortal red handprint on the side of his face  – “vulgar fag-ism”.

Probably it was the ‘vulgar’ part that stung White most (his prose, especially the earlier efforts, sometimes looks as if it’s been fisted by a thesaurus) and provoked the bitchy response in an interview in Salon this week (‘Edmund White comes out swinging’).  Ed describes Gore as a ‘nasty, awful man’, claims sorrowfully to have tried to help him in the past by inviting him to dinner to introduce him to ‘cute boys’, very kindly reminds us of his great age, the fact that he’s wheelchair-bound, his alcoholism, his loss a few years ago of his life-long companion. Practically spelling it out for us in a campy stage whisper: Bitter. Old. Queen.

But apparently this isn’t enough. He also tells us that Vidal is a ‘complete lunatic’ and that ‘it doesn’t bother me what he says about me.’ Yes, dear, but if it doesn’t, why go on so? And on, and on….

‘I don’t know what he’s famous for anywhere, really, because I think those historical novels are complete works of taxidermy. Nobody can read those. “Myra Breckinridge” was funny but light. The essays are what everybody defends — but a friend of mine who did a volume of the best essays of the 20th century said they’re all so topical that they’ve all aged terribly. I don’t know where his work is.’

Ed, sweetie. Even if everything that you and your terribly important literary friends have to say about that ‘nasty awful man’ were true, bitter old alcoholic crippled Gore would still be ten times the writer you are.

And, oh, about 100 times the man.

Gore Vidal Takes on The World – Again

Gore Old

God, I can’t help but love the old bastard.  Another tour-de-force from Gore Vidal (interviewed by Tim Teeman) appeared in The London Times last week, in which, as usual, he said so many things, so very loudly that so many people know to be true but daren’t begin to mumble.

This frail, crippled, diabetic, alcoholic, eighty-three-year-old man repeatedly and energetically Gores Obama, for his ‘dreadful’ performance as President, decries how he has ‘fucked up’ healthcare, and most particularly how he has allowed himself to be railroaded by the military into continuing the American Imperialist project, something Vidal has heroically dedicated his life to attacking. He also expresses his deep regret over dumping feisty Hillary, his first choice, for this smooth-talking ingenue during the Democratic Primaries:

“Hillary knows more about the world and what to do with the generals. History has proven when the girls get involved, they’re good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to.”

Vidal suggests that he was beguiled – as many clearly were in the Democratic Party – by the historic if not actually romantic appeal of a black man as President of the United States.  Particularly one that was much more intelligent than his white predecessor; but seems to have been disappointed even in that department.

Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intelligence. “But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star”.

He also discusses, or rather, disses, gay marriage – a subject I wasn’t alas able to cover when I interviewed him earlier this year for Arena Hommes Plus. When Teeman asks, ‘Has love been important to him?’ he responds blisteringly:

“Don’t make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay men’s relationships are like heterosexual ones. They’re not.”

This one, simple, obviously true statement is of course complete heresy for modern American gays – who aren’t listening anyway since most of them probably don’t even know who Gore Vidal is.  Which is in itself damning enough.

Vidal puts on a scornful, campy voice. “People ask {of he and Austen, his life-long companion who died last year}, ‘How did you live together so long?’ The only rule was no sex. They can’t believe that….

No, because if you wish to pretend that two men living together is just like a man and woman living together you have to pretend to the same lies and illusions heterosexuals do.

He is single now. “I’m not into partnerships,” he says dismissively. I don’t even know what it means.” He “couldn’t care less” about gay marriage. “Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.” You could have been the first gay president, I say. “No, I would have married and had nine children,” he replies quickly and seriously. “I don’t believe in these exclusive terms.”

They certainly don’t make ’em like that any more.

Gore Vidal Turns Off The Lights on the American Dream

GoreVidalVanVechten1

Mark Simpson speaks to the mother of Myra Breckinridge, and scourge of imperialism, monotheism – and monosexuality

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2009)

I”m hearing the last living Great American Man of Letters. He says something else I don’t hear and I ask him to repeat it. Suddenly this 83 year old legend is very loud and very scary indeed: ‘IS “QUIET” A EUPHEMISM FOR DEAD?!’ he thunders in a voice much more Biblical than his old foe the late Charlton Heston was ever able to muster. But then, Mr Vidal is amongst other things, an Old Testament prophet – albeit a Godless, ‘pinko’ one with a very mischievous sense of humour.

***

‘I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.’ So announces the opening sentence of the 1968 sensational best-seller Myra Breckinridge about a hilarious, devastating, but always elegant transsexual, by the hilarious, devastating, but always elegant Gore Vidal. Myra, a (slightly psychotic) devotee of High Hollywood, hell-bent on revenging herself on American machismo, continues her manifesto:

‘Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.’

From the right angle, and in the right light of hindsight, Gore Vidal resembles his most famous offspring. Clad only in his wit – and an armour-plated ego – Mr Vidal has, during his long and prolific career as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, (failed) politician, commentator, movie special guest-star, (gleeful) gadfly, and America’s (highly unauthorised) biographer, taken on The Land of the Free’s finest literary and political warriors, who had no word for ‘why’ or ‘because’, but plenty for ‘faggot’ and ‘pinko’.

Vidal broke the balls – and outlasted – tiresomely macho brawlers like Norman Mailer: he compared The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of menstrual flow”. Later, when he was knocked to the ground by Mailer, he retorted, still on the floor: ‘Words fail Norman Mailer yet again’.

And also right wing bruisers like William F. Buckley Jnr., whom he famously provoked into threatening him and shouting ‘you queer!’ on live national TV in 1968. ‘RIP WFB – In Hell’ was Gore’s very Christian obituary notice last year. Like that other thorn in the side of America, Castro, Vidal has survived almost all his foes.

In his spare time, piercing, pointed Gore has taken on the Cold War, the American Empire, what he calls the ‘Republican-Democrat’ Party, monotheism, and, even more sacred to America (and, for that matter, the UK), monosexuality. He himself has had relationships with both men and women (and what women! He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward). He maintains, like the incurable blasphemer he is, that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ are adjectives not nouns, acts not identities. Most recently, his impressively unnecessary punking of the venerable, extravagantly charming BBC presenter David Dimbleby on live TV on Election Night – ‘I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE!’ he barked in his best Lady Bracknell –  has become an unlikely YouTube hit.

As he once said: ‘Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.’ Or was that Myra? Either way, Mr Vidal is more of a man than many of his adversaries sadly mistook themselves for – and, perhaps, more woman than any of them could ever hope to possess.

Maybe that’s why, twenty years ago when I was a callow youth, I sent Mr Vidal a fan letter. I also included, as you do, a topless shot: back then, I had Hollywood tits. And who better to appreciate them than Gore Vidal, MGM’s last contract writer? Fortunately for both of us, response was there none.

I put my tits away, and took to writing. But I was probably still writing fan notes to Vidal, even when I scribbled, as I did from time to time, nasty, Oedipal things about him. Re-reading Myra Breckinridge I can see that too much of my own work is just footnotes to this forty-year-old novel which more or less invented metrosexuality decades before the word was coined, strapped it on and rammed it where the sun don’t shine. (Described at the time on the dust-jacket as a ‘novel of far-out sexuality’ it now seems, well, all the way in).

But now I’m actually speaking to Mr Vidal. I feel like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future where he meets his teen mother at High School (save my ‘mother’ is generally agreed to be no pussycat). Am I going to disappear into an embarrassing time-paradox? ‘Please forgive my nervousness,’ I stutter. ‘I’m a Big Fan – though I suppose those words probably strike terror into your heart…’.

Without missing a beat comes the laconic reply, in that measured, unmistakable voice: ‘They clearly strike terror into yours.’

Later, I hand him another line when I gush, not entirely baselessly: ‘To someone like me, you almost seem like the embodiment of the Twentieth Century!’

‘On arthritic days I know I’m the Twentieth Century’.

Mr Vidal is speaking today from his American home of the last forty years in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal in the Hollywood Hills makes sense – it is an LA Eyrie; a place where his back is covered and from which he can spy people coming a long way off. His fortress-like house in Ravello, Italy, which he recently sold, was perched atop rocky cliffs, reached only by a steep, dizzying pathway. But Vidal says he chose the Hills because they weren’t vulgar. ‘Unlike other parts of LA, like Beverly Hills or Bel Air, when I bought this house forty years ago, it did not attract the super rich, wherever they live they build these huge houses. You don’t have many of those up here in the hills.’

‘Do you survey Los Angeles from your window?’

‘Heavens, no! There’s no sight uglier than Los Angeles!’

‘But at night it can be very beautiful.’

‘Well, almost anywhere can be beautiful at night!’

‘True. Even a refinery town like Middlesbrough, which just happens to be down the road from my own somewhat less glamorous home in the UK. The opening aerial shot of a future, infernal Los Angeles in Blade Runner were supposedly inspired by Middlesbrough at night – the director Ridley Scott grew up round there.’

‘Yes, Ridley Scott used to hire my house. I think also during the making of that film. I used to hire it out a lot – mostly to Brits.’

‘You’re regarded very fondly on these shores.’

‘It’s reciprocated,’ he says, almost warmly. ‘The books were read in the UK at the same time as they were in America. Although more easily for the English since, unlike the New York Times, the London Times was not dedicated to attacking me.’

The New York Times, taking ladylike fright at the matter-of-fact way Vidal’s second novel ‘The City and the Pillar’ dealt with same-sex love in the US Army during the Second World War (Vidal enlisted at the age 17), had an attack of the vapours and banned Gore’s next five novels. No minor snub this, since the NYT even more so then than today could make or break you as a writer.

Perhaps the NYT was so shocked because this distasteful dissident was a product of the very heart of the East Coast Elite. A cuckoo in a feathered nest. Born in October 3, 1924 at the US Military Academy in Westpoint, his father an aeronautics pioneer and airline tycoon (founding what would become TWA and Eastern Airlines), his grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, the most powerful Senator of the age – and also blind – his mother was an actress and socialite (and a mean drunk). He was christened Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. by the headmaster of St. Albans preparatory school, a school for the DC elite which he was to attend. He later took the name ‘Gore’ in honour of his grandfather (a leading Isolationist – whose outlook Vidal has remained faithful to), whom he spent much of his childhood reading to, and mixing with the most powerful figures in the most powerful country in the world – just before it was about to become the world.

I’d like to think that Vidal was almost a kind of internal émigré from the East Coast when he arrived in LA in the early 50s as a scriptwriter for MGM. ‘Not really,’ he demurs, ‘I was back and forth between the East and West Coast. I was one of the founders of live drama on television. I must have done a hundred plays during ’54 to ’57. After the New York Times banned me I had to make a living, and there it was: I never wanted to be a playwright but I found out I was one. Theatre work kept me going for many years.’

A number of his plays were made into movies, including The Best Man (1960), starring Henry Fonda as an idealistic Presidential Candidate faced with one who will do anything to win. It includes a prophetic speech: ‘One day there will be a Jewish President and then a black President. And when all the minorities are heard from we’ll do something for the downtrodden majority of this country: the ladies.’ I mention to Vidal it’s being re-released on DVD.

‘Oh, they never tell me,’ he sighs, ‘and I never receive any money from it – it just happens. I mean now I think the rights probably belong to a group of Martian businessmen.’ (Possibly a bitter reference to another play of his, Visit to a Small Planet, made into a movie starring Jerry Lewis in 1960, in which a delinquent Martian visits Earth – the play’s sharp satire of the Washington elite and 1950s American values disappeared in the film version.)

It’s a busy Oscar Weekend in LA, but will Mr Vidal be attending any of the events? ‘I’ve been invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party but I don’t think I’ll be going along. I haven’t been to the Oscars for years. I really don’t have much interest any more.’

‘Whatever happened’, I ask, ‘to the uplifting propaganda for the American Way of Life that Hollywood used to produce?’

‘Well, there are no longer studios to generate that kind of euphoria,’ he replies glumly. ‘Money is all powerful these days, and calls all the shots – in Hollywood and pretty much everything else in American life. We watched That Hamilton Woman last night, as it was called in America, the 1941 Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton biopic. It really was a spectacular movie, they certainly don’t make them like that anymore. It was the first time that Vivien Leigh and Olivier had appeared together, which caused enormous excitement. London was being bombed and they were making this movie in Hollywood! With Alexander Korda directing and producing. A superb romantic film and great acting. God…!’ He trails off in an unguarded reverie.

High Hollywood, the period that Vidal grew up with, visiting the movie theatre almost daily, almost religiously, is one of the few things that he could be accused of being sentimental about. In Screening History (1992) he wrote: ‘It occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.’ In Myra Breckinridge, the heroine declares: ‘…in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.’

No one could seriously accuse most contemporary Hollywood output of being amenable to ‘profound study’. High Hollywood was about money too of course, but movies back then often seemed to be the most aesthetic medium imaginable: fashion, art, glamour. How was that?

‘The early moguls liked art,’ explains Vidal. ‘Like Adolph Zuckor who founded Paramount. He cast Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, in Queen Elizabeth, his first feature film. Zuckor aspired to the highest standards of theatre. Then of course Hollywood became very successful and money became all anyone was really interested in.’

‘Remember, movies are movies. It’s better to do them out here where there’s plenty of light without going broke over the electricity. Mind you, the reason that Warner Brothers films were often the best movies made in the 1930s was because they looked so dark – the chiaroscuro quality of WB films was priceless. Bette Davies in The Letter was a great one- from the opening gloomy, brooding shot. How did Warner do it? Well it was because the Brothers Warner were very, very cheap! They’d go around from soundstage to soundstage turning the lights down, so halfway through the day every scene was in darkness!’

‘It was said that a British actor, a little on the pompous side came over here for some loot. Addressing some of the old timer American actors he asked: “Isn’t it difficult living in a society so unrooted and uprooted, without tradition of any kind?” One of them answered: “Why the Warner Brothers Christmas layoffs are one of our greatest traditions!”‘ Vidal laughs scornfully.

Vidal is himself a frequent visitor to the UK, ‘When I was younger I always made a point to visit Saville Row Whenever in London – though the last time was 30 years ago.’

‘How long does a Saville suit last?’

‘Forever! I don’t believe in fashion. I have no time for it. Versace once told me I looked a state and sent some of his staff to visit me in Ravello and make a suit. And very nice suits they were too. But it isn’t something I take an interest in.’

Vidal may claim not to believe in fashion, but in Myra Breckinridge he proved a profound observer of male fashion trends, predicting in effect the Twenty First Century: ‘…young men [today] compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.’

But when I suggest this to him, bringing up his most famous, most prophetic book, he just says quickly, ‘I should read it again.’ Making it quite clear that he doesn’t wish to discuss it. Perhaps the eccentric 1970 film version starring Raquel Welch left a bad taste in his mouth – it certainly left one in the critics’ mouths.

I ask him when he was last in the UK. ‘Just the other week. I had the great joy of addressing the House of Commons in Westminster’s Great Hall courtesy of Third World Solidarity to talk about the matter of Cuba and the United States. It was the venom of the Kennedy brothers who were out to destroy Castro because he didn’t want to be killed by them. Or invaded. Or taken over. And his revolution erased. The vanity of that family!’

Vidal’s vigorous attacks on liberal icons the Kennedys – whom he knew personally – for their warmongering are always value for money, exploding as they do the soft-focus mythology of Camelot. Vidal was one of the few people in American public life to dare to denounce the Cold War as an American invention to keep the politically and economically profitable US war machine turning over after the Second World War ceased trading. ‘The thing about Jack was that he actually believed all that anti-communist propaganda – the previous Presidents didn’t.’ (To which could be added: George W. Bush had much in common with Kennedy’s messianic zeal and frothy talk of ‘freedom’ – he just didn’t have the good fortune to be assassinated in his first term.)

Vidal was vehemently attacked for his outspokenness about the Cold War and particularly for talking and writing about something that was as clear as day: the American Empire. ‘”How dare you!” people shouted,’ recalls Vidal. ‘”We’re not an Empire! We stand for freedom!”‘

‘Recently pretty much everyone has started talking about the “American Empire”,’ I observe.

‘Well, when we started down the Roman Imperial, dynastic way with the Bush family,’ says Vidal wearily, ‘it became quite clear it was all wrong whatever it was. Remember, we didn’t break away from England, we broke away from the King. That’s what the Declaration of Independence is all about. Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant propaganda united the colonists against George III.’

‘We’re the original Evil Empire.’

‘Well, you certainly were then.’

‘Alas, our empire fell . . .’

‘Well, you ran out of money.’

‘Yes. As the US seems to be doing now. Are you surprised by the speeded-up schedule of Imperial implosion?’

‘I was surprised by the speed at which we lost the Republic, and lost Magna Carta during the Bush Dictatorship.’

‘But you see liberal icon Roosevelt as the first American Emperor – decreeing there should be no Empires, save his.’

‘I’ll tell you a story. Roosevelt was having lunch with Churchill. The Second World War was drawing to a close. They toasted the end of the war. Then Roosevelt gave Churchill a radiant smile, and said [here Vidal imitates Roosevelt’s high Patrician voice: he is a great, savage mimic], ‘You realize you’re going to have to give up your precious India, don’t you?’ [imitating Churchill’s jowly tones] “Never!” And they had a quarrel over the lunch table. Many people who happened to be there spread it around. Roosevelt not only won the argument, it was force majeure. Roosevelt said, ‘The days of Empire are over, and I trust you realize this.”‘

‘Churchill said: “What do you want me to do? Get on my hind legs like your little dog Fala, and beg?” Roosevelt said simply: “Yes.” Don’t tempt an Emperor!’

‘Most people in the UK seem not to have realised the real nature of the ‘special relationship’ we have had with the US since 1940.’

‘Why should they? their lives go on anyway…’.

Vidal is a keen historian, but that most dangerous kind: an autodidact. ‘I didn’t go to Harvard,’ he once boasted. ‘I just sent my work there.’ Unlike most historians, Vidal has actually had met most of the key players. Or perhaps the other way around – as he has put it himself elsewhere: ‘People always say: “You got to meet everyone.” They always put that sentence the wrong way around. I mean, why not put it the right way, that these people got to meet me, and wanted to? Otherwise it sounds like I spent my life hustling around trying to meet people: “Oh, look, there’s the governor!”‘ Wouldn’t you want to meet Gore Vidal if you were Jack Kennedy or William Burroughs? Although he is an incorrigible name-dropper, it’s probably because his world has been so filled with names that not to drop them would be the pretentious thing to do.

‘I used to know Nancy Astor,’ he says, launching into a five star anecdote sparked by our discussion of Britain’s rather unlikely Imperial past. ‘And I asked her about her famous trip to the Soviet with Bernard Shaw. “Well, I was just lookin’ out that train window” – she had a Virginia accent – “I was watchin’ the whole world go by. And it was pathetic – he kept readin’ one of his own books!”

In Moscow Stalin was in charming mode, embracing them, one in each arm. He listened to Shaw go on for a while, then pointed to a map of the world on the wall of his Kremlin office and he asked, “How is it that this little island in the North Sea has ended up with all this??” And he pointed to all the pink on the map. ‘”Can you explain that to me Mr. Shaw?” Shaw declined to respond. And so he turned to Lady Astor. “Well, ahh think it is becaauuse it was we first who gave the world the King James Version of the Bible.” I asked her, “What did Stalin say to that?” “He didn’t say anythin’.” On the way out, Lady Astor asked, “Mr Stalin, when you gonna stop killin’ people?”

“Oh, Lady Astor,’ replied Stalin, looking directly at her. “The undesirable classes do not kill themselves.”‘

‘Now,’ says Vidal, ‘that’s a nice story where everybody’s in character!’

My audience with the Twentieth Century is winding down. ‘Do you think,’ I ask, looking for silver linings and sunny endings, ‘the latest Emperor, Barack Obama, can rescue the American Imperium?’

‘The US is a very racist country,’ responds Vidal sorrowfully. ‘He will probably be assassinated. Then Martial Law will be declared. The contingency plans are already in place, I’m sure.’ Like the Brother’s Warner, he’s switching off the lights.

‘Do you think the American Dream can be revived?’

‘No. There was never anything to it. It was always fraudulent.’ Off goes another light.

‘LA was once the city of the future – does it still have one?’

‘No. It’s run out of gas.’ And another bulb dies. We’re now in darkness. Bette Davis had more light in that opening shot in The Letter.

‘Do you think America can survive without the kind of brilliant dreams and illusions Hollywood used to manufacture – or without an Empire on which the sun never sets?’

‘Of course we can,’ he retorts. ‘We’ll just get on with our lives like everyone else.’ And a little no-frills night-light comes on.

All things considered, it was probably for the best that I didn’t mention the topless fan letter I’d sent all those years ago to Gore, glorious Grinch of the Hollywood Hills.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2012

Special thanks to Steven Zeeland and DAKrolak

Little Britain Touches Up Uncle Sam

By Mark Simpson (Guardian, 20 October, 2008)

‘What other culture could have produced someone like Ernest Hemingway,’ waspish bisexual American exile Gore Vidal once asked of America’s favourite so-butch-he’s-camp writer, ‘and not seen the joke?’. The answer, was, of course, that only a culture that couldn’t see the joke could produce a Hemingway.

I don’t know whether Matt Lucas and David Walliams read Vidal or Hemingway, but in Little Britain USA, the recently launched HBO spin-off of their hit UK TV comedy sketch series (which is also airing on BBC1), they seem to be posing that question again – though this time the answer has some bearing on the likelihood of Stateside success of their show. In Little Britain USA ‘Our Boys’ (as a cheer-leading UK media seem to have tagged the camp duo) have put their probing finger on one of the most ticklish fault-lines of US culture: how ‘gay’ big butch God-fearing America can seem – and how comically in denial of this Americans can be.

There certainly seems to be a bit of Hemingway, who loved his guns, in the moustachioed cop (played by Walliams) who gets a visible hard-on while demonstrating his impressive collection of weapons to his fellow officers. But it’s in the steroid-scary shape of the towel-snapping ‘Gym Buddies’, Tom and Mark, who like to take long showers together after pumping iron, and graphically re-enacting what they did to the ‘pussy’ they pulled last night – with each other’s huge latex bubble-butts and tiny penises – that the so-butch-it’s-camp not-so-hidden secret of American culture is graphically outed by Little Britain USA.

Along with pathological denial. In last week’s episode, when an alarmed bystander glances nervously at them humping naked in the locker room they retort: ‘Whaddyou lookin at? Are you A FAG??’  Walliams, who is so camp he’s almost butch (a ladies’ man off-screen he has been described repeatedly by the UK press as ‘the ultimate metrosexual’), seems especially proud of the Gym Buddies sketch – describing it as ‘possibly the most outrageous we’ve ever done’. Certainly it’s drawn most fire from critics in the US, who have given the series very mixed reviews.

Lucas and Walliam’s gleefully amoral queer sensibility – they’re basically drag queens on a revenge trip, especially when they dress up as men – was always going to be difficult for America to swallow. But touching Uncle Sam up in the locker room may well make it a lot harder… er, I mean, more difficult. America, even that part of it that watches HBO, may not want to get that joke. Especially when made by a couple of faggy Brits. And by the way, while we over here might think American butchness tres gay – e.g. the locker-room and volley-ball scenes in Top Gun – all Europeans look ‘faggy’ to Americans, especially us Brits. The sketch featuring Walliams as a flaming Brit Prime Minister trying to get into the straight black US President’s pants probably won’t offend as much as Walliams hopes since most Americans thought Tony Blair was gay anyway.

Rather sweetly, compared to the UK, America is a country where masculinity and machismo is still sacred – despite having done more than any other country to make it obsolete by inventing men’s shopping magazines. In the US of A, it seems, anything masculine can’t be gay and vice versa. Hence Hummersexual Tom and Mark. Hence ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. And hence all that fuss the US made over that mediocre gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain which, when it arrived in the UK, promptly bored everyone senseless.

America’s love of the masculine body, is gloriously ‘gay’ – or, more accurately, homoerotic.  But alas, until now Uncle Sam has been terribly ashamed of his natural, red-blooded and blatantly bloody obvious bi-responsiveness.

Only America, God Bless, could have produced UFC, a hugely popular pay-per-view ‘full-contact-sport’ that involves two young muscled men in shorts trying to get each other’s legs around their ears (Tom and Mark probably watch it together – in their UFC shorts). Only America could produce a best-selling men’s workout magazine like Men’s Health, put men’s pumped tits and abs on the cover every month and strenuously maintain the pretence that none of its readers are gay or bisexual – or even metrosexual. Only America could produce a film like last year’s ‘300′, essentially a toga-themed Chippendale flick for teen boys – but because it was made for American teen boys its denial was even more preposterous than its pectorals: the baddie had to be a big black club queen in a spangly Speedo.

Mind you, ‘300′ had at least one virtue, albeit unintentional: it was rather funnier than Little Britain USA. Perhaps the biggest problem Walliams and Lucas face in ramming their sensibility down Uncle Sam’s throat isn’t America’s gay denial or gagging reluctance to see the camp joke, but simply the fact that, on the basis of the first couple of shows, their American ‘outing’just isn’t very funny.

Either side of the pond.

Copyright © 1994 - 2016 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.