Nicholas Wrathall’s neatly turned documentary on the political provocateur/belles lettres author comes with a surfeit of curmudgeonly old man footage, but shows where Vidal got it right (the big picture) and where he got it wrong (the details). But is the once inescapable liberal intellectual still a force to be reckoned with five years after his death? Or the light-weight his critics charged, with self-regard as Achilles’ Heel? Wrathall is more true believer than doubter, though he couldn’t get what he needed from Vidal to bring out the late act betrayal of fellow contrarian essayist Christopher Hitchens, the spiritual son who failed. As for what survives; his great series of American historical fiction remains wicked, wise & unbeatably entertaining, a forced march thru the Great Men of D.C. (LINCOLN and BURR wonderfully jarring) and the still underappreciated collected essays. But what can be said of those philosophical/religious tomes of later years? Best to enjoy the film clips of slice-and-dice aperçu (extra naughty on the Kennedys) and perhaps go back to his finest film writing, the sly gay angle added to BEN-HUR/’56 and his unaccountably fine, moving adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s THE CATERED AFFAIR/’56 into one of Hollywood’s best kitchen-sink dramas. The man could surprise you.
DOUBLE-BILL: Vidal’s theatrical chef d'oeuvre, THE BEST MAN/’64 now looks stiff & dated as politics and as drama (very much the ‘well-made play’) while the above mentioned BEN-HUR and CATERED AFFAIR are just about perfect examples of their wildly different forms.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Fans of Orson Welles should check out the touching/hilarious obit/celebration Vidal included in his essay collection UNITED STATES.