American Film


Gore Vidal, who died at his Hollywood Hills home on July 31, was celebrated as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, gadfly and memorable talk show guest. He turned his Broadway plays, “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Best Man” into successful motion pictures. He also wrote the screenplays for SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959), adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams, and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970), based on his own novel.

The grandson of a U.S. senator and cousin to former Vice President Al Gore, Jr., Vidal wrote frequently of politics and American history, including the novels Williwaw,” “Burr, “Lincoln” and “1876.” The author famously clashed in public with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr., among others, and was known for his acerbic wit on matters of sex, culture and politics.

When Vidal visited AFI at Greystone in 1977, he had just written the screenplay for the XXX-rated film CALIGULA (1979). He was typically outspoken and vastly entertaining in describing the work of writers and directors, beginning with his answer to the question, “How did you land in Hollywood?”

“I needed the money. I wrote my first novel when I was nineteen. ‘Williwaw’ was published in 1946, a mere 31 years ago. Novels did fairly well in those days. But then television came along. In the fifties the sales of everybody’s novels, except a few golden bestsellers, in which category I was not, declined dramatically. So I started writing for live television. Then I was offered a contract at MGM. By 1956 I didn’t really need the money, but I was terribly curious to see how a big studio worked. After all, even then, somewhere in my head the dread Myra Breckenridge was lurking.”

“What the French were saying was, essentially, you must get rid of the screenwriter. Then the director would make the movie himself – with his own script, or perhaps without a script, or improvising…I turned their theory around. I said, let’s get rid of the director. We don’t need him. We do need the cameraman, the editor. But above all we need the script. Movies are stories; only writers can tell stories. So the wrong people are telling stories.”

“The director is even more useless in the theater than in movies. The American theater is, thank God, controlled by the writer. The Dramatists Guild contract makes it possible for us to get rid of the director, to shut the play the night before it opens, to do almost anything one wants. The writer hires the director to manage the traffic. Obviously, some contribute more than others. They also serve a more human function than in the movies, where the work is largely mechanical, technical. Directors in the theater must be good with actors. For some reason I’ve never known a writer who was ever much use to an actor in a play. I don’t know why. I certainly can’t do it.”

“One of the interesting things I have discovered, as I proceed along the great road of life, is that you make the same mistakes over and over and over again. I can tell you right now that every mistake you’ve made in your life so far in your life you will continue to make. There’s not a chance of getting out from under. Now I know quite a lot about movies. I know how they’re put together. Yet I go from disaster to disaster.”

No fast fact