Gore Vidal, Mass Culture, and Sex

What happened when a novelist entered the worlds of film and TV


He wuz robbed at the Queer Lion awards.

F.X. Feeney has written a remarkable essay on Gore Vidal's writing for film and television. The article is framed around Vidal's famous story of being brought in as a script doctor on Ben-Hur and deciding that what the story needed was a gay subtext; Feeney investigates the tale, which Ben-Hur star Charlton Heston always denied, and he makes a strong case that Vidal was telling the truth. But there's much more here, including the great irony of Vidal's early work: Blackballed for publishing a novel about a gay affair in 1948, back when the literary establishment did not smile on frank writing about same-sex liasons, the novelist saved his career by moving into the more disreputable but also much more influential zones of TV, Hollywood, and Broadway. There he was able to inject his ideas about sexuality into stories where far more people would encounter them, making mass culture rather than high culture the conduit for his dissent.


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  1. Tomorrow is Ben-Hur Appreciation Day, everybody.

    1. I’m going down to my local Ben-Hur and having the ocelot spleen special.

    2. So we should all eat oysters? Or we should all eat snails?

      1. I’m thinking I’m leaving, ? la Tony Curtis.

  2. He gave us the gay?

    1. Everyone has AIDS.

      1. That AIDS virus in your bloodstream? You didn’t cause that. Someone else made that happen.

  3. Transformers could have used a gay subtext…

    1. Star Trek already has the market cornered on gay subtexted Sci Fi.

      1. Star Wars is way gayer than Star Trek.

        1. Star Trek is way gayer

    2. The first, animated transformers movie had enough going on already. For example, one of the fight scenes has as its score Al Yankovick’s Dare to be Stupid.

  4. “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

    1. How was this not the first comment?!

  5. Let’s not forget that Vidal wrote the screenplay for an even more epic movie about ancient Rome.

    1. Do you think people still stumble across that film and say, “Wow, O’Toole, Gielgud, Mirren, McDowell–how did I miss this one?”

      1. I wonder if those actrons look back and say “Wow, why did I agree to be in that one?”

        1. With the exception of McDowell, I’d bet Guccione had blackmail material on the actors and ‘actrons’.

          1. Guiccione spliced in the explicit shit after all the principal filming was done. None of the “mainstream” actors had any idea he was going to do what he did. They thought they were all on board for a gritty but non-X-rated film about a crazy emperor. They all shit a brick when they found out what he did.

            1. You know, Caligula’s reign is a fascinating one. I wonder if the disaster that was that film has scared people away from the topic? You’d think someone would try again.

              1. The “I, Claudius” series did a much better job.

                Especially with the ‘bad English accent – RomanSpeak’ part.

              2. Why? I, Claudius is pretty much the definitive work on the original Julio-Claudians. Doing something on Vespasian might be interesting, even though he wasn’t even a real Julio-Claudian (though not officially, that line ended with Nero), and you have his sons Titus and, (especially) Domitian who was a fruitcake in his own right.

                1. Sure, I, Claudius was great, but it focused on Claudius. And Graves was playing with some ideas that are historically unlikely, too. There’s a lot of room for a much different treatment.

                  Of course, Hollywood would fuck it up, so it has to be an HBO series. Which, for once, would not have enough sex and violence in it.

                2. Domitian is very much overlooked and a potential great subject for the “Scandalous Roamn Blockbuster” genre.

                  One thing I recently learned is that the preferred Roman fish sauce – garum – was deemed best if prepared in a lead pan for cooking, which resulted in astronomical lead content in the sauce.

                  I wonder if that, plus the use of lead to line the aqueducts, was part of the reason so many Roman rulers were batshit crazy.

                  1. I would assume that the inbreeding and successive generations’ increasing decadence would get to your sanity long before the lead would.

                    1. Even in the Republican era, the Senatorial class was prone to craziness.

                      Inbreeding does not explain Marius and Sulla nor the numerous would-be dictators like Cataline, Pompey, Quintus Sertorius, etc.

                    2. I don’t think Marius and Sulla were crazy, particularly the former. The constitution was breaking down, allowing the possibility of seizing power (or watching someone else do it, I suppose).

                      Marius mostly operated within those limits, with some exceptions, but Sulla went hogwild. The big knock on him was that he slaughtered a lot of people when he took power and, of course, for invading the city itself.

                    3. Marius slaughtered quite a few people after his seventh election as Consul.

                  2. I don’t think it was anything like that. Remember, outside of the city, the Republic and Empire were pretty stable. And even within the city, the crazy was hardly universal.

                    Probably one of the subtle problems was the lack of a really firm succession model, coupled with near-absolute power. Everyone in power was justifiably paranoid, took it to an extreme, and, oh yes, was mad with power, too.

                    Also, most of the crazy stories about those times are probably propaganda and not based firmly in reality. Remember, the Romans were, by and large, a conservative, family-values kind of culture (not much like ours, to be sure), so shocking stories about tyrants you don’t like were par for the course.

                    1. A ‘firm succession model’ didn’t prevent the Wars of Roses in England or the numerous dynastic wars in France. (The “War of the Three Henri’s” is my favorite.)

                    2. France was a mess for a variety of reasons, mostly because it wasn’t until quite late that a unified nation existed under the monarchy.

                      England, well, was generally more stable than not. And the monarchs were rarely powerful in the Roman emperor sense, except for maybe a Tudor or two.

                    3. France was a mess for a variety of reasons, mostly because it wasn’t until quite late that a unified nation existed under the monarchy they were French.


                    4. I accept that correction.

            2. I wondered what happened. I severely doubted that mainstream actors and actresses would have agreed to do pornography.

        2. Pretty sure “misrepresented” is the right word.

        3. I wonder if those actrons look back and say “Wow, why did I agree to be in that one?”

          I saw McDowell on the Conan O’Brien show once — the original O’Brien show, very early in its run — and the host kept peppering him with questions about Caligula. The purpose was to set up a parody clip they had made, but evidently they didn’t tell the guest about this, because he kept getting more uncomfortable and eventually pointed out that he was being asked a lot of questions about a rather old project that he was trying hard to forget.

          1. Wait, was he on to promote Star Trek: Generations or Milk Money

            Like he wasn’t trying to forget those?

            1. And just what is wrong with ST: Generations?

              1. Well, the lame death of Kirk is one point. Lame.

                1. Is he not enough of a glory hog for you already?

            2. For McDowell, alzheimer’s will be a blessing.

            3. Poor McDowell.

              He was promised the world but Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Jeremy Irons, and Daniel Day-Lewis stole it from him.

    2. That will be covered in the follow up post, “Gore Vidal, Mass Sex, and Culture”.

  6. I wonder what could have been accomplished had Vidal been brought to work on the script for Leonard Part 6?

    1. They called it “ghost dad”.

  7. So Vidal is agreeing with those who say that Hollywood and the rest of the mass media use their movies, TV, Radio etc to push their private agendas? Its not just a conspiracy theory?

  8. Has anyone tried to _watch_ Ben Hur?

    It’s unwatchable. Boring, laborious, wooden ..

    I tried to watch it with my son, thought he’d like the chariot race.

    He didn’t engage for even 30 seconds.

    I was surprised how bad the movie is, at least the part I forced myself to watch.

    1. I watch the chariot race, which is about 70 minutes before the end of the film (as it runs when on TV), then turn it off.

      1. You both need to expand your attention spans beyond the typical MTV jump cut.
        Ben-Hur is brilliant.

        1. I hate when movie defenders say we’re all too dumb and adolescent to understand the brilliance of ‘classics’.

          You both need to expand your attention spans beyond the typical MTV jump cut.

          Seriously, shut up. You have no idea how old those guys are. People can have opinions without that opinion coming from some inferior or low-class sensibility.

          1. The chariot race is fun, but otherwise the only thing that made the Heston version of Ben-Hur watchable for me was looking for signs of the subtext that Vidal allegedly planted. I don’t think it’s a very good movie.

            The original silent Ben-Hur, on the other hand, is a gloriously cracked spectacle. That one I liked.

          2. Based on your opinions, if you have a restaurant, I won’t eat there.

        2. The typical pre-TV Hollywood Blockbuster (which pattern Ben Hur followed), was god-awful, with wooden acting and ponderous dialogue to go with a preposterous plot. (In the case of Ben Hur, a good chunk of the blame for the preposterous plot has to fall on the shoulders of Lew Wallace. EG: A Roman Senator and Consular would never, never, never have adopted a chariot driver as his son under any circumstances.)

          The only blockbuster that makes it into the “Great Film” category is Gone With the Wind and that is primarily because Mitchell intended it to be a film.

          The other great films of the era – from Casablanca to The Great Dictator were not extravaganzas, but films with ideas and good acting.

            1. HA!

          1. The only blockbuster that makes it into the “Great Film” category is Gone With the Wind

            Lawrence of Arabia makes it as well.

            1. Also bridge over the River Kwai

            2. He said “Pre-TV”, although the version of Ben-Hur we’re talking about is from 1959. The two you’ve mentioned both post-date TV. And Lawrence of Arabia is overlong and overrated. Erich von Stroheim would have come up with that ultra-wide screen shot of Peter O’Toole approaching the other two guys 40 years earlier when making Greed if only he had had ultra-wide screen photography available to him.

              (Greed is a mess because von Stroheim thought a nine-hour movie would be a great idea, and the folks at Metro had a dickens of a time editing it down to 140 minutes. The climax in Death Valley, however, has some wonderful images.)

              I’d also have to argue that De Mille, for all his faults, made some great epics. Watch the train wreck scene in Union Pacific, for example. Granted, having Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in your cast is a big help.

    2. I prefer the 1925 version.

      Of course, the early Christian movie I really like is Cecil B. De Mille’s The Sign of the Cross.

  9. Marge: So, did you call any of your friends?
    Lisa: Friends? [scoffs] These are my only friends. [holds up a book] Grownup nerds like Gore Vidal, and even he’s kissed more boys than I ever will.
    Marge: Girls, Lisa. Boys kiss girls.

  10. “Heston, waking up at the butt-end of this [gay] punchline .. “

  11. I have been watching season 4 of Merlin.

    The Homosexual subtext of the show has manifested itself as a very ugly anti-woman rant.

    Yeah sure Morgana is evil in pretty much every historical myth of Camelot…but fuck an A the story writers are just being complete dicks about it.

    Plus Katie McGrath is smoking hot and someone that hot needs to portray a sympathetic character.

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