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My Dinner With Gore

Posted on the 01 August 2012 by Thehollywoodinterview @theHollywoodInt
My Dinner With Gore
By Stephen Vittoria
With apologies to Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.
When I decided to make the film “One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern,” the person to interview at the top of my list was Gore Vidal – for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, he knew McGovern very well and one could always count on Gore to bring his razor sharp wit, his intellectual wherewithal, and his brutal honesty to any situation. For our session in his backyard in the Hollywood Hills, he was on, very on. In fact, to this day, right to a screening last night, his interview clips elicited more great responses from the audience than anyone else in the film. It was the same at almost every screening. Here’s a sample of classic Gore Vidal from the film:
“Well, now, you know, I was brought up in the ruling class… they hate the people. The Bush family, if you gave them sodium pentothal and asked them, "And what do you think about the American people," you will hear such profanity as you've never heard before. The American people are an obstacle. The Constitution stuck us with all these elections.”
When I finished the film, I invited McGovern and Gore to a private screening, where we finished our first bottle of wine for the evening. When watching my films, I usually try to get audiences drinking before hand – it seems to help the narrative flow so much better. So, every once in awhile during the film, Gore would turn and throw me a look – I wasn’t sure if he liked something, hated something, or thought I was a buffoon or maybe a rank amateur. But he was definitely feeling something. The film ended and the lights flickered back on… but there’s always that uncomfortable moment after a small screening when two seconds of silence feels like an eternity. Of course, Gore broke the silence with the perfect quip: “Well, I didn’t think anyone could make George seem interesting. That was your hardest job. Well played. Also, I seem to remember that my interview was much longer. Didn’t make the cut, eh?” Of course, I started to stammer and went on about how difficult it is to fit everything in, seventy-five hours of interviews cut down to two hours, and the great thing about DVDs is that we can put the extra stuff on the disc. “Steve, I’m kidding.” Right. “You nailed the bastards to the cross. Good.” Right, thanks. “I know George has to go to the airport. Would you like to come back to the house? Wine, maybe some dinner?” Holy shit. An invitation from Gore Vidal. “Sure.”
My Dinner With Gore
On the drive back to Gore’s place in Hollywood, (too bad it wasn’t his Villa La Rondinaia on the Amalfi Coast because Hollywood is like Newark with palm trees, except Gore’s place is beautiful, way up on a hill, secluded, amazing art, eclectic furniture, pictures of him with ruling class icons and of course Camelot), I start thinking, “What the hell are you going to talk about? He’ll know you’re an imposter in like three seconds.” I start going through the books I’ve read: The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge, Empire, Burr, Lincoln, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Inventing a Nation about Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – or was it Adams? Maybe it was Franklin. Damn. Okay, talk about the film, maybe ask him about who he reads… and DON’T MENTION Bill Buckley and Norman Mailer. Just drink the wine, eat the food, and let him talk. He’s good at talking. You’re good at eating, especially prior to the vegan days.
We sat in Gore’s living room, which was more like a study. He had this incredibly comfortable chair that he sat in all the time (same chair I interviewed him in a year later for another documentary). We shared an incredible Italian red, I think Sangiovese, and we talked about the McGovern film, which he really liked. He read a short passage from his novel Creation because he thought something in it reminded him of George McGovern. We talked about his relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, how he believed that FDR knew well in advance of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor, let it happen to suck the American people into WW2, how much he didn’t like Truman, and that the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a commercial for the Ruskies, “Hell, the Japanese were trying to surrender all summer.” So now I’m pinching myself. I’m here with arguably one of the great American writers of all time, this iconic figure in American culture, someone I admired from afar, and we’re trading thoughts on the machinations of the American Empire. I start telling him about my next project, which covers light-hearted subjects like empire, genocide, and Manifest Destiny. He tells me I’m nuts, “you’ll never tell that story in two hours.” He’s probably right but I tell him I have a plan. Thank god he didn’t ask me what the plan was because, well, you know…
Now, there was this dude who kind of ran the house for Gore… food, drink, schedule, everything, the whole deal… and stuff would just happen. Wine would appear but Gore never asked. Some snacks. Then the dude breezed by, “Dinner.” And he was gone. So we moved into a small dining area with art surrounding the table that was to die for. It was like eating in a cubbyhole at The Frick.
During dinner, we talked about his historic disdain for the fishwrap, also known as The New York Times. We talked about his time spent living in Italy, how much he preferred it to the United States, but as his health was beginning to fail, he felt more comfortable in Los Angeles near his doctors at Cedar-Sinai. In fact, he constantly referred to this period in his life as “the Cedar-Sinai years.” We then talked about his stepsister Jacqueline Lee Bouvier who married Jack Kennedy. He tells this story: “Jack Kennedy did a very good Nixon imitation, but mine was better, though I've lost mine over the years.” Now Gore says, in a Nixon voice: “’But I'm not saying that President Kennedy is a communist. I'm certainly not inferring that he is a communist. I'm only saying, though he is not a communist, he is soft on communism.’ Well, by the time he finishes, he's mentioned the word communist twenty times with poor Jack at the center of it. And then Jack said, ‘I always thought that was very clever.’"
My Dinner With Gore
There was more great wine, some dessert, and I was surprised by our banter. It was genuine, it was intriguing, and it was the conversation of a lifetime. For me. I’m sure for Gore, it was simply better than eating alone. We shook hands, he wished me luck on the film, and I ventured back out into the night with some immediate cool memories and a gallon of Sangiovese spinning around in my head like a pleasant vertigo.
I visited Gore one more time for a documentary project entitled “Murder Incorporated,” and I wanted him to share his thoughts and expertise about previous empires as well as the current American Empire and its march of Manifest Destiny that continues unbridled to this day. Again, he was brilliant. And then, on cue, in the middle of his answer about puppet leaders bowing to the Military Industrial Complex, he pulls out a Barbie-sized doll of George W. Bush, pulls the string on this talking replica of the mass murdering frat boy, and then goes into an amazing Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton-like conversation with the blabbering Bush doll. Tape was rolling.
Nowadays, people throw around the term “iconoclast” to describe every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Well, stop it. Read a book or two written by Gore Vidal, read about the life and times of a true iconoclast, a man who understood the privilege he benefitted from by being part of the ruling class – going to St. Albans in D.C. and Exeter in New Hampshire – but never letting that privilege poison his compassion for those less fortunate, or poison his ability to see through the myth and lies of American history so twisted by those who possess the wealth and own the guns.
Gore had many detractors and a whole bunch of enemies. He probably wouldn’t want it any other way. He was a polemicist in the best sense of the word. If this country had more polemicists, like Gore Vidal, the Republic would be thriving right now rather than crumbling. When I read his books now, I hear his voice, sitting in his chair in his study in the Hollywood Hills.
He graced my films and for that I am forever grateful because he made me a better filmmaker just by sharing his thoughts… and he graces my personal memories because I had the unique chance to share some time with him.
Gore believed that when you die it’s pretty much like birth… nothing is now something, something is now nothing. No drama. No experience. Epicurus deftly summed it up millennia ago, writing, "When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not." I get the existential downer but the marvelous thing is that Gore’s genius and masterful work will be with us for a very long time. And that is a gift.
Peace, Gore.
Stephen Vittoria is an independent filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles.

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