Nicholas Wrathall met Gore Vidal for the first time at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They had brunch on an Easter Sunday while a life-size bunny gallivanted about the restaurant — a “surreal” experience, according to the director — but quickly connected over a discussion about the politics of Wrathall’s native Australia.
Wrathall’s debut feature, the documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” opened in summer 2014 with distribution by IFC Films. The project began in earnest in 2005, when Burr Steers, Vidal’s nephew (as well as a producer on the film), told his friend Wrathall that the writer would be moving out of the home in Ravello, Italy that he had shared with his longtime companion Howard Austen since 1972. Wrathall jumped on a plane for Europe, filming Vidal’s farewell to his beloved Villa La Rondinaia and the beautiful Amalfi town around it.
It took almost ten years for Wrathall to finish “Gore Vidal,” and he faced such financial challenges during the project that he nearly scrapped it. “It was a difficult process,” he told me in a phone interview from Australia. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone — it’s not financially viable really. But if you’re passionate about a project, you’ve just got to be determined and tenacious. I’m very stubborn, I guess — I didn’t want to let go.”
That dogged tenacity describes both the filmmaker and his subject: Vidal stands alone among his fellows as the American author most committed — almost obsessively so — to examining our nation’s body politic to understand just what the heck this country is all about. And, remarkably, he did so for many years from the remove of his home in Ravello, which he said gave him the distance and perspective to see America as it truly is.
Wrathall’s film is at its best when it conveys the astonishing breadth of Vidal’s writing and opinions, and it wisely lets the author speak for himself as much as possible. Through the writer’s work, “Gore Vidal” makes a compelling case about the changes that have transformed the American political system in the last decade (and half-century and century), and Wrathall marshals the evidence powerfully but subtly, bringing his own opinions but employing them to augment, rather than overpower, Vidal’s own.
In part, that’s because Wrathall had never studied U.S. history in depth — he admits that he learned a lot about the United States through the process of reading Vidal’s work and making the film. Wrathall’s passion for the project saved it from possible collapse, particularly during 2007 and 2008, when he harbored doubts about whether the film would ever end up happening and even stepped away from the project for a year.
But those uncertainties and delays, Wrathall says, made the final product richer and more comprehensive. Of course, there was the added time the director had to delve into Vidal’s written work and do additional archival research. But even more importantly, it gave Vidal himself the chance to critique two administrations, providing Wrathall with a trove of additional material. “Somehow,” Wrathall told me, “it wouldn’t have been the film as it is if we’d done it over a year or two, which is what I’d originally imagined.”
Vidal passed away in 2012, and the author’s death drove Wrathall to finish the film. “I always imagined Gore would be there and roll out on stage when we had the premiere,” Wrathall said. “And that wasn’t to be.” Of course, the author’s written works will live on, no doubt amusing, shocking and inspiring many readers to come. But the contribution of “Gore Vidal” is more personal and more intimate. Vidal lived so long in the public eye that to sit down with him face-to-face (in a way) is to see the human heart behind the sparkling mind.
Perhaps Wrathall’s own outsider status made him the ideal candidate for telling Vidal’s story. Born and raised in Australia, the director has lived in the United States for many years, watching the nation change and even living in New York during 9/11, but viewing everything through the perspective of a foreigner. Like Vidal, Wrathall has a critical eye, aided by its ability to examine the U.S. from a greater distance, and entertainingly yet compellingly expose the absurdities of American politics. As Vidal himself would no doubt be quick to point out, that is something that we could use a good deal more of.