Gore Vidal, one of America's leading social commentators, is the ultimate hyphenate: novelist-essayist-playwright-screenwriter-politician-actor. Seven of his novels, including "Burr" and "1876," hit the top of the bestseller list. His "United States: Essays 1952-1992" won last year's National Book Award for nonfiction, while his adaptation of his play "The Best Man" walked off with the Critics' Prize at Cannes. Two unsuccessful bids at political office provided the underpinning for his portrayal of a senator in 1992's "Bob Roberts," which was followed by a featured role in the recent "With Honors."
Having just concluded a deal to adapt Edith Wharton's "The Buccaneers" for 20th Century Fox, Vidal took time out to ruminate on the film business from his home in Ravello, Italy.
Question: You once said, "I am made for battle." Have you had your share in Hollywood?
Answer: Political battle is what I had in mind. That's important. Movies aren't. But they can be fun to do and, every now and then, something marvelous gets made despite all those extra cooks who crowd the kitchen.
Q: Is that what's plaguing Hollywood?
A: It was a pity that movies and live TV left New York for Hollywood. London theater, movies, television--until (Britain's) money ran out--were always better than ours since the city was the political capital of the country, as well as the artistic and literary one. In L.A. we've always been slightly sealed off from real life. It's no accident that two of our most interesting directors, Woody Allen and Bob Altman, are more or less settled in the real world.
Q: What has been the major change in the film industry since you arrived?
A: I was, I am told, the last contract writer at MGM. That was around 1954. And I've watched from within the tar pits the old studio system--a tyrannous world and not one to be mournful about--die. That said, at a big studio with everyone under contract, you could make a picture economically right on the lot. With 52 pictures a year, there was always room for one Orson Welles. No longer.
Q: You're about to write a film version of "The Buccaneers." That's full circle for you, having set in motion--and written the introduction to--a volume containing three Wharton novels in 1978. What's her appeal?
A: In the preface, I said: "Due to her sex, class (in every sense), and place of residence (France), she has been denied her proper place in the near-empty pantheon of American literature." Those were fighting words in the days when a great writer was white and male and lived no farther from our amber waves of grain than Cuba.
Q: The producer half-jokingly describes "The Buccaneers" as a cross between "Enchanted April" and "How to Marry a Millionaire."
A: It's very much about how to marry a million- heiress. At the turn of the century, much of the aristocracy in Europe was broke and suddenly there was this wave of "dollar princesses." Wharton's main character is based on Consuelo Vanderbilt--a woman I knew late in her life--who was simply transferred by her mother, along with a lot of cash, to the idiot Duke of Marlborough. Their conquest of the British ruling class signaled that the American empire was now ready to absorb its progenitor--a shift in power from the old to new world.
Q: It's been four years since the deal for you to write "Theodora" for Universal and Martin Scorsese has been made. What's holding it up?
A: Marty says that seven years is about right to get a picture made nowadays. It was his idea, but my sort of subject. Theodora, a prostitute, marries the emperor Justinian and, between them, they restore the Roman Empire. We're waiting on new technology, to show battle scenes without "Ben-Hur" prices. The "Jurassic Park" special-effects people are involved, I gather. "We've only done animals," they said. "Why not people?"
Q: Acting is a marked departure from the solitary life of a writer. Was performing in "Bob Roberts" and "With Honors" a stretch?
A: It's amazing how many writers have also acted . . . from Dickens to Sinclair Lewis--and of course, Shakespeare. My stuff's a bit different from his, of course--no rhyming couplets. As for stretching, what is fictional prose but inhabiting someone else?
Q: In "Bob Roberts," you played a senator locking horns with a media-savvy super-patriot played by the director, Tim Robbins. Why did you do the project? Are those critics who saw you as the conscience of that film on the mark?
A: Much of "Bob Roberts" was improvised--something I have done with Johnny Carson and others over the years. And since my off-and-on political life also began in 1960--the year of Kennedy's election and that of the (fictional) senator--I found it easy to improvise this burned-out old liberal's character. Contrary to some reviewers, however, I was not playing myself. If I was, I would have been calling for a grand jury trial of Bob/Tim.
Q: How do you deal with the rigors of movie-making?
A: I did wonder what a 12-hour day would do to my blood pressure. To my surprise, it actually lowered it to normal, without the help of beta blockers. Movie acting, I later realized, reminds me of contract bridge. Each requires the same concentration, intense short-term memory, and obliviousness to everything else until the last trump is called--or whatever it is they do.
Q: And the tedium on the set?
A: Many women knit--Joanne Woodward is now in her 14th mile of knitwear. Men drink or drug. I found it difficult even to read the Chicago Tribune because the character I played occupied too much place in my head.
Q: What do you like about Hollywood?
A: The Zucker brothers. They are superb--the Michelangelos of our culture. Watch "Airplane!" or "Naked Gun"--Leslie Nielsen is the greatest American actor ever to come out of Canada. I also worship Mr. (Jim) Abrahams, particularly for "Hot Shots!" But, as you can see, I'm a highbrow intellectual, so what do I know?