In October of 1975, dining in Rome, Gore Vidal told his new friend the novelist Michael Mewshaw that Françoise Sagan was “a magnum of pure ether.” He didn’t stop to clarify, but rigor was beside the point; the Vidalian bon mot was about the speaker, not about the subject. In the course of more than half a century, his quips, aphorisms, insults, and punch lines amounted to a self-portrait, airbrushed so as to highlight his favorite warts: Olympian detachment, patrician hauteur.
It was an act, a put-on—perhaps the most effective double bluff in the history of literary P.R. In 1977, after visiting Vidal at his cliff-perched villa on the Amalfi Coast, Martin Amis observed that “he has little of the paranoia worryingly frequent among well-known writers.” Norman Mailer had been onto something, Amis concluded, when he said that “Vidal lacks the wound.”
“My God,” Vidal told Amis, “what a lucky life.” The official story, as set down in Vidal’s memoirs and essays, and in hundreds of reviews, profiles, and, finally, in his obituaries—he died in 2012—went like this: grandson of Thomas P. Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, son of Gene Vidal, a high-school football star whose exploits as an aviation pioneer landed him on the cover of Time, he was born in 1925, at West Point, grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied at Exeter. If asked about his mother, Nina Gore, who had swapped family life for a succession of boyfriends and husbands, Vidal would explain that her desertion—and her alcoholism, and her sexual confessions—hadn’t really bothered him. (A reporter bold enough to press the subject would be silenced with a reference to Freudian quackery.)
At seventeen, Vidal would explain, he “quit schooling” for good and enlisted in the Army, served as first mate on a supply ship in the Aleutian Islands, and then—almost by accident, virtually without sweat, and for the simple reason that he could—became a novelist (“Julian,” “Myra Breckinridge,” “Burr,” “Creation”), essayist (“Homage to Daniel Shays,” “The Hacks of Academe”), playwright (“Visit to a Small Planet,” “The Best Man”), screenwriter (“Ben-Hur”), politician (valiant failed campaigns for Congress, in New York, and for the Senate, in California), actor (“Bob Roberts,” “Gattaca,” “Igby Goes Down”), steel-chinned prime-time brawler (points victories over Buckley in 1968 and Mailer in 1971), and friend to everyone worth knowing (Greta, Tennessee, Eleanor, Orson, Mick, Sting). Yet he remained immune to the seductions of celebrity and clear-eyed about the workings of power. Stepbrother of a sort to Jacqueline Bouvier, he had been a welcome guest at Hyannis Port and the White House until he grew bored with the whole thing and unmasked Bobby Kennedy (notable for his “vindictiveness” and “simple-mindedness about human motives”) in his essay “The Best Man, 1968” and then the Kennedy courtiers in “The Holy Family” and “The Manchester Book.” Later efforts in this truth-to-power vein had titles like “Shredding the Bill of Rights,” “State of the Union, 1975” (it wasn’t good), “State of the Union, 1980” (worse), and “State of the Union, 2004” (don’t ask).
And while his contemporaries—as speared in his essay “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction”—nervously tracked their positions on the New York literary stock exchange, Vidal lived in regal exile with his partner, Howard Austen, quite impervious to what anyone thought about his writing, his quoted comments, or his sexual proclivities. The one sign of human frailty was his insistence that the hordes of visiting photographers favor his “good” side, the left.
This was the figure known to most, but not to all. At the end of the war, Warrant Officer Vidal was stationed at Mitchel Field, on Long Island, and working part time for the publisher E. P. Dutton. He came into the city whenever he could. On a Sunday in November of 1945, he attended a lecture on love at the Ninety-second Street Y. It was here that he met Anaïs Nin.
Born in France to Cuban parents, Nin, who was forty-two, was writing fiction alongside a diary that she would one day publish. “He has great assurance in the world, talks easily, is a public figure, shines,” Nin wrote, after Vidal paid a visit to her studio. “He can do clever take-offs, imitate public figures.” He is also “lonely,” “hypersensitive,” “insecure.” When Vidal opened up to her—“He dropped his armor, his defenses”—it was not to talk about his grandfather the senator or his father the aviator but his mother the deserter. “Psychologically,” Nin wrote, “he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children.”
At first, Vidal was thrilled by the connection. Returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., he told her, “You have cast a spell on me. What I once accepted, I now do not like. I found my grandfather, the senator, boring.” But the spell soon wore off. In March of 1946, Vidal invited Nin to a dinner at the PEN Club. “Was shocked by the mediocrity of the talks,” she wrote. “A ‘literary’ world so thoroughly political, intriguing, and commercial, but a world Gore intends to conquer.” The next month, she writes, “Gore in the world is another Gore. He is insatiable for power. He needs to conquer, to shine, to dominate.” In November, she notes that Vidal’s letters—he had then retreated to write in a Guatemalan monastery that he had acquired for a pittance—“sound attenuated, diminished, dulled. Lack of faith, of responsiveness to surroundings and people. A blight.” By December, she admits defeat: “Whatever Gore was with me, whatever side he showed me, was not the one he was to show in his life and in his work.”
“The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume Four: 1944-1947” was published in 1971, and Nin’s use of the past tense carries a hint of retrospect, as if she were taking account of later developments. In 1970, the composer Ned Rorem, another diarist friend, described the “cynical stance” that Vidal had perfected over the previous quarter century: “Those steely epigrams summing up all subjects resemble the bars of a cage through which he peers defensively. ‘It’s not that love’s a farce—it doesn’t exist.’ . . . Rather than risk being called a softy, he affects a pose of weariness.”
Jay Parini, in his authorized biography, “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal” (Doubleday), wants to give us the real Gore, but he keeps on falling for the pose. Although Parini exhibits some skepticism toward his subject, and notices that Vidal’s claim of indifference to the world’s opinion was at odds with the many framed magazine covers and threats of libel suits, he begins each chapter with an epigraph culled from Vidal’s table talk and publicity spiel. When it comes to telling the story of the life, Parini proves content to deliver the strapping, self-assured, untouchable Vidal, the builder and overseer of a well-protected, many-colonied “empire of self”—a phrase repeated throughout the book, in a dizzying range of connections.
As Parini approaches Vidal’s later years, his defensive instincts go into overdrive. He praises an essay on John Updike—ten thousand words of ill-argued bile—as “a kind of cultural service,” and declares Vidal “more relevant than ever” in the years after 9/11, when he was in the habit of writing things like: “The unlovely Osama was chosen on aesthetic grounds to be the frightening logo for our long-contemplated invasion and conquest of Afghanistan.”
Vidal is the book’s leading witness, though not a reliable one; his testimony is undermined by what the novelist Adam Mars-Jones called “delusions of candour,” and possibly by delusions of a different sort. Though Parini believes that Vidal gave more interviews than any writer “in the history of literature,” his notes, which are far from comprehensive, contain thirty references to interviews conducted when his subject was in his eighties. Five of the conversations took place in 2010, the year that Vidal began to suffer the effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or “wet brain,” which Parini calls “a stage in alcoholism when the drinker begins to lose touch with reality.”
The underlying problem is a lack of distance. Parini met Vidal in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and the two became great friends. They spoke on the phone every week—“for periods on a daily basis”—and spent time together in a dozen cities. Parini cannot resist playing Boswell any more than he can resist making the Boswell comparison, and it has a damaging effect on his role as biographer. A sentence from a passage ostensibly dealing with the early days of Vidal’s relationship with Austen, whom he met in 1950, begins, “A key memory of their relationship (for me) dates to the late eighties.” It seems unlikely that Vidal would have become the subject of one of Parini’s books—alongside Melville, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Jesus—if not for the personal connection.
Yet it would be hard to imagine a less intimate biography. Parini loved spending time with the worldly, woundless Vidal, and he seems eager to perpetuate Vidal’s myths about himself. In a letter from the late forties, Vidal wrote that psychoanalysis is “quite a frightening experience,” and that “it’s not a pleasant thing to see oneself.” But when Vidal tells Parini that his experience of therapy failed because “I have no unconscious,” the biographer doesn’t pause to comment.
The book’s use of Anaïs Nin is particularly disappointing. Parini quotes Nin’s initial description of Vidal (“clear and bright” and “luminous and manly”) but little else, and his account of their relationship reveals limited acquaintance with what she wrote. Parini says that Vidal tried to interest Dutton in Nin’s fiction but failed, because Dutton—“a manly house”—“shied away from anyone like Nin, who exuded both femininity and exoticism.” But any reader of Nin’s diaries would know that, in December of 1945, Vidal offered her a thousand-dollar advance for her novels, and that Dutton published “Ladders to Fire” the following year.
Parini justifies his brisk treatment of Nin by saying that the published version of her diaries tells “only a bit of the story.” This is no doubt true. But, given that Parini did not visit Nin’s archive, he might have spent more time with them, not only because of their tender closeup portrait of Vidal in his early twenties but because they help to solve the central problem of any literary biography: how to connect the life and the work.
Considering Vidal’s failure to become a poet, Parini accepts his subject’s glib explanation: “The Muse passed over my doorstep.” Nin offers another perspective. In her account, all Vidal’s shortcomings were rooted in the refusal of feeling. After reading “Williwaw,” his first novel, about his Navy experiences, she wrote, “I am startled by the muted tone, the cool, detached words.” In the following weeks, she was given reason to believe that Vidal shared her assessment. “I’ve never written this way, impulsively, directly, and without plan,” he tells her about a play he is working on, and explains that he is, in Nin’s recounting, “aware of the conventional mask of his first novel.”
The culmination of this process should have been Vidal’s third novel, “The City and the Pillar” (1948), about a homosexual relationship that ends in murder. At the time of its publication, the novel was both admired and disparaged for its frankness. Nin’s response foreshadowed its later reputation as self-loathing. After reading the manuscript, she wrote him, “I am going to try and tell you what was destroyed by your novel.” She called “The City and the Pillar” a “book without illusion, without feeling, and without poetry”:
Jim, in your story, kills Bob because Bob has not romanticized the sexual relationship they once had, has looked upon it flatly as a mere sexual incident of no importance. . . . So he kills him. Jim kills the legend in himself, but actually there was no legend, just Jim’s need of idealizing reality. She presented the book’s shortcomings as human failures:
Everything in your eyes is diminished and uglified. . . . You always focus on the faults, on what can be satirized. . . . To see only the ugliness, that is what people do when they do not love. . . . You are not aware that when you paint only cruelly, underlining only faults or weaknesses, you are the loser.
Vidal continued to write about his own experience: among his novels in the years after “The City and the Pillar” are “The Season of Comfort” (1949), in which a young man struggles with his alcoholic mother, and “The Judgment of Paris” (1952), about a young American on a makeshift Grand Tour. But these efforts were also considered shallow. Norman Mailer, in his essay “Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” written in 1959, argued that Vidal’s “narcissistic explorations . . . do not go deep enough into himself, and so end as gestures and postures.”
At the time of Mailer’s essay, Vidal hadn’t published a novel in five years. Strapped for cash, he spent much of the fifties writing for television and the movies: filling weekly slots on “General Electric Theater” and “Studio One,” adapting Tennessee Williams’s loopy play “Suddenly, Last Summer,” sprinkling homoeroticism over “Ben-Hur.” But in 1964, the year his play “The Best Man” became a film, with Henry Fonda as a Presidential candidate—Vidal said that an agent’s suggestion that Ronald Reagan play the part had been laughingly rejected—Vidal published “Julian,” a vast, fine-grained portrait of the apostate Roman emperor, which marked Vidal’s first appearance at the top of the Times best-seller list. It also marked his long-awaited breakthrough.
The failed reckoning with painful feelings was over. Vidal had found a form that exploited the virtues he was comfortable displaying in public, notably, worldliness, erudition, and cynicism:
The first official to greet me was Arbetio, who had been consul in the year I was made Caesar. He is a vigorous, hard-faced man of forty; born a peasant, he became a soldier, rising to commander of cavalry and the consulship. He wants my place, just as he wanted Constantius’s place. Now there are two ways to handle such a man. One is to kill him. The other is to keep him near one, safely employed, always watched. I chose the latter for I have found that if someone is reasonably honest and well-meaning—though he has treated one badly—he should be forgiven. When men are honest in public life we must be on good terms with them, even though they have treated us badly in a private capacity; while if they are dishonest in public affairs, even though they are personally devoted to us, they must be dismissed.
This is not what Anaïs Nin meant by literature—it is not poetic or psychoanalytic or Lawrentian. But it suited Vidal. In trading halfhearted, gestural, posturing novels about love and pain for full-bodied novels about diplomacy and power, Vidal realized Mailer’s professed hope that he would “turn the prides of his detachment into new perception.”
In 1967, he followed “Julian” with “Washington, D.C.,” the opening volume of a sequence of novels variously known as “American Chronicles” or “Narratives of Empire,” which he pursued intermittently, and in strange order, over the next three decades. Then came “Myra Breckinridge,” a comic splurge about a movie-besotted transsexual “whom no man will ever possess.” It took a month to write—and a month to sell two million paperbacks. Vidal henceforth divided his energies between historical “reflections” and satirical “inventions”; between Founding Fathers and violent sex fiends; between the worlds of Aaron Burr, the hero of the second (and juiciest) American Chronicle, and Raymond Burr, one of many pop-culture names dropped throughout the pages of “Duluth” (1983), a deranged fantasia in which life imitates bad television.
If the history novels, on the whole, work better than the satires, it is partly because Vidal gravitated toward historical subjects that came ready-laden with themes he wanted to explore, and partly because an amused-detached perspective is better suited to the Machiavellian than to the libertine. Even in a book as outwardly impulsive as “Myra Breckinridge” Vidal found opportunities for cool analysis:
It is the wisdom of the male swinger to know what he is: a man who is socially and economically weak, as much put upon by women as by society. Accepting his situation, he is able to assert himself through a polymorphic sexual abandon in which the lines between the sexes dissolve, to the delight of all.
Parini admires Vidal’s novels from the sixties and seventies, especially the historical ones, but he cannot decide how to praise them. At first, he says that the “radical subjectivity” of “Julian” “anticipates the postmodern turn in fiction” in its (very implicit) skepticism about the idea of history and truth. Later, we meet the writer who kept faith with “the so-called historical novel” (the novel that believed in history) at a time when “the postmodern novel” (the novel that didn’t) had rendered it in many eyes a “déclassé genre.”
Both impulses were present. As a character puts it in “Washington, D.C.,” “History is gossip, but the trick is determining which gossip is history”—a line that accommodates postmodern skepticism and traditional empiricism. The appeal of a novel like “Julian,” which is presented as the Emperor’s diary, is that its narration has the status of both personal testimony and official record. And his portrayal of historical figures throughout the American Chronicles shows a similar struggle between impious mischief and trembling reverence. “What balances him is the power to rebel against authority,” Anaïs Nin wrote. “Emotional rebellions offset the power-loving side.” The appeal of a novel like “Lincoln” (1984), in which the President contracts a venereal infection, derives from these mixed impulses. The old myths about Lincoln’s piety and perfection come tumbling down, and yet he remains worthy of debunking.
Parini gives a better account of Vidal’s nonfiction writing, which started “by chance,” but soon became “a full-blown sub-career.” As he worked on “Julian,” Vidal also wrote most of the reviews, essays, and profiles that appeared in his first collection, “Rocking the Boat.” (“Gore Vidal is now a critic, which means he is cremating people,” Nin wrote.) Starting in 1963, Vidal was a regular contributor to TheNew York Review of Books, which published about three of his review-essays every year, and rejected, as too boring or too contentious, some of his most substantial work in this form—“French Letters: Theories of the New Novel,” “The Holy Family,” about the Kennedys, and “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” originally called “Some Gays and the Jews.” (The beneficiaries were Encounter, Esquire, and The Nation, the magazine where much of Vidal’s later political writing appeared.)
Parini nicely describes the “lofty intimacy” of Vidal’s style, and makes a strong case for Vidal as one of the critics who helped to “enlarge and redefine” the book-review essay. But, in calling Vidal’s book reviews “his very own Harvard,” Parini misses both their strength and their weakness. Apart from a few exercises in self-education—such as “French Letters,” “American Plastic,” and a review of the Times best-seller list—Vidal tended to write on subjects in which he was already expert. The virtue of his best essays—the source of their fluent authority and zesty phrasing, along with the frequently heavy provision of gossip—is that he knew the subjects backward and forward, either as a reader (“Tarzan Revisited,” “On Rereading the Oz Books,” “The Golden Bowl of Henry James”) or as an acquaintance (“Remembering Orson Welles”), or both, in the case of Christopher Isherwood, whose “I am a camera” conceit Vidal scrutinized in an essay from 1976:
Because of those four words he has been written of (and sometimes written off) as a naturalistic writer, a recorder of surfaces, a film director manqué. Although it is true that, up to a point, Isherwood often appears to be recording perhaps too impartially the lights, the shadows, the lions that come within the area of his vision, he is never without surprises; in the course of what looks to be an undemanding narrative, the author will suddenly produce a Polaroid shot of the reader reading, an alarming effect achieved by the sly use of the second person pronoun. You never know quite where you stand in relation to an Isherwood work.
Like many before him, Parini says that Vidal is a better essayist than he is a novelist. It’s a position that tends to emphasize the shortcomings of Vidal’s fiction—all the things he didn’t try to do—while overlooking the vices of his essays. Martin Amis, writing, as he later admitted, from scant familiarity with Vidal’s fiction, said that Vidal was too clever to write novels but not too clever to write essays, because “you can’t be too clever for them.” But you can be too angry and too anxious, too cut off from the taproot of your own strong opinions.
Every essayist is a product of his own hobbyhorses, but few claim as vehemently as Vidal to be offering not a view but the Truth. If his novels turned his public persona into an aesthetic, his essays tried to turn his private anxieties into points of intellectual integrity. Sometimes he succeeded. In an exchange of letters in TheNew York Review of Books, he advised John Bayley that “The Golden Bowl” is about force, not about love, invoking a reading of Jamesian irony and making it work, just about. At other times, his arguments look merely like animus.
Parini says that Vidal worried that “being exclusively gay . . . interfered with” his theories about sexuality. But the reason Vidal came up with those pansexual theories was so that he could tell the world he was not exclusively gay. It may be true, as Vidal frequently maintained, that “gay and straight” are “nonexistent categories,” but the point was to establish that although he lived with a man, and had sex only with men, he was not, and never could be, merely a “homosexual.” (Vidal told Amis that he had been reading D. H. Lawrence: “Every page I think, Jesus, what a fag. Jesus, what a faggot this guy sounds.”)
A general distaste for authority underpinned a number of Vidal’s positions. For years, he slammed practical criticism for what he called its “slow killing of the work through a close textual analysis.” Yet, in 1979, in an attack on another bugbear—the emphasis, beyond academe, on a writer’s personality—he enlisted the New Critics to his cause, and regretted that “these paladins of the word have long since faded away.” And his writing on America (the “national security state” at home, the empire abroad) was beholden to a dark, declinist view. In the age of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra affair, he looked canny. But when the facts changed he didn’t change his mind, because his mind had not been formed by facts to begin with. Vidal’s view of the world was the opposite of supple, and someone who says, “It always comes down to money,” is bound to be wrong at least some of the time. Proof positive that Vidal’s journalism was anything but a voyage of discovery came in 1971, when, at the request of the Los Angeles Times, he reviewed a new book that he had known about for more than twenty years. “If there is one theme to Volume Four, it is Anaïs’s formidable will to power,” Vidal wrote, and though he referred in passing to Nin’s inaccurate portrait of young “Lieutenant Vidal,” he used the occasion to establish once again what he believed were their differences in philosophy, knocking her “contempt for intellect . . . her mystical belief in Love”—as if slamming an old friend’s book in her home-town newspaper (Nin had lived in L.A. for years) did anything but show that love might be a useful thing to have around.
The Nin review was a classic instance of what Michael Mewshaw, in his recent memoir “Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), calls “the chilly, uncaring misanthrope portrayed by the press.” The man he knew was eager to please and sensitive to slights—and not always happy to show it. His late memoirs, “Palimpsest” (1995) and “Point to Point Navigation” (2006), Mewshaw writes, “contained strikingly little introspection, few truly intimate revelations . . . almost nothing about the people he mixed with on a daily basis”—and no hints that Vidal “was generous, hospitable, loyal to friends.”
Reprising Nin’s response to “The City and the Pillar” half a century earlier, Mewshaw spends a few pages scratching his head over “Palimpsest,” an account of Vidal’s first four decades. He grew bored by Vidal’s presentation of himself as “the yoga master of world-weariness” and expressed bafflement as to “why so many of the emotions I had witnessed in him over the years had been deleted from this draft of his life.” (Writing about “Point to Point Navigation,” Parini admires the way Vidal “restrains his emotions.”) Mewshaw recalls reading “Palimpsest” when he was living in London and Vidal was in town on a promotional tour, and noting the disparity between the book’s announcement of personal happiness—“I am past all serious desire for anything. . . . The Buddha was right: To want is to suffer”—and “the man who just the night before at the Connaught had drunk himself to the brink of unconsciousness.”
In the opening pages of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mewshaw expresses the hope that the noise around Vidal has died down enough to “allow for” an “alternative assessment.” So far, the evidence seems mixed. In a five-hundred-word “lightning raid” that appeared on the Vanity Fair Web site, James Wolcott—the author of “The Gore Supremacy,” a Kindle Single published after Vidal’s death—objected to the offscreen, life-size figure in Mewshaw’s book, especially his “glassy-eyed, falling-down senior moments.” Vidal shouldn’t be remembered that way, Wolcott said. He was suave and smooth. He amused without effort. He didn’t care what people thought—and he didn’t care who knew that he didn’t care what people thought. Wolcott consoled himself with picking out the “hilarious aperçus and asides” recounted in the book, as when Vidal challenged Mewshaw to name the three saddest words in the English language, and supplied the answer: Joyce Carol Oates. This is the image of Vidal that seems destined to endure: cartoonish, two-dimensional, other than human. But, although Vidal made “harsh critical remarks” about Oates at every opportunity, Parini explains, he once caught him reading a volume of her essays, and—“he admitted”—enjoying them. ♦
WE being a democratic people and this being a Presidential election year—which means the season is open for slinging political mud—it is appropriate that Hollywood should send us one of its occasional melodramatic, gloves-off films about the ferocity and fascination of the great American game of politics.
This one is a razzle-dazzle rendering of Gore Vidal's stage play "The Best Man," and it noisily hit the hustings yesterday at the Coronet and the 34th Street East.
Maybe this scathing exposition by the politically savvy Mr. Vidal of a hypothetical battle between two front-running candidates on the eve of the balloting at a Presidential nominating convention does not have the stimulation of recognizable probability that it had in 1960, when it was first put on as a play. Right now, it doesn't look likely that either convention this summer will provide the atmosphere of uncertainty and urgency of four years ago or the line-ups of pushing personalities that made the play seem so apt and reasonable.
But never mind. Even without the titillation of immediate likelihood, the head-on clash of two threatening character assassins that was made so engrossing on the stage is even more vivid, energetic and lacerating on the screen. And the drama of this confrontation, happening in the midst of a hot and howling but strangely oblivious convention, is even more shockingly intense.
That is because Franklin Schaffner has shrewdly directed the film to emphasize the rasp of a convention as well as of individuals. While the personal hostility between two taut and determined men is stingingly shown in the foreground, the atmosphere of all that's going on around is caught in brilliant simulation and made to crackle with the tensions of a mob. And the wretchedness and vulgarity of it are just that much more sharply pointed up.
So it is more than the inner revulsion of a civilized and scrupulous candidate toward the smear tactics of his roughshod rival that we are made to feel, more than the horrible fascination of slander-slinging give-and-take, with a cagey ex-President refereeing in what amounts to the proverbial smoke-filled room.
We get all of this against a feeling of massive insensitivity induced by the evident monstrosity of the convention that even crowds into the room. It looms in the candidates' headquarters, in the howling hurly-burly on the convention floor, in the mouthings of corn-pone politicians, in the flaunting of frank hypocrisies. Against this background or feeling the contours of a sensitive, scrupulous man appear that much more incongruous—and that much more gratifying, too.
Mr. Schaffner and his co-producers, Stuart Millar and Lawrence Turman, are fortunate to have Henry Fonda in this ambiguous but not unreasonable role. For Mr. Fonda gets precisely the mixture of hot ambition and cool humility to make the Presidential aspirations of an evident egghead credible. And he is able to play a participant in a threatened retaliatory smear with the becoming distaste of a gentleman and yet with a certain bright-eyed zeal. In the end, of course, his behavior is that of a starry idealist.
As his rigid and ruthless rival, Cliff Robertson is excellent, too—a fair reflection of a type of opportunist that has been all too evident on our political scene. And as the shrewd and conniving former President, Lee Tracy comes charging through with a performance that prickles with witty cynicism and drips with phony sentiment.
The drama goes almost out the window in the crucial confrontation scene when the aspirant played by Mr. Robertson is brought face to face with an informer who accuses him of past degeneracy. In the first place, the details of the charge are much too involved and confused, and, in the second place, the role of the informer is atrociously played. Shelley Berman, a stand-up comedian, plays it as though he's struggling for laughs, which is what you don't want in this most sordid and agonizing scene.
There are one or two other soft spots. Margaret Leighton as the scrupulous aspirant's wife is able to do nothing whatsoever with a rather pretentious cliché. And the logic of the ultimate maneuver whereby the good fellow scotches the bad is a little hard to fathom, but the point is got over fast.
Kevin McCarthy as Mr. Fonda's henchman who pulls the political tricks, Ann Sothern as a brassy and brutal manipulator of the "women's vote," John Henry Faulk as a Southern politician and William R. Ebersol as a lily-white dark horse stand out in a cast that is notable for its authenticity.
"The Best Man" may not be the best film we've had on politics, but it will do as a highly entertaining and winning candidate this so-what year.
THE BEST MAN, screenplay by Gore Vidal, based on Mr. Vidal's stage play; directed by Franklin Schaffner and produced by Stuart Millar, Lawrence Turman and Mr. Schaffner. Released by United Artists. At the Coronet Theater, Third Avenue and 59th Street, and the 34th Street East Theater, between Second and Third Avenues. Running time: 102 minutes.
William Russell . . . . . Henry Fonda
Joe Cantwell . . . . . Cliff Robertson
Art Hockstader . . . . . Lee Tracy
Mabel Cantwell . . . . . Edie Adams
Alice Russell . . . . . Margaret Leighton
Mrs. Gamadge . . . . . Ann Sothern
Don Cantwell . . . . . Gene Raymond
Dick Jensen . . . . . Kevin McCarthy
Sheldon Bascomb . . . . . Shelley Berman
T. T. Claypoole . . . . . John Henry Faulk
Oscar Anderson . . . . . Richard Arlen
Mrs. Claypoole . . . . . Penny Singleton
Mahalia Jackson . . . . . Herself
Howard K. Smith . . . . . Himself
Speechwriter . . . . . George Kirgo
Tom . . . . . George Furth
Janet . . . . . Anne Newman
Mrs. Merwin . . . . . Mary Lawrence
Governor Merwin . . . . . William R. Ebersol
Senator Lazarus . . . . . H. E. West