FIERCE ANTICIPATION: August 27-29 [FaN Favorites]
a favorite blogumn by Ryan Dixon
Before his diagnosis of Esophageal cancer took up all the headlines and dominated the interviews, Christopher Hitchens’ officially-minted feud with literary lion Gore Vidal looked like it was going to be one of the featured topics during the publicity tour for his memoir Hitch-22. As he explained in that book and in a February Vanity Fair piece, the source of this antagonism revolved around the genesis of a quote attributed to Vidal about Hitchens being his “dauphin.” In a brilliant marketing move, the back cover of Hitch-22 even featured Vidal’s quote crossed out in harsh red ink. A year before Hitchens wrote his Vanity Fair piece dismissing the quote as an adulatory gift Vidal begged him to accept, I had an opportunity to meet with Vidal and asked him directly whether or not he ever said the now-infamous “dauphin” remark. You will find his very funny and caustic answer in the blogumn below.
Another reason I chose to re-run this particular Fierce Anticipation is because it also includes a short essay about the surprisingly insightful life lessons found in the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man. When this blogumn first appeared, many readers wrote expressing how much they were touched by both the essay and the movie which, several noted, was so much better than the marketing had led them to believe. Despite the positive feedback and enthusiasm for the essay, I always thought that it didn’t quite get the readership it deserved as it was forced to sit supplicant under the suffocating buttocks of prose that was the chronicle of my epic visit to Vidal. In case you missed it the first time, I offer it up again for your enjoyment and edification.
From April 10, 2009
Gore Vidal on Real Time with Bill Maher
It was really happening. In less than one hour I was going to meet one of my honest-to-god heroes. And not just meet him. To sit, talk, and hang out with him. I needed to tell someone, share this amazing news. But as I picked up my phone, I wondered… who? Who would actually be excited and, well yes, jealous to hear that I was going to meet Gore Vidal and not treat the news with the faux interest that would greet me if I were telling them how I beat the mile-long lines at Denny’s to become the first recipient of a free Grand Slamwich.
Then, it hit me; I’d call my father. He was at least old enough to remember when Vidal was at the height of his popularity and a regular fixture of television, film, theatre and the literary scene. So I dialed his number and, after exchanging a few quick pleasantries, I eagerly revealed my news:
“I’m going to meet Gore Vidal.”
“Gore Vidal. Is he still alive?”
The recent passing of Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Jr. and George Plimpton has made the 83 year-old Gore Vidal the last remaining Intellectual Entertainer. A unique brand of public persona that came about at the dawn of the television era, these renaissance men were looked at by society as experts on, well, just about everything. Their bylines would seamlessly swing from periodicals as variant as The New Review of Books and Sports Illustrated to novels of seemingly any genre; from the marquees of Broadway to the opening credits of movies. And when they weren’t writing, they became almost extended family members to the legions of TV viewers who watched their regular appearances in documentaries and late night shows.
The mind races trying to find potential contemporary candidates who could ascend to the throne, but when one looks at the curriculum vitae of Gore Vidal, the task goes from Herculean to nearly impossible. While the likes of Jon Stewart or Christopher Hitchens may retain the legacy of one or two elements of Vidal’s career, no one person currently living comes close to matching his entertainment and intellectual accomplishments.
Aside from being widely considered the greatest essayist of the 20th Century, Vidal also managed to write 25 novels (including The City and the Pillar, the first novel to openly deal with homosexual themes and the seven-part “Narratives of Empire” series, which chronicles the history of the United States) and over a dozen plays and screenplays, the most famous of which were Ben-Hur and the Broadway and movie hit The Best Man. In addition, Vidal ran for a seat in both the House and Senate and has made countless television and film appearances*.
As Gore Vidal said himself his recent memoir Point to Point Navigation, when he finally finishes moving “graciously… toward the door marked Exit”, a unique cultural species will become extinct forever.
This past December, I was given the opportunity to visit Vidal by my friend Josh, whose mother was interviewing him for a small independent documentary. Josh had accompanied me to see Vidal speak in public and, knowing what a huge fan I was, I became the obvious choice to tag along with Josh and his mother in the hopes of keeping Vidal company while the crew was setting up the shoot.
Vidal had had a series of health setbacks and I was told not to expect too much, that he might not even feel like chatting. So, I held my breath as we left the downpour outside and entered his vast Hollywood Hills home.
Upon turning a corner from the foyer, we took a few steps down and immediately entered Vidal’s immense and crowded sitting room where the man himself was holding forth in a plush red chair. He wore gray slacks, a black turtleneck with a red and black letterman jacket. He was sipping whisky from a crystal glass. It was eleven in the morning.
After shaking his hand, he looked to us as asked, “Would you gentleman care for a beer?” Despite my instant and overwhelming desire to share a cold one with Gore Vidal, I knew that Josh and his mother, endearing neurotics both, would have gone into shock if I had been so bold, so I politely declined.
As the documentary crew began putting up the lights nearby, Josh and I sat in a couch opposite Gore Vidal and, after the usual compliments, a heavy silence descended.
Who would be the first to speak? The first to dare risk the wrath of Gore’s scorn, which had been used to give the intellectual smack down to everyone from The New York Times to, most famously of all, William F. Buckley, Jr.*
As a long time fan of Christopher Hitchens, I had once read that Gore Vidal had called him his “Dauphin” and wondered if the progressive Vidal still held that belief, considering Hitchens’ strong and unwavering support of the Iraq war. I quickly decided that this topic would be the subject of my first question. Trying to capture the heightened, serious tones of a Charlie Rose, I leaned in and began to speak: “It has been said that you once called Christopher Hitchens your Dauphin—”
“He said that about himself.” Gore blurted out with an incredulity that came more from wicked amusement than genuine outrage. “He had some talent, until he went mad…”
And off we went.
Whether he was discussing a rumor that Laura Bush was living in the Fairmont Hotel and planning to divorce W. soon after leaving the White House, not-so-fondly reminiscing about a golden age gathering of Hollywood studio executives (“A conclave of idiots.”) or answering why the powers-that-be who dole out the Pulitzer Prize refused to give him the award for his 1984 novel Lincoln, despite a unanimous vote for it by the Pulitzer committee (“Spite. They hate to see other people succeed.”), every word that came out of his mouth was crafted into complete, fully formed sentences and endowed with his trademark redoubtable acid wit.
Of course, in all likelihood these answers had been said many times over, at cocktail parties or book signings, but Gore Vidal was saying them to me. And yes, the conversation never really veered into the “So Ryan, what do you do?” territory, but then again, when you’re sitting across from Gore Vidal, you quickly become disinterested in hearing yourself speak.
We got word that the crew was ready to shoot the interview. Because of his health problems, Vidal needed help walking the twenty-feet from his current location to the couch where the interview was to take place. Having given a steady hand to my grandparents during their final years of frailty, and selfishly wanting a few more moments at the foot of the master, I volunteered.
The twenty-foot journey from chair to couch, considering Gore’s slow and stately pace, should have taken no more than two minutes. It ended up taking almost thirty. For the rather typical ritual of a younger man helping an older one walk from one location to another unexpectedly transformed itself into a gripping and hilarious one-man show, written, directed and performed by none other than Gore Vidal himself.
At every picture, award or artifact we passed, Gore would stop and regale me with the history of said item. First, we halted by a corner coffee table where what looked like a large paper weight, made of conjoined solid bronze rectangles, lay hidden behind group of plants, “That’s the National Book Award,” he said, pointing to the award he won for his omnibus collection of essays, United States, “Ugly little thing. I try to hide it.”
As we continued on, stopping at the framed, inscribed portraits of luminaries like F.D.R., Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Carter, Marlon Brando, Jackie Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, it dawned on me that Gore Vidal wasn’t just a literary lion or cultural icon, he was a man who traversed through the sinewy veins of our recent history like no other. He was a supernova Zelig. The 20th Century incarnate.
As we arrived at the couch and I helped him get seated, I began to wonder why Vidal, always a sharp dresser, was wearing this letterman jacket. Assuming it was from his days from St. Albans, I asked, “Where’s the jacket from?”
“I got it when I appeared on The Simpsons.”
I gave it a closer look. The school logo was indeed Springfield Elementary School.
“That’s exactly what my nephew said.” Gore replied, letting out a chuckle. Despite passing by a museum’s worth of amazing history over the past half hour, it was the first time I blurted out such a purely visceral response.
And with that the interview commenced and Vidal, as usual, wielded his rapier wit like a verbal Agrippa. After it concluded, and the crew finished cleaning up, we said our goodbyes and Vidal went upstairs for an afternoon nap.
As I left the house and stepped back outside, the cold December rain now felt like a 75-degree day in May and a smile the length of the Mississippi River came across my face. It’s not often that, upon meeting your heroes, they not only meet your expectations, but exceed them. However, despite my euphoria, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness as well. For I knew that I would be one of the last people to ever see the world’s most endangered species in his natural habitat.
*See the end of the post for the footnotes.
Real Time with Bill Maher airs tonight at 11pm and throughout the week on HBO
KINDA WANNA SEE AGAIN
The minions turning the wheels in the Hollywood marketing machine are often blamed for making bad movies look good (or at least halfway decent), but what happens when they make a good movie look bad?
Thus it was with Yes Man, the Jim Carey vehicle now on DVD. Almost anyone who saw the rather lackluster trailer immediately wrote the film off as Carrey’s attempt at a mid-career resuscitation by going back to past with a Liar Liar rip-off where, instead of not being able to tell a lie, the protagonist is forced to say “yes” to everything (with hilarity surely ensuing).
When the film was released this past December the majority of the critics echoed the Liar Liar rip-off chant and while the $97 million it grossed domestically was respectable, it in no way came close to equaling Liar, Liar’s $181 million haul. This was unfortunate because, much to my surprise, Yes Man was actually quite different from Liar, Liar and far better.
I too was firmly entrenched in the Liar Liar rip-off camp when Yes Man became the family movie compromise selection this past Christmas day. My mother and stepmother were game for anything, but my 23-year old comic book-loving-basement-dwelling stepbrother refused to set foot in any theater screening Marley and Me, while my college-age sisterly entities said that they both would rather go without Facebook for a year than see The Spirit (in hindsight, a decision infused with Solomon-like wisdom). And then there was my father. Having recently started a part-time job at the local funeral home, he had a freshly deceased body to pick up later that evening, making the Methuselah-like running time of Benjamin Button an impossibility.
Finally, after intense deliberations and masterful lobbying job that rivaled Lyndon Johnson’s work in passing the Great Society, I was able to get everyone to say yes to Yes Man.**
And then a funny thing happened after we sat down in our cramped seats and the movie began. I found myself enjoying it. Later, upon cold critical reflection, I realized that my enjoyment didn’t hinge on the familial Christmas glow that seems to make even the worst movies bearable when I’m home for the holidays, but because it was actually good movie. Not a Tootsie, an Election or a Groundhog Day, but a very solid comedy that concentrated much more on character than mindless gags. And unlike what the trailer seems to purport, the Carey character’s decision to say “yes” is not an act of supernatural agency or hypnosis, but a conscious act that he struggles with throughout.
And then, something even stranger happened. A month later when I was talking to my mother on the phone she said, rather off handily, that Yes Man had changed her life.
“What?” I asked, nearly driving off Vineland Ave. and into the shallow depths Los Angeles River.
In January 2008 my mother had moved from Western Pa — where she had lived for 33 years – to the Philadelphia area to be closer to her two sisters, father and King of Prussia, the second biggest mall in the United States. On the phone she told me that when she had first moved to Philadelphia she routinely turned down invitations to go out from her new co-workers at the fabric store where she worked and instead spent most evenings alone in her condo watching CSI or Law and Order (a dangerous proposition, seeing that with five cats she was already hemming dangerously close to becoming Cat Woman par excellence). But then, after seeing Yes Man, she had decided to stop saying no and start saying yes to their invites. This decision had changed her life and given her a great new group of friends and an active social life.
As someone who cringes when anyone says that a work of art “changed my life” (Hamlet, maybe, but a Jim Carrey vehicle?) I wrote off the film’s influence as one of my mother’s more whimsical notions and instead placed the change in her social life on the simple, logical fact that she was finally getting comfortable in her new surroundings.
But in the subsequent weeks and months since that conversation, at least half of the people I’ve talked to who have seen Yes Man have had the same type of experience; they took the movie’s message to heart and were able to change their life for the better. In fact, a newly acquired very good friend recently admitted to me that movie gave her the courage to get over an almost crippling shyness and accept an invitation to the lunch where we would meet for the first time.
The more I think about it, the more comfortable I become with the notion that a broad comedy from a major studio could serve as a de facto life coach. As someone who thinks of himself as a “Why the Hell Not” man, I understand the benefits of jumping head first into most situations and can only look on with pity at the closeted misery suffered by those who refuse to take part in life’s prosaic adventures. More importantly, saying “yes” is a simple, direct and secular act with real results. And, it avoids the New Age Agape-by-way-of-Oprah exfoliated multi-media re-packaging that one usually finds in such “life changing” gobbligook totems like The Secret, whose only real secret is its ability to make people buy it when they should just say no.
**What about Valkyrie, you ask? Well, that eye-patch wearing tale of Nazi killing was the unanimous choice for our Christmas Eve family movie.
Now Available on DVD
I ONLY WENT BECAUSE IT WAS FREE. NOW I WISH I HADN’T AND HOPE YOU DON’T.
If Yes Man proved to be the pleasant surprise of the movies I saw this past Christmas, then Bedtime Stories, starring Adam Sandler, left me with the feeling of waking up on Christmas morning to find that Santa Claus had robbed my house and murdered my family.
My sister’s friend, who worked at the local theater, got us in for free and gave us access to unlimited soda and popcorn. Being in cheery spirits, all I hoped for was a slight diversion, an entertaining family fantasy comedy. Unfortunately, the creators’ must have skipped the college class in Aristotle. The events on screen were bereft of almost all logic and filled with human-like avatars (I dare not call them characters) with all the depth of an 8-bit video game.
Even the free refreshments couldn’t mask the fact that the only similarity that this cinematic bedtime story shared with its classic literary counterparts was its unfailing ability to put one to sleep.
Now on DVD
*Gore Vidal’s enduring popularity probably stems most forcefully from his television appearances, many of which make up some of the most memorable TV moments ever. Here’s his infamous encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr. during the 1968 Democratic Convention, which spawned not only a series of literary ripostes between the two in Esquire magazine, but several lawsuits:
And here’s his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show with fellow guests Norman Mailer and New Yorker writer Janet Flanner. In this clip, these estimable icons of the written word come dangerously close to engaging in a WWE-style Royal Rumble (Note: To watch the clip, go to the 29:15 mark in the video below):
Ryan Dixon might not be anybody’s “dauphin”, but he is the co-author of the graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening. Pre-Order it now and then go ahead and consummate the relationship by following him on Twitter.