The Gold Standard: How the movies -- past and present -- changed our lives

Politics is in Gore Vidal’s blood, both that which runs in his veins and that which runs through his work. As such, after watching Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” he can’t help but draw parallels to contemporary America.

“Does ‘The Queen’ have any political message?” Vidal asks rhetorically. “Of course it does. It shows that there was once a generation that was brought up with the notion that we must serve. And she’s quite lovely in that scene where she’s explaining to Blair that she has her coronation oath, and her coronation oath is that she will serve until death. As for those who would like to see her abdicate so that poor Charles can have a chance, well, she swore an oath to remain on the job. She takes that seriously. And there’s a great speech where Blair is saying ‘she’s given her life to the country, and you want to trash her now?’

“Could you think of a similar situation in this country where anyone had ever done anything for anybody, or the country? Poor JFK started it with his inaugural address — he was trying to get everybody locked out of the ‘me, me, me’ mentality, which is all people ever think about. You ever talk to an American? Who do they talk about? Themselves.”

But what most struck Vidal was the fact that “The Queen” saw Britain taking a hard look at its own history. An attempt he says most American filmmakers are loath to do.

“Anything grown-up like that we’re never going to touch, and I believe it’s starting to show up in our public life,” he says. “I would think that things like ‘The Queen’ would stimulate us. For God’s sake, we’ve got figures, both female and male, who are far more interesting than Elizabeth II. No other country with a history as interesting as ours would have ignored Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson. If we hadn’t, we would know more.

“It is to weep to watch ‘The Queen’ and think of all the things of that nature we could be doing that we haven’t done.”

Vidal has certainly never shied away from engaging American politics and history head-on. Growing up in Washington, D.C., with a senator for a grandfather, he went on to write political treatises too numerous to mention, as well as a multi-novel retelling of American history, which took a revisionist view of doctrinal American figures (most notably Aaron Burr, whom Vidal attempted to rescue from the villains list of the Revolutionary period).

“The Best Man,” Vidal’s 1960 stage play that he later adapted into a feature, was one of the first Hollywood films to cast a knowingly cynical eye on then-contemporary America’s electoral machinations. It also bears an unfortunately serendipitous relation to history: A few years after “The Best Man” filmed a post-campaign-speech chase through the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, Robert Kennedy was shot in the same room, under similar circumstances that Vidal finds “quite eerie.”

Predictably, Vidal has no plans to watch the re-creation of that event in “Bobby”: “I saw the original in real life, and that was more than enough for me,” he says.

Despite his track record with expostulatory novels and screenplays, Vidal professes no interest in tackling current U.S. dilemmas through fiction. Instead, he has opted for a series of firebrand polemics on the Bush administration, of which, to put it extremely mildly, he is no fan.

“Apparently everybody knows everything now; it’s remarkable,” he explains. “The more ignorant they are, the more positive they are. And these people you can’t deal with, so I’ve stopped dealing with them entirely.”

Never much of a twinkle-eyed optimist, Vidal sees little chance for film to cure the nation’s ills: “No movie could ever counteract the actions of this administration.” Nor does he give a sunny prognosis for the industry itself: “Everyone on Earth knows how much a certain picture costs and all the problems they had on location, but they have no interest in the movie. So we have a nation with brains like accountants — crooked ones, too.”

The prolific writer declines to discuss how movies have influenced his life, explaining that he’s already written sufficiently on the subject in his 1992 study “Screening History.” When pressed, Vidal momentarily relents. “It wouldn’t be anything respectable,” he says. ” ‘The Mummy’ probably, because I wanted to be an archeologist after that.”

Surprisingly, he holds no apparent grudges regarding his own sometimes unpropitious encounters with Hollywood.

“At least the disasters made from my work are far more famous than many people’s successes,” he reasons, ” ‘Myra Breckinridge’ being an example — it was about as bad as a movie could be. I thought my ‘Caligula’ was quite a good script, but then it became a Penthouse picture and, well, we all know the rest.”

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