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," opens in New York May 23 and L.A. on June 6, 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.