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Gore Vidal Controversial Movies: Gay 'Ben-Hur' Subtext?

Gore Vidal youngGore Vidal movies: The Best Man, Caligula, Suddenly Last Summer. (Image: A young Gore Vidal.) Author, playwright, screenwriter, acerbic storyteller, and political commentator Gore Vidal died Tuesday, July 31, '12, at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal, who had been living in Los Angeles since 2003, was 86.

Gore Vidal movies

Details about Vidal's life and literary career can be found elsewhere on the Web. But it's good to remember that Gore Vidal was also a notable – though hardly prolific – screenwriter.

After penning various television plays for anthology series such as Studio One and Omnibus, Vidal wrote the film version of Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay The Catered Affair. Directed by Richard Brooks, this underrated 1956 family comedy-drama starred (the recently deceased) Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis as the working-class parents of Debbie Reynolds, who is about to get married to Rod Taylor.

Two years later, Vidal wrote the adaptation of Nicholas Halasz's book I Accuse!, about Emile Zola's attack on French society's bigotry. Directed by the Oscar-winning actor José Ferrer, who also played the Jewish Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, I Accuse! featured Viveca Lindfors as Dreyfus' wife and Emlyn Williams as Zola. The film was not a major success.

Gore Vidal had better luck at the box office with his adaptation of Tennessee Williams' family friendly play Suddenly Last Summer (1959), which featured (however obliquely) homosexuality, incest, madness, and cannibalism.

You think Hollywood and American society have become more willing to embrace “difficult” themes? Well, think again. No major Hollywood studio would touch Suddenly Last Summer today; but back in 1959, the Columbia release turned out to be a major financial success. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed, while Montgomery Clift, and Oscar nominees Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor starred.

That same year, Vidal co-wrote with Robert Hamer the adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier's novel The Scapegoat. Starring Alec Guinness and featuring Bette Davis in what amounts to an extended cameo, the film was neither a box office nor a critical success.

Five years later, Gore Vidal was back in form, pushing the envelope once again in the gripping film adaptation of his own play, The Best Man. In this Franklin J. Schaffner-directed political drama, low-key all-American Henry Fonda and high-strung all-American Cliff Robertson are both vying for the nomination for the presidency of the United States. One problem: Robertson's potential candidate has a skeleton in his closet – a gay skeleton.

Gore Vidal: Myra Breckinridge, Caligula

More famous – or rather, infamous – are two other Gore Vidal efforts: Myra Breckinridge and Caligula.

Directed by Michael Sarne, and featuring Raquel Welch in the title role as a transgendered woman gone Hollywood, film legend Mae West, film reviewer Rex Reed (as the Myron who becomes Myra), veteran filmmaker John Huston, and newcomers Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, the film version of Vidal's 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge is considered a camp masterpiece by some, one of the worst movies ever made by others. (Loretta Young, who sued 20th Century Fox, surely belonged to the latter camp.) Released in 1970, Myra Breckenridge was a critical and box office cataclysm. The adaptation was credited to director Sarne and David Giler (one of the producers of Ridley Scott's Prometheus). [Check out Raquel Welch quotes about Mae West & Myra Breckinridge.)

Featuring a prestigious cast – Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John GielgudTinto Brass' Caligula (1979) was a complex, difficult production. Gore Vidal had an ugly falling out with director Brass, and was sidelined throughout the production. Later on, when things didn't quite turn out the way producer Bob Guccione wanted, the Penthouse magnate took over the film, had it reedited, and inserted explicit sex scenes to liven things up a bit. As a result, Caligula became a cause de scandale not seen since Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (and Deep Throat) earlier in the decade.

Ben-Hur Charlton Heston gay Stephen BoydGay Ben-Hur subtext? Photo: Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, Stephen Boyd as his childhood friend Messala, Ben-Hur.)

Gore Vidal vs. Charlton Heston

Speaking of Gore Vidal's (controversial) movies, there's no way not to mention the real-life Rashomon story pitting Vidal against his right-wing nemesis Charlton Heston. So, was he or wasn't he? Judah Ben-Hur, that is.

According to Vidal, while working on the screenplay for William Wyler's 1959 multiple Oscar-winning epic Ben-Hur, he inserted a romantic / sexual subtext into the “brotherly” friendship between Heston's Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala. That would help to explain the jilted Messala's viciousness later in the story. Vidal added that Stephen Boyd was in on it, but Wyler admonished the screenwriter (I'm paraphrasing a bit here, as I don't have the original quote* at hand): “Don't ever tell Chuck what it's all about or he'll fall apart.”

Charlton Heston refuted gay Ben-Hur subtext tale

Not surprisingly, Heston always denied the story. In one of his autobiographies, he claimed that Vidal's contributions to Ben-Hur were minimal (Karl Tunberg received sole credit despite rewrites by Christopher Fry), adding that the “he'll fall apart” story was a lie inspired by another story involving gay innuendo subtly inserted into a stage play starring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.

Now, watching Ben-Hur, it seems that Vidal was right and Heston was wrong. But then again … Gore Vidal recently claimed that a former gas station attendant and procurer got his facts right in his vulgar, nasty book of memoirs featuring long-dead Hollywood celebrities ranging from Walter Pidgeon, Ramon Novarro, and Charles Laughton to Tyrone Power, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy. In other words, Gore Vidal's Ben-Hur tale may have been just that.

But then again … when you see the yearning in Stephen Boyd's eyes whenever he looks at Charlton Heston…

* Gore Vidal recounts the Ben-Hur gay subtext story in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's documentary The Celluloid Closet.

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4 Comments to Gore Vidal Controversial Movies: Gay 'Ben-Hur' Subtext?

  1. ABC

    I find the enemity between them quite convincing without this supposed 'gay-subtext' . When I saw the movie , Messala came across as ambitious and very much Roman . His 'friendship' made me suspicious because he obviously only wanted to use Judah to further his political plans . He said as much before he went to meet Judah . That he'd fight an idea with another and that this Judah is exactly the key to it . He's very manipulative . He flirts openly with Tirzah , perhaps hoping Judah will help him to avoid becoming enemies if only to spare Tirzah's feelings and dreams and hopes for Messala , knowing how much Judah loves her . Once it becomes clear nothing'll make Judah betray his people , Messala shows his true colours and the fact that their friendship really means nothing to him .

  2. Andre

    Hi Maria,

    True, Gore Vidal isn't the most reliable of chroniclers… Thanks for writing and for the little Vidal/Garbo anecdote.

  3. Maria

    Though it's entirely possible that there was a gay subtext in BEN HUR, and it certainly could be interpreted that way, I tend to take Gore Vidal with a box of salt. During research for the Greta Garbo book, writer Peter Viertel tells a story of being in Europe at the same time as Vidal and Greta Garbo. One night, Viertel, his wife Deborah Kerr, and Vidal drove Greta Garbo home. Vidal seemed to think that Greta Garbo had the hots for him. When she got out of the car, Vidal said, “Got to do something about that” and got out of the car as well. Peter Viertel, who had known Greta Garbo since he was a child, thought that was an absolute riot. So Vidal was delusional and on the one hand pushing his agenda, and on the other, chasing Greta Garbo.

  4. Ferdinand Lefevre

    Iconic! Brilliant! Inspiring! GORE VIDAL helped me liberate myself and come out to the world as a gay man. I adore his work and will be forever grateful. RIP my dear friend and THANK YOU!