The grandson of Oklahoma senator Thomas P. Gore, Gore Vidal led a privileged, sheltered childhood. Often tiring of the expensive creature comforts surrounding him, Vidal spent much of his spare time at the movies. "As I now move...toward the door marked Exit," he mused late in life, "it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies. Sex and art always took precedence over the cinema. Unfortunately, neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen."
Vidal continued to feel this way all through Phillips Exeter Academy, and even after his World War II experiences, which planted the first seeds of doubt as to whether those images on screen were reflecting anything resembling real life. In 1946, Vidal published Willawan, the first of many novels. During the 1950s, he wrote several live television plays, many of which were later transformed into movies: The Death of Billy the Kid was cinematized as The Left Handed Gun (1958) (and, over three decades later, as the made-for-TV Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid), while Visit to a Small Planet, after being adapted for Broadway, served as the basis for a 1960 Jerry Lewis vehicle of the same name. A political animal all his life by right of birth (he has twice run for congress), Vidal channeled much of his insider's information into his 1959 play The Best Man, wherein an Adlai Stevenson type is challenged by a Richard Nixon type. In 1964 The Best Man was the first of Vidal's plays to be adapted for the screen by the author himself; Frank Capra had wanted to option the piece, but couldn't console himself with the fact that all of Vidal's characters were atheist.
One of Vidal's favorite games over the past 35 years has been to challenge the homophobic mind-set of Hollywood. His screenplay for the 1959 film version of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer was the most overt example of out-of-the-closet cinema of the fifties, while his contributions to the screenplay of Ben Hur (1959) were intended to suggest that Judah Ben Hur and Messala enjoyed more than just a warm friendship (Ben Hur star Charlton Heston bristles to this day over Vidal's claiming responsibility for the tone and texture of the screenplay; Heston insists that director William Wyler rejected Vidal's script suggestions after a single cold reading). In his 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge, Vidal managed to weave both his undying passion for films and his fascination with same-sex relationships within the framework of an outrageous storyline (Vidal had nothing to do with the wretched 1970 film version of Myra Breckenridge).
Thanks to his erudite TV talk-show appearances in the 1960s and 1970s, Vidal has joined that special fraternity known as the celebrity novelist. He has acted in three films, playing himself in Fellini's Roma (1972) and extensions of himself in Bob Roberts (1993) and With Honors (1994). In 1997, he starred in the futuristic fantasy Gattaca. Remaining an indefatigable writer and essayist into the 1990s, Vidal has reiterated his love affair with movies on several occasions, notably in his 1992 volume Screening History and as contributor to Past Imperfect (1995), a book about Hollywood's slant on historical facts. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi