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Tag: Gore Vidal (page 1 of 2)

Get Hur! How Gay Subtexts Became Ancient History

by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Out.com 18 August, 2016)

We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.

Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.

But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.

As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’

Ben-Hur | Gore Vidal in "The celluloid closet"

Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.

Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.

According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’

A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’

Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!

Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’

Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.

Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’

Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).

But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.

Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.

It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.

Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.

Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.

Spartacus Gay Scene

Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.

Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.

Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.

The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.

Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.

Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.

Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.

Does My Brain Look Big in This?

Mark Simpson on the campness of Susan Sontag

(Independent on Sunday, 2002)

The first sentence in Susan Sontag’s latest collection of essays is eight lines long, mentions Camus and Pasternak and ends with the word “impinging”. But would we have it any other way? Sontag dares to look serious in a way that is somehow enhanced rather than undermined by that Bride of Frankenstein stripe of grey she sports these days.

To hold on to your seriousness is quite an achievement in an age of silliness such as ours, and you’ll be relieved to hear that Where the Stress Falls contains no pieces on Madonna or PlayStation 2, and definitely no recipes.

Instead you’ll find pieces with titles such as “A Note on Bunraku” and “Homage to Halliburton”, written in that learned, didactic and apparently effortless style which is not always quite so effortless to read. Serious Susan is not here to entertain you. Though cynics – i.e. me – might dub this collection: Does My Brain Look Big in This?

Susan Sontag is a living legend, even though we might be forgiven for thinking that she was left behind with the 20th century, rueful amidst the ruins of the modernism that we have abandoned for the gleeful barbarism of contemporary life. She’s definitely still here, though she might be feeling rather lonely. Sontag is, after all, the Last Intellectual in the Anglo-American world: Gore Vidal has turned into Truman Capote, Norman Mailer has turned into Moses, while Harold Bloom’s canon has turned out to be his winding sheet. On this side of the philistine pond, Jonathan Miller would be holding up the banner of seriousness and intellect, but alas, that injunction banning him from appearing in public is still in force.

Sontag knows this – in fact, this is her “brand” which she exploits adroitly – but seems charmingly determined to pretend there are other intellectuals left in the world: it’s just that they’re shirking their duties. In “Answers to a Questionnaire”, her response to a survey of intellectuals and their role, she complains magisterially how many times she’s heard intellectuals “pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which… they belong”. All the same, she’s careful to mention that she was “the sole American” to whom the French (they would be French) compilers sent their questionnaire.

Sontag even had her own “Spanish Civil War” in the 1990s, when she travelled to a besieged, ruined Sarajevo to direct by candlelight a production of Waiting For Godot. It was a dramatic gesture that was much larger than the drama itself: the Last Intellectual nursing the flame of modernism in a European city catapulted back into the Dark Ages. It was also a brave and inspiring – and sincere – thing to do, and it pointed up the ineptitude of most who toil by brain rather than hand these days when faced with embarrassing reality. (One visiting horrified New Yorker asked her son, also a writer, how he could “spend so much time in a country where people smoke so much”).

But is it merely the tainted cynicism of our selfish, rationalising age that inclines some of us to doubt Sontag when she complains about the enormous press attention she received and that she “forgot” that she was going to be billeted in a hotel full of journalists? Or causes us to chortle when she dismisses as “condescending” those back home who wondered whether the bleakness of Waiting for Godot was what the citizens of Sarajevo really wanted, but then sees no irony in later explaining she only staged Act I because she had decided that the distressed citizens of Sarajevo might not be able to bear the downbeat ending.

And then there is another question which keeps insistently suggesting itself like a barely suppressed snigger: is there something faintly camp about Susan Sontag? It dates back to the early 1960s when she tried to define what lives and swishes to avoid definition – to pin down that wiggly, ticklish thing in her by far most famous essay “Notes on Camp”.

If camp really is “failed seriousness”, as she suggested, just how successful is Sontag’s seriousness in an age like ours where seriousness itself is judged to have failed? Her impressive, swan-like prose always inclines me at least to wonder how much furious peddling is going on beneath the water line. This is why the naked boast of Serious Susan’s street-brawling 1990s nemesis, Camille Paglia, after the publication of Sexual Personae, was so funny: “I’ve been chasing that bitch for years and now I’ve finally overtaken her!”

But, just like the ‘vulgar’ Paglia, Sontag made her reputation in part by lending cultural capital to things which were not at the time considered worth it, such as camp, cinema and Roland Barthes, in her now classic 1966 collection Against Interpretation. In fact, it was Sontag’s interest in that silly Frenchy which arguably set her up, giving her the edge on her (long forgotten) rivals. She was one of the main conduits by which Barthes’ obsession with taking superficiality seriously reached Anglo academe and became intensely fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s, and in many ways prepared the way for the post-modernism and irony which is such anathema to Sontag today.

As Oscar Wilde once put it: “A moralist is someone who lectures on the vices of which he has grown bored.” In a preface to a new edition of Against Interpretation, included here, she makes a moving public confession:

“What I didn’t understand… was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete.”

True, but perhaps it’s also the case that 30 years on the frontline of culture has moved to other, less Sontagian regions.

But old and new cultural capital always find a need for one another. It is well known that Sontag is in a relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the famous photographer. The famous celebrity photographer. Despite no official acknowledgement by the couple, their union is splashed across the broadsheets as a “glamorous” affair. Serious Susan, whether she wants to be or not, is a celebrity involved in a celebrity marriage. No wonder she doesn’t want to talk about it.

All this can’t help but lend a special resonance to “Certain Mapplethorpes”, one of the most interesting and personal essays in this collection. Explaining why she hates being photographed, she writes:

“The photograph comes as a kind of reproof to the grandiosity of consciousness. Oh. So there `I’ am.”

After all, aren’t girlfriends an affront to the grandiosity of consciousness too?

The Legendary Test

Mark Simpson on the (fast diminishing) difference between fame and legend

(The Hospital Club magazine, Spring 2010)

A recent bloody assassination attempt on Gore Vidal, the last great American man of letters by the English journalist Christopher Hitchens in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair prompted me, and I suspect many others, to ponder the difference between fame and legend.

Both Vidal and Hitchens are famous of course, but only Vidal is a legend. Hitchens, for all his achievements, for all his impressive, furious scribbling, contrarian controversy, and admirable G&T habit, is not and never will be legendary.

Not because Vidal has written many more or better books than Hitchens.  Not because his essays are wittier, his sentences more elegant. Not because he knew the Kennedys – and dished the dirt. Not even because Vidal, in a wheelchair, wizened and enfeebled by war wounds, old age and a lifetime’s boozing, is a much greater man than the much younger Hitchens.

No, Vidal is a legend because it is as undeniable as his own mortality that he will live forever. Or at least, as long as people care to remember anyone these days. Should Hitchens be struck down tomorrow by a dodgy canapé or spiked tonic water, after the loud, fulsome eulogies have been delivered by his media colleagues, he would be completely forgotten. Hitchens is more aware of this than anyone, hence his entirely understandable yen to liquidate his one-time mentor. But precisely because Vidal is a legend the attempt backfires as hilariously as Wile E. Coyote’s did on Road Runner.

Admittedly though, there’s less and less interest in anyone who writes.  Unless of course they’ve left nice comments on your hilarious Facebook status update. Everyone is a writer now – or at least a typer.

That said, in a universe increasingly crowded with celebrities, applying the legendary test is a useful and humane way of thinning them out. Annoyed by someone’s ubiquitousness? Their success at making you see their gurning mug everywhere? The way they remind you of your own obscurity? Well, ask yourself this: will they be remembered and talked about when they are no longer around to remind us, incessantly, of their existence? At a stroke, you’ve done away with the vast majority of the bastards.

Even though most of them don’t really care about posterity  — because they won’t be around to exploit the image rights – it’s a fun game to play.  By this criteria, George Best is a legend, David Beckham – much more famous than Best ever was and possibly the most famous person in the world today – isn’t.  Paul Newman is, Brad Pitt isn’t (though his six pack might be). Morrissey is, Robbie Williams really, really isn’t. Thatcher is, Blair isn’t. Alan Bennett is, Stephen ‘National Treasure’ Fry isn’t. Julie Burchill is, Katie Price ain’t.  Princess Di is, Madonna probably isn’t. Hockney is, Damian Hirst, even pickled in formaldehyde, isn’t. And so on.

You’ll note that dead legends aren’t in the past tense – this is because legends by definition are never past tense. Probably the greatest legend is Elvis Presley. Hence all the reported sightings of him on Mars and down the chip shop. The King could never die on his khazi, obese and constipated. And in many senses Elvis really is alive – it’s just the rest of us I’m not so sure about.

Now, you might object that this is all a very subjective business, that the legendary test is really just a way of being nasty about people I happen not to like and nice about people I do. And you might not be entirely mistaken. But this isn’t really about who you like – it’s about who will last. Legends aren’t necessarily good or particularly nice people, either. Hitler and Stalin are legends, and so are Bob Geldof and Mel Gibson.

The 21st Century is not very conducive to legendary status. It’s very, very difficult to become one today – and very, very few people even bother to try.  Vidal, for instance, is really a Twentieth Century legend that has survived, much against his better judgement, into the Twenty-First Century – largely as a kind of bad conscience. Princess Di on the other hand is a legend in large part because she managed to die just before the end of the Twentieth Century. If she hadn’t, we would have grown very bored with her indeed by now. Katie Price’s fate would probably seem enviable by comparison.

Today’s infrastructure of fame is designed to discourage legends. The more mediated, the more wired the world becomes, the more people can become famous, more quickly – and the more people are interested in fame. But as others have pointed out, fame has to be more disposable. More fame and more famous people requires a much higher turnover. Legends, in other words, spoil the celebrity ecosystem because they refuse to be recycled and hog fame resources forever. Put another way, legendary status is analogue, not digital.

Impatience is another factor. In a wired world, even if people wanted legends, or at least sometimes felt nostalgic about them, no one could be bothered with waiting for someone to become one. So instead the media, MSM and non-MSM, creates ‘instant legends’, which are in some ways even more disposable than common-or-garden celebs.

Barack Obama is a recent example of an instant legend. A very popular 1960s tribute act of HOPE and CHANGE during the Primaries, when he was inaugurated as President last year the media – and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – behaved as if both JFK and MLK were being sworn in after their assassinations. Lately the same media have been talking about the epoch-making Obama as a one-term President. He may yet achieve real legendary status, but if he does it will be in spite of his instant legend.

Osama Bin Laden is one of the very few people to have already achieved true legendary status in the 21st Century – along with, I suspect, Lady Gaga. Which sort of proves the rule.

© Mark Simpson 2010

Edmund White’s Vulgar Fag-ism

I’ve always liked Edmund White’s refusal to get with the contemporary gay hypocrisy program and shrewishly condemn promiscuity in the hope that this will deliver lots and lots of wedding presents.

In contrast to that pasteurised movie Milk, which lied shamelessly about gay men’s sex lives in the 1970s to make it easier for them to lie about their sex lives today, White, a veteran gay-libber who first started libbing around that time – in bath-houses, back rooms and along the piers – insists on telling it as it was, genital warts and all.

That said, I’ve frequently found his work to be insufferably gayist. Edmund is a five star, old school gay chauvinist – so literally fucking proud to be gay and so obsessed with ‘coming out’ (and attacking those that refuse to join his party) that sometimes I just want to slap him.

Which is why I laughed out loud when frail old Gore Vidal, veteran dissenter from the orthodoxies of sexual identity politics, recently reached out of his wheelchair and did just that, repeatedly, in The London Times. Asked about White’s fictionalised portrayal of Vidal’s letter-writing relationship with the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in the play ‘Terre Haute’, The Gore lambasted White for portraying him as ‘another queen’, only writing about how ‘being a fag is the greatest thing on Earth’ and – in a fantastic phrase that will stay with White forever, like an immortal red handprint on the side of his face  – “vulgar fag-ism”.

Probably it was the ‘vulgar’ part that stung White most (his prose, especially the earlier efforts, sometimes looks as if it’s been fisted by a thesaurus) and provoked the bitchy response in an interview in Salon this week (‘Edmund White comes out swinging’).  Ed describes Gore as a ‘nasty, awful man’, claims sorrowfully to have tried to help him in the past by inviting him to dinner to introduce him to ‘cute boys’, very kindly reminds us of his great age, the fact that he’s wheelchair-bound, his alcoholism, his loss a few years ago of his life-long companion. Practically spelling it out for us in a campy stage whisper: Bitter. Old. Queen.

But apparently this isn’t enough. He also tells us that Vidal is a ‘complete lunatic’ and that ‘it doesn’t bother me what he says about me.’ Yes, dear, but if it doesn’t, why go on so? And on, and on….

‘I don’t know what he’s famous for anywhere, really, because I think those historical novels are complete works of taxidermy. Nobody can read those. “Myra Breckinridge” was funny but light. The essays are what everybody defends — but a friend of mine who did a volume of the best essays of the 20th century said they’re all so topical that they’ve all aged terribly. I don’t know where his work is.’

Ed, sweetie. Even if everything that you and your terribly important literary friends have to say about that ‘nasty awful man’ were true, bitter old alcoholic crippled Gore would still be ten times the writer you are.

And, oh, about 100 times the man.

Gore Vidal Takes on The World – Again

Gore Old

God, I can’t help but love the old bastard.  Another tour-de-force from Gore Vidal (interviewed by Tim Teeman) appeared in The London Times last week, in which, as usual, he said so many things, so very loudly that so many people know to be true but daren’t begin to mumble.

This frail, crippled, diabetic, alcoholic, eighty-three-year-old man repeatedly and energetically Gores Obama, for his ‘dreadful’ performance as President, decries how he has ‘fucked up’ healthcare, and most particularly how he has allowed himself to be railroaded by the military into continuing the American Imperialist project, something Vidal has heroically dedicated his life to attacking. He also expresses his deep regret over dumping feisty Hillary, his first choice, for this smooth-talking ingenue during the Democratic Primaries:

“Hillary knows more about the world and what to do with the generals. History has proven when the girls get involved, they’re good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to.”

Vidal suggests that he was beguiled – as many clearly were in the Democratic Party – by the historic if not actually romantic appeal of a black man as President of the United States.  Particularly one that was much more intelligent than his white predecessor; but seems to have been disappointed even in that department.

Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intelligence. “But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star”.

He also discusses, or rather, disses, gay marriage – a subject I wasn’t alas able to cover when I interviewed him earlier this year for Arena Hommes Plus. When Teeman asks, ‘Has love been important to him?’ he responds blisteringly:

“Don’t make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay men’s relationships are like heterosexual ones. They’re not.”

This one, simple, obviously true statement is of course complete heresy for modern American gays – who aren’t listening anyway since most of them probably don’t even know who Gore Vidal is.  Which is in itself damning enough.

Vidal puts on a scornful, campy voice. “People ask {of he and Austen, his life-long companion who died last year}, ‘How did you live together so long?’ The only rule was no sex. They can’t believe that….

No, because if you wish to pretend that two men living together is just like a man and woman living together you have to pretend to the same lies and illusions heterosexuals do.

He is single now. “I’m not into partnerships,” he says dismissively. I don’t even know what it means.” He “couldn’t care less” about gay marriage. “Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.” You could have been the first gay president, I say. “No, I would have married and had nine children,” he replies quickly and seriously. “I don’t believe in these exclusive terms.”

They certainly don’t make ’em like that any more.