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Gore Vidal (#110 of 8)

The Wolf at the Door Bob Roberts at 25

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The Wolf at the Door: Bob Roberts at 25

Paramount Pictures

The Wolf at the Door: Bob Roberts at 25

Like most political satire, Bob Roberts is a time capsule of its era. Set during the fictional 1990 senatorial run of its titular character, writer-director Tim Robbins’s 1992 mockumentary is in part a critique of President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and the C.I.A. overreach of the ‘80s and a takedown of the moral crusades that came to a head in the mid-to-late ‘90s. But while its targets are tied rather tightly to a specific time in America’s political past, this shrewdly drawn portrait of the unsettling intersection of entertainment, business, and politics now feels surprisingly prescient.

Viewed through the funhouse mirror of America’s current political climate, there’s an intriguing and frightening through line from the conservative folk-singing politician Bob Roberts (played by Robbins) to Donald Trump. Both men have an uncanny ability to use the media for their own gains, painting themselves as the antagonized victim of fact-based reportage while crafting the image of the wealthy conservative rebel who will cut government excesses as a way to restore power to the common man. But where Trump is brash and boorish, Roberts is slick and mannered—a wolf in sheep’s clothing in an age before Americans simply welcomed in the wolf at their door.

Sinful Cinema The Driver’s Seat

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Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat
Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat

It’s generally agreed that films fall into one of three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the So-Bad-It’s-Good. Still, there remain a few highly select examples of a fourth category: the What-in-Hell-Was-That? Michael Sarne’s star-laden evisceration of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge is certainly one of these, as are such disparate disasters as The Lonely Lady (Pia Zadora’s last-ditch attempt at being taken seriously), the sub-Ed-Wood exercise in low-budget incomprehensibility Mesa of Lost Women (1953), and—when and if it finally gets released—Faye Dunaway’s vanity (and how!) rendition of Terence McNally’s Maria Callas play Master Class. Yet none of these acts of cinematic desperation are quite as outré as The Driver’s Seat.

Directed by Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, this Italian-made English-language drama, adapted from Muriel Spark’s novella about a mentally unbalanced woman searching for someone to stab her to death, stars Elizabeth Taylor and features (as Neil Patrick Harris would say, “wait for it…”) Andy Warhol. Nothing in the good, bad or so-bad-it’s-good canon compares to it. And if you were among the semi-happy few who managed to see it back in 1974, when it was released (or, some might say, “escaped”) to select grindhouses before vanishing into the maw of home video, then you know what I’m talking about. For while Elizabeth Taylor certainly made her share of stinkers in a long and productive career (Cynthia, The Sandpiper, Young Toscanini), it’s hard to imagine another item so fit to leave moviegoers scratching their heads, wondering precisely why it was made.

Emotional Turbulence An Appreciation of James Purdy

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Emotional Turbulence: An Appreciation of James Purdy
Emotional Turbulence: An Appreciation of James Purdy

In February of 2005, James Purdy finally seemed destined for general discovery. Carroll & Graf reissued his 1967 novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works just months after bringing out Moe’s Villa, his first book of new fiction in seven years. Around the same time, Gore Vidal wrote an appreciation in The New York Times Book Review in which he lauded Purdy as “an authentic American genius.” But three years later, whatever brief renaissance the novelist, story writer, poet and playwright experienced had all but disappeared. Three more reissues followed to general indifference and nothing has been published since. So why is it that Purdy, a writer possessed of strong narrative gifts and lucid prose who is unafraid to risk a crowd-pleasing sensationalism, an artist who is both generally accessible and thrillingly engaging, has never found much of a consistent audience, even within such condescendingly limited groupings as “gay fiction”? That remains a difficult question to answer, since it’s hard to believe that Purdy’s books are incapable of inspiring even the cult following that’s largely eluded them, but it now seems that, whatever his literary merits, he’s destined to remain a marginal figure.

For the Love of Myra: Myra Breckinridge

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For the Love of Myra: <em>Myra Breckinridge</em>
For the Love of Myra: <em>Myra Breckinridge</em>

Scan the Internet Movie Database for Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge, based on the infamous book by Gore Vidal, and you’ll find among the plot keywords “Non Statutory Female On Male Anal Rape.” Which makes one wonder if that category was coined solely for the groundbreaking Miss Myra herself, exquisitely brought to life by the underrated Raquel Welch.

5 for the Day: Presidents and Politics

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5 for the Day: Presidents and Politics
5 for the Day: Presidents and Politics

When I realized that Presidents Day was approaching, I figured the timing was perfect for a “5 for the Day” on movies about American presidents. You know what though—feature films about real U.S. presidents have tended to not be that good. Television has done a much better job when it comes to telling stories about Oval Office occupants. Besides, the holiday itself had its importance sapped once they combined Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays together and decided the day would honor all presidents. Honestly, more deserve not to be honored than do. I don’t imagine there will be many fond remembrances of John Tyler or James Buchanan today. So, I decided to expand my field to both fictional presidents and politics in general—then the difficult task of winnowing down to five began. Thrillers such as the original Manchurian Candidate sprang immediately to mind, but since it was more thriller than political, I let it go. Political satires are plentiful, but I didn’t want to get overloaded with them so many worthy films missed the cut. I decided to limit myself to one satire and even though there have been better ones, I decided to go off the beaten path with my choice. All the President’s Men leaped to mind as well, but that’s more about journalism than politics. There still were painful cuts: I really wanted to include Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah, but I had to let it go. So, for better or worse, here are the five I settled on.