Artists Obituaries USA

US writer Gore Vidal has died, aged 86

Francesco Vezzoli remembers how the writer of “Caligula” agreed to appear in the artist’s remake

Gore Vidal in a still from Francesco Vezzoli's Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, 2005

Gore Vidal, the US writer, wit and politician manqué, has died, aged 86. In 2005, the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli described in The Art Newspaper his meeting with Vidal in Los Angeles. Vezzoli was there to convince the writer of the 1979 film “Caligula” to be in the artist’s remake of the sex-and-sandals Roman epic.

When Vezzoli met Vidal

It was essential that I met Gore Vidal the moment I started preparing my remake of the film “Caligula”, on show at this year’s [2005] Venice Biennale. Mr Vidal had to be in some way the “guardian angel” of the project, not only because he wrote the screenplay for the original film, but also because I wanted to bring his political, lucid take on the world from the past into the present.

The film was originally called “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”. Bob Guccione, the producer, changed part of the screenplay and added extra scenes with Penthouse models, which partially distorted the work. Mr Vidal’s name was then removed from the title at his request. One of the aims of my project was to restore ownership of the film to Gore Vidal. This is why I called my piece Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula”. I had to get his permission to use this title and was worried he’d turn me down because he had bad memories of his time on the film.

I remember meeting him at his Los Angeles home one scorching afternoon with conflicting emotions. He was friendly and approachable but I couldn’t help feeling I was in the presence of an “authority”. I came straight to the point and as soon as I mentioned the project, Gore Vidal screamed “Caligulaaa!” at the top of his voice, just like Peter O’Toole who played Tiberio in the film.

The ice was broken and Vidal told me about his incredible experiences on the film, his disagreements with Bob Guccione and how his screenplay aimed to give a realistic and highly political slant to the piece. He explained how he insisted to the production team that there were no launderettes in ancient Rome so the costumes used would have to be much dirtier than they usually were in “sword and sandal” films. I told him that Oliver Stone should have asked for his advice before making Alexander. Mr Stone did turn to him for help, but the only suggestion he gave the US film director was to go to Lourdes…

We ended up discussing the corrupt and degenerate aspects of power while talking about Caligula. The conversation turned inevitably to President Bush and especially the public face of the Catholic Church. His tone of voice became more sarcastic and darker. I felt I was in the company of an absolute presence. His knowledge was limitless and our conversation passed smoothly over subjects such as 20 centuries of papal history, the decadence of US imperialism and Italian political history. Gore Vidal is extremely skilled at combining references and making associations that encompass history of art, philosophy, politics and contemporary society.

A series of amazing photographs on a unit behind Mr Vidal showed him with celebrities including Vanessa Redgrave, Princess Margaret and Norman Mailer. I noticed a Big Jim action figure leaning against one of the photos that had the face of President Bush, which looked extremely nasty. Mr Vidal revealed that this bizarre toy was a present from Paul Newman. I could not resist and asked how present-day Hollywood compared to the film industry of the past that he knew so well. He launched into a series of amazing impressions of stars, especially Katherine Hepburn. His impersonation and comedy skills are captivating. I took my chance and asked him if he would consider appearing in my film in the role of ironic commentator. And so it came to be.

Translated from Italian by Gareth Harris

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