Best Of Enemies


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

A behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F Buckley Jr, and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God, and sex.
"Neville and Gordon wisely embed the verbal duels into the surroundings." | Photo: Archie Lieberman

Two determined men all set to do battle, William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative trailblazer, and Gore Vidal, renowned author and iconoclast of the left, clash in Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's high-spirited and illuminating Best Of Enemies.

"One must have a mind of winter", to take the cue from Wallace Stevens' poem, The Snow Man, to not be irresistibly drawn in by their bigger-than-life personalities. The writings of both men are read off-camera by John Lithgow as Vidal and Kelsey Grammer as Buckley. The transitions between voices are so smooth and rhythmical that you forget the editing by Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden.

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Archival footage of Vidal's Italian villa, with him giving a tour of his bathroom, creates a Fellini touch right from the start. He proudly points to photographs hanging over the bathtub that show him with Buckley at the Democratic Convention debate in Chicago in 1968. ABC network, third in ratings behind CBS and NBC - "it would have been fourth, but there were only three" a commentator says in Best Of Enemies - had invited Buckley and Vidal to debate live on television to boost their ratings during both national political conventions, starting with the Republicans in Miami Beach.

Footage of the debates and a bouquet of great on-camera interviews, including Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky and Dick Cavett, lead up to the infamous 9th debate, during which Vidal calls Buckley a "pro-or crypto-Nazi" and Buckley loses his cool, uttering the response that was to define him for the rest of his life and beyond: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face, and you'll stay plastered." Vidal smiles the smile of a winner. This moment forms the hub of Best Of Enemies, with rays of questions emanating from it - about television culture, about the craft of insult to trigger a reaction, about the nature of enmity, about the character of time.

Neville and Gordon wisely embed the verbal duels into the surroundings. In Miami Beach, at the Republican Convention, ABC's temporary studio collapsed, and the Chicago stockyards make for a grisly backdrop to the Democratic one. Vidal is shown with Arthur Miller and Paul Newman commenting on driving in a car through "clouds of teargas" to the convention. At the time in Chicago, Haskell Wexler was capturing the violence in his great film Medium Cool.

The late Christopher Hitchens was the first person interviewed for the film, Morgan told me. Hitchens, himself a noble heir to their tradition, calls the aftermath of the debates, in lawsuits and magazine articles by both of the men, an "enormous opportunity for the practice of malice." In another of the many fascinating on-camera interviews, Reid Buckley, says about his brother Bill that "most of all, he is a revolutionary." The debates, were and still are in a way about "lifestyle" and "who is the better person." We learn how Buckley was at sea, relaxing on a yacht, and ready to wing it, while Vidal hired a researcher to prepare him before the first debate.

The choice of clips is enlightening and amusing. "Did you see the film Myra Breckinridge and why not?" Buckley is asked poignantly by a viewer on a TV show about the adaptation of Vidal's scandalous novel starring Raquel Welch. When pointing out the parallels in Vidal and Buckley's background, a waltz threads together the combatants. Vidal pronounced Buckley "the Marie Antoinette of the right-wing."

As Valentino: The Last Emperor director, Matt Tyrnauer, recalls visiting Gore Vidal in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, where the evenings entertainment consisted of Vidal screening the infamous debates for himself and his guests, we see Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard watching herself on screen.

In a clip from Charlie Rose on PBS in 2007, an aged Buckley says "I'm tired of life. I'm ready to go.” The expression on his face shows the battles hard fought as that of a samurai. He died less than a year later, Vidal in 2012.

Reviewed on: 05 Apr 2015
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A behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F Buckley Jr, and their rancorous disagreements about politics, God, and sex.
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Owen Van Spall ***

Director: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville

Writer: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville

Starring: Dick Cavett, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr., Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Tyrnauer, Brooke Gladstone, Ginia Bellafante, Sam Tanenhaus

Year: 2015

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US

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