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ALL OF A SUDDEN

Summer in New York City means outdoor movies galore. Tonight the Bryant Park Summer Film Festival hosts a screening of the 1959 classic Suddenly Last Summer. Featuring greats like Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift, the film is a Gore Vidal adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ psychodrama. What better suits a carefree summer evening than a plot concerning Euro-trip drama and the threat of lobotomy? Bring a blanket, snacks and some friends to midtown for some genuine American thrill-inducing cinema. After all, watching a Southern Gothic film after dark in Manhattan is practically out of a movie itself. The lawn opens at 5 and films begin at thirty minutes past sunset, exact times vary.

Mon., July 14, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is an Idealized Yet Galvanizing Portrait

In his last years, Gore Vidal flawlessly played the role of elder statesman-as-curmudgeon; director Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary captures him in fighting form — witty, incisive, and coolly dismissive of his foes and lessers. His elegantly low-key dis of the late Christopher Hitchens at a book signing is masterful bitchiness. Immensely enjoyable from its wistful opening (Vidal leaning on a cane, standing over the burial plot he planned to share with longtime partner Howard Austen, who died in 2003), the film’s strength is the way it uses Vidal’s life (illustrated in vintage photos, newsreels, home movies, and title cards stamped with his epigrammatic sayings) to catalog 20th-century America’s sweeping political, cultural, and social changes. Interviewed in the sprawling, nearly packed up Italian home he shared with Austen, the elderly Vidal pays tribute to some family (his grandfather), eviscerates others (his mother; JFK), and disembowels prepackaged patriotism and contemporary conventional wisdom on queer identity. Wrathall lays out news clips of iconic interview moments across the decades: “The whole point to a ruling class,” he says with mild exasperation to one TV host, “is that they don’t conspire, they all think alike unless you get out, which is what I did. I defected.” And his withering dismissal of a conservative talking head in the ’60s might come as close as possible to a sound-bite summation of Vidal’s political and philosophical stance. After the man yammers that homosexuality is an assault on core American values, Vidal — a blueblood class traitor — retorts, “Why not begin by saying that our basic values are wrong?” It’s an admittedly hagiographic film, an unabashed celebration of the man and his work and worldview. The few mild naysayers are largely set up to be knocked down, but as such the film is invigorating.

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PATRIOT GAMES

Taking the film festival out of the movie theater, Dirty Looks: On Location is a free month-long queer screening series featuring a different movie in a new venue every day. For Independence Day, head to B Bar and Grill to see fireworks between Raquel Welch and Farrah Fawcett as they run away together in the critically panned Myra Breckinridge (Gore Vidal, who wrote the book that Michael Sarne’s 1970 X-rated movie is based on, called the film “an awful joke”). Other highlights include a screening of Andy Warhol’s Taylor Mead’s Ass at MOMA (July 8), Merce Cunningham’s Variations V on the High Line (July 25), and Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions at the Stonewall (July 30). Myra Breckenridge tonight at 7.

Thu., July 4, 7 p.m., 2013

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The Best Man: Political Party Animals

The Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards has, if not a fixation for, at least a preoccupation with Gore Vidal’s 1960 political comedy, The Best Man (Schoenfeld Theatre), which he has now revived for the second time in a dozen years. The two revivals make an interesting study in contrasts. Richards’s previous attempt, directed by Ethan McSweeney in 2000, seemed to take its prevailing tone from the last name of its leading actor, the late Spalding Gray, whose distanced, unemphatic approach made his role—a patrician, sardonic presidential aspirant distrusted by his party as an intellectual—seem even more aloof. Gray set a chilly temperature that nobody else in McSweeney’s largely well-cast production seemed able to break.

McSweeney’s successes, a list the 2000 Best Man didn’t make, have come with taut, largely naturalistic plays. Richards’s new production is directed by Michael Wilson, whose notable work includes excursions into the more flamboyant realms of Tennessee Williams’s writing. Wilson’s solution is to turn Vidal’s cannily structured, snarkily funny drama into a big, noisy party, like the political convention at which it is set, complete with video simulcasts, blaring patriotic tunes, actors invading the aisles, ushers in Styrofoam boaters decorated with red-white-and-blue ribbons, and a celebrity-heavy cast that indulges in a good deal of outrageous but thoroughly entertaining ham bone.

Not surprisingly, Wilson’s Best Man makes a far better show than its predecessor—though the achievement has its ironic side, given the stream of dismissive jokes with which Vidal lacerates the showbiz tendencies of American politics. The script’s tidy construction, with its French well-made-play trick of supplying a quid pro quo for every maneuver the main characters attempt, turns out to be just as theatrically viable a piece of grandstanding as the politicians’ tricks it chronicles. The dramaturgical structure employed may be old-fashioned, but the word “creaky” turns out not to apply when the structure’s joints are oiled up with sufficient self-aware showiness.

Vidal’s take on our political system conveys a cynic’s brand of idealism: To him it’s all a rigged crap shoot, but there’s always the chance that one of the high rollers will decide to shoot straight for a change. To this end, he imagines a single party (unnamed) that somehow contains both an Adlai Stevenson and a Richard Nixon as its two leading contenders for the presidential nomination. The Stevensonian is William Russell (John Larroquette), a patrician, self-deprecating intellectual, whose sane moderateness, already undercut by his tendency to crack learned, ironic jokes, would be wholly smashed if word got out of his compulsive promiscuity and his history of depression and nervous breakdown.

Naturally, his opponent, Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack), a smarmy young demagogue-in-embryo, has bribed a psychiatric nurse to filch Russell’s medical records, and would like nothing better than to release them to the delegates before the next vote. Neither Cantwell nor Russell has enough votes to win; neither is disposed to make a deal. Will Cantwell’s blackmail break the deadlock? Inevitably, Russell’s loyal campaign manager (Michael McKean) has unearthed a piece of counter-blackmail, which principled Russell loathes the idea of using. As the two men’s confrontation looms, Vidal comes up with two very neat twists that leave the counter-blackmail only partly defused but lead to what might be a happier ending for the democratic process anyway.

Larroquette makes an appealingly dry, offhand figure of Russell, and McCormack smarms Cantwell’s phony sincerity with perfectly pitched smarminess. But while Vidal’s ideas, with which the action’s contrivance is thickly textured, are woven into the candidates’ roles, the evening’s fun is entrusted to two secondary characters, assigned here to two star box office magnets: A former president named Hockstader (James Earl Jones), whose folksy realpolitik suggests Harry Truman, and a gushing political clubwoman, Mrs. Gamadge (Angela Lansbury), whose gush usually carries a few hidden razor blades in its flotsam. Seeing Jones and Lansbury “take stage,” in the blatant way they do here, is something like watching a monarch annex a neighboring province, except that the consequences are delightful rather than dire. Their forthright takeover stance seems to have largely emboldened, rather than cowed, their colleagues. Kerry Butler clearly revels in Mrs. Cantwell, a Southern-fried blend of hush puppy and swamp snake, and Jefferson Mays turns Cantwell’s ex-Army buddy into a near-Chekhovian collection of tics. If political truth comes in shades of gray, it needs just this kind of red pepper to spice it up onstage.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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The Best Man

Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner (1964).
Gore Vidal’s adaptation of his hit play harks back to the day before political conventions were TV infomercials. In this case, the backstage intrigue involves the conflict between Henry Fonda’s arrogant mandarin and Cliff Roberts’s unholy combination of Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy, with Lee Tracy making his final screen perf as the sly, Trumanesque sitting president.

Tue., May 4, 1, 4:30 & 8 p.m., 2010

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Authorial License Hangs Over Edmund White’s Terre Haute

From Jean Genet to Truman Capote to Norman Mailer, the 20th century is riddled with writers who set off to chronicle the evil that men do, and returned smitten—”enthralled,” in Genet’s words. The esteemed novelist (and Genet biographer) Edmund White makes his own contribution to this genre by proxy with the crisply acted and intermittently compelling Terre Haute, which features thinly veiled versions of Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as death-row confidantes/combatants.

Vidal defended McVeigh’s philosophy in a series of magazine articles, and the two corresponded for three years without ever meeting. White has conjured a quartet of jailhouse encounters, in which the Vidal surrogate, James Brevoort (Peter Eyre), alternates between browbeating, flattering, condescending to, and ogling the young prisoner, Harrison (Nick Westrate), over the last four days before Harrison’s execution. 

Despite White’s well-crafted symmetries and flashes of insight—particularly regarding the emotionally cloistered James—a whiff of authorial license hangs over Terre Haute. The gap between James’s glinting paragraphs of dialogue and Harrison’s stammering rage has a stage-managed quality to it, and neither Eyre’s baroque melancholy nor Westrate’s caged physicality can ward off the play’s inherent stasis. (This is only accentuated by director George Perrin’s odd decision to have Eyre periodically meander around the stage.) To paraphrase the still-reigning giant of this genre, the blood pulsing through Terre Haute is a bit too cold. ERIC GRODE

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MONDAY | 6.2

[SHOW]

THE COCKETTE INVASION

Fleet Week for fags

When the Cockettes premiered their act in New York in 1971, the San Francisco–based drag troupe’s blend of camp, glitter, and body hair did not impress their well-heeled audience—which included Angela Lansbury, Gore Vidal, and John Lennon—who probably turned out because of the advance praise from the likes of Truman Capote, Rex Reed, and Diana Vreeland. Practically booed out of town, the Cockettes produced even more shocking and ravishing work in San Fran, never to return to the city that scorned them—until now. In conjunction with the acquisition of their papers at the New York Public Library (yes, they’re that important), the shimmering, bearded androgynes are taking back the Big Apple. Tonight’s The Cockettes Are Coming! is an extravaganza reuniting generations of downtown artists and including historic film footage and performances by the Cockettes’ decadent descendants (who today actually have a home in New York theater), like the glitter-skinned Pixie Harlots and Taylor Mac. At Wednesday’s Cocktail of Glamour & Anarchy, original Cockettes and friends will present their independent works, while on Thursday, A Cockette Symposium looks at all the twisted beauty from an academic perspective. Monday benefit: 6:30, Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, 212-254-1109, faeriecampdestiny.org, $30; Wednesday salon: 8 & 10:30, Monkeytown, 58 North 3rd Street, Williamsburg, 718-384-1369, free; Thursday symposium: 7:30, LGBT Center, 208 West 13th Street, 212-620-7310, free SHARYN JACKSON

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THE COCKETTE INVASION

When the Cockettes premiered their act in New York in 1971, the San Francisco–based drag troupe’s blend of camp, glitter, and body hair did not impress their well-heeled audience—which included Angela Lansbury, Gore Vidal, and John Lennon—who probably turned out because of the advance praise from the likes of Truman Capote, Rex Reed, and Diana Vreeland. Practically booed out of town, the Cockettes produced even more shocking and ravishing work in San Fran, never to return to the city that scorned them—until now. In conjunction with the acquisition of their papers at the New York Public Library (yes, they’re that important), the shimmering, bearded androgynes are taking back the Big Apple. Tonight’s The Cockettes Are Coming! is an extravaganza reuniting generations of downtown artists and including historic film footage and performances by the Cockettes’ decadent descendants (who today actually have a home in New York theater), like the glitter-skinned Pixie Harlots and Taylor Mac. At Wednesday’s Cocktail of Glamour & Anarchy, original Cockettes and friends will present their independent works, while on Thursday, A Cockette Symposium looks at all the twisted beauty from an academic perspective. Monday benefit: 6:30, Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, 212-254-1109, faeriecampdestiny.org, $30; Wednesday salon: 8 & 10:30, Monkeytown, 58 North 3rd Street, Williamsburg, 718-384-1369, free; Thursday symposium: 7:30, LGBT Center, 208 West 13th Street, 212-620-7310, free

Mon., June 2, 2008

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Myra Breckinridge

It’s one of the most notorious commercial, critical, and production debacles in history: Michael Sarne’s high-camp, originally X-rated 1970 adaptation of Gore Vidal’s omnisexual showbiz lampoon. Though its musings on the kitschy ridiculousness of both Old Hollywood glamour and free-love culture are too inane, coarse, and unfunny to register as more than a cult curiosity, one might appreciate Anthology’s all-new print—with its epic sets and costumes, slumming icons, and unfocused meta-ambitions—as the queer precursor to Southland Tales. Myron Breckinridge (film critic Rex Reed) gets the chop from stoned surgeon John Carradine and becomes untamable bisexual vixen Myra (Raquel Welch, in her finest performance, for whatever that’s worth). Interrupted by punchline clips of Laurel and Hardy, Shirley Temple, and Fellini’s Toby Dammit (Sarne’s biggest influence), Myra ventures to her movie-cowboy uncle John Huston’s acting school to claim her share of the estate, crossing paths with talent agent and off-screen rival Mae West (she and Welch refused to appear on-camera together). West’s comeback film after a 27-year hiatus features a female-on-male rape played for yuks—poor thing—but the screen legend still spouts innuendos like a septuagenarian trooper, and sings either the greatest or worst cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” ever heard.

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SO BAD IT’S GOOD?

Just how awful is the 1970 box-office flop Myra Breckenridge? Based on the book by Gore Vidal about a man who wants a sex change, it ruined sales of the novel for years, sparked numerous lawsuits, and prompted Time magazine to say, “Myra Breckinridge is about as funny as a child molester.” See all the bad taste for yourself this weekend when Anthology Film Archives revives the rarely-screened movie with a new print. Originally rated X, the film was most shocking for a scene in which Myra (Raquel Welch) rapes a man with a dildo and then runs off with his girlfriend (Farrah Fawcett). Perhaps today’s audience will conclude that Myra was just ahead of her time. Rex Reed, Tom Selleck, John Huston, and Mae West also star.

March 7-9, 2008