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Counterpunch: Gore Vidal responds to Charlton Heston

June 17, 1996|By Gore Vidal

Chuck now adds to his diary entry: "We never shot this scene of Gore's, or indeed any of the attempts he made on other sequences." Since Zimbalist was guardian of the pages of the script, no mere actor (or even director) was ever going to know who wrote what. In any case, my "three-day trial run" on the script turns out to have been at least three weeks, according to Chuck's own journals. By 1995, ("In the Arena"), our memoirist is at it again, rearranging history. In this version, I was "briefly imported for a trial. A tart, embittered man, he seemed an odd choice. . . ." I should note, modestly, that my novel "Julian"--about the 4th century emperor--has been for many years much read in the Modern Library and at the time that I was helping out Sam in Rome I had a hit play ("Visit to a Small Planet") running on Broadway, an experience Chuck, as actor much less writer, was never to undergo. As I wrote Paul Bowles, "I am doing a fast rewrite of a mammoth epic called 'Ben-Hur'; I start at the beginning whilst my co-author Christopher Fry, a nice little man who looks rather the way Shakespeare must've looked, starts at the end and works towards me. It is predicted that we shall meet during the chariot race, though I rather hope to see him in Pilates' audience chamber. What fun art is!"

Now let us go backstage and find out what was really going on. Pay attention, Chuck. Just before May 31, as contracted, I departed. Sam gave me the present of a briefcase. On May 31, MGM's publicity man for the picture, Morgan Hudgens, sent me some pictures of the shooting with the note: "The horses began pounding around The Spina today--quite a sight! The big 'Cornpone' . . . " (Chuck, that's you, I'm afraid), "really threw himself into your 'first meeting' scene yesterday. You should have seen those boys embrace! I'm afraid CH is definitely coming off Secunda in that battle of profiles. We miss you." I had confided to Morgan my problems with Wyler ("Gore, this is 'Ben-Hur' for God's sake") and so was pleased that, despite disagreements, he was doing my scene my way.

On 24 July, I got a weary note from Sam. He was pleased with Christopher Fry's fine-tuning. He offered me a film to write called "Never So Few." Then, shortly after, I read that he had had a heart attack and died. Wyler's slowness, MGM's corporate hysteria (had "Ben-Hur" failed, there would have been no studio--in retrospect, no bad thing)--the whole thing was far too much for easily the nicest person I've ever dealt with in the movies. As for the film itself, not one silly frame of it was worth Sam's life. As for you, Chuck, just remember that wise saying, Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

Heston's Letter

What are we to make of Gore Vidal? He's earned a respectable reputation as essayist-novelist, but now he's determined to pass himself off as a screenwriter, particularly of "Ben-Hur." Your piece on the portrayal of homosexuals in film demonstrates his obsession ("Opening Hollywood's Closet," by Eric Gutierrez, March 10).

Vidal, over the years, has made more and more extravagant claims of authorship. He was in fact imported for a trial run on a script that needed work. Over three days (recorded in my work journal), he produced a scene of several pages which Wyler rejected after a read-through with Stephen Boyd and me. Vidal left the next day.

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.


Beverly Hills

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