Vidal: MC Pherson Colin /Corbis Sygma
Ken Tucker
July 25, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

American Masters: Martin Scorsese Directs

TV Show
Current Status
In Season

We gave it an A

Gore Vidal paraphrases Socrates when he tosses off his well-worn line ”The untelevised life is not worth living” in the ”American Masters” documentary The Education of Gore Vidal. Vidal’s quip is borne out by this adroit assemblage of clips, which are often more amusing than his novels, if never as deep as his essays. The snippets range from fresh interviews with the Grand Crotchet stumping around his home in Italy to famous vintage news-show footage. Here is Vidal on ”The Dick Cavett Show” in ’73, getting hip audience guffaws at the mere mention of Richard Nixon but — and this is where Vidal’s public pronouncements have always had their sharpest value — causing dead silence when he also includes John F. Kennedy in his list of Presidents who he believes have been bought and paid for by Big Business.

”The Education of Gore Vidal” would be essential viewing even if it only contained the now otherwise difficult-to-find footage of his TV-news shouting match with William F. Buckley Jr. during the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention. (For the kids among you, Vidal called Buckley a ”crypto-Nazi,” Buckley referred to Vidal as ”you queer”; it perhaps needs explaining in 2003 that neither was intended as a compliment.) And it’s interesting to hear that Vidal believes ”TV became my medium” not just because of his blood-drawing comments on ”Cavett” and Johnny Carson’s ”Tonight Show,” but because, as an openly gay novelist at a time when such identity politics were rare, he feels his early novels like ”Julian” were intentionally ignored for review by major outlets, and he was forced to make his dough writing TV screenplays.

Certainly, no one is clamoring for a revival of, say, his limp TV play ”Visit to a Small Planet.” And this documentary does Vidal (or viewers) no favors by including recent footage of a discussion of his Dred Scott teleplay with director Sidney Lumet. It sounds, I’m afraid, duller than an installment of ”Judging Amy.”

In fact, this documentary is mistitled — intended, one presumes, to echo ”The Education of Henry Adams” and thus nod to Vidal’s entertaining novelized critiques of American figures like Aaron Burr and Abraham Lincoln. ”I know how the country’s run,” says this entitled member of our society. ”I come from the governing class, and I turned against it because I thought it was stupid to disenfranchise so many people.” When Vidal takes his licks here at Big Business and Timid Media, you know this film should have been called ”It’s Good to Be Gored.”

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