Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ben-Hur and Gore Vidal

With the recent passing of Charlton Heston, Hollywood has lost yet another of it's larger-than-life screen stars. Kirk Douglas is really the last big star left who came to prominence in the 1940's and early 50's. Heston was never my favorite actor, and I disagree with everything he came to stand for later in his life. Although Heston actually started out as a Democrat, and was a very vocal supporter of civil rights. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, along with Burt Lancaster and Harry Belafonte, when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. When one of his films premiered at a segregated theater in Oklahoma, Heston picketed the theater. It's really too bad he became so conservative. Had he turned Republican about 10 or 15 years before he actually did, he might well have been President. Think how popular Ronald Reagan was as President, then imagine if Heston, who was actually an A-list Hollywood star, had run for President! I mean, he played Moses, for God's sake! Ben-Hur! Michelangelo! Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape! Soylent green is people! President Heston in a landslide!

Anyway, this got me thinking about my favorite Charlton Heston story, about Gore Vidal and the gay subtext of Ben-Hur. Gore Vidal wrote most of the screenplay for Ben-Hur, although he went uncredited at the time. Working with director William Wyler, Vidal needed to come up with a reason for the rivalry between Heston's Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala. So Gore decided that Ben-Hur and Messala had been lovers, and Messala wanted the relationship to continue, and Ben-Hur did not. Wyler didn't think it would fly, telling Vidal, "Gore, this is Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur! 'A tale of the Christ' or whatever that subtitle is. You can't do this with Ben-Hur..." Vidal convinced Wyler that none of the dialogue would hint at any kind of sexual relationship, and that it would all be shown by the expressions on the actor's faces. Wyler said to Vidal, "I'll talk to Chuck. You talk to Boyd. But don't you say a word to Chuck or he'll fall apart." According to Vidal, Heston was oblivious to the subtext, but Boyd got it and played the scene the way Vidal intended. After the scene was rehearsed, Vidal said to Wyler, "Chuck hasn't got much charm, has he?" Wyler replied, "No, and you can direct your ass off and he still won't have any."

The above quotations are taken from Gore Vidal's memoir, Palimpsest, which also features a great picture of Heston and Vidal on the set; Heston is grinning and has his hand on Vidal's shoulder.

The Short Stories of John O'Hara

John O'Hara (1905-1970) is a largely forgotten American writer today, but during his lifetime he was one of America's most famous, and best-selling, writers. He is probably best known today for his first novel, 1934's Appointment in Samarra, a Gastby-like tale of the American dream gone wrong. O'Hara prided himself on being able to perfectly capture the moods and dialogue of the USA during a specific historical moment. We would now probably call this "capturing the zeitgeist," which he certainly did. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of his references to specific brands of products fly over the head of today's readers. (Myself included.) Someone should really add footnotes to his works, to clarify to today's reader exactly what it meant to go to Yale, rather than Harvard, in 1932.

O'Hara's work is very similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald's, as both writers were concerned with issues of money and class in American society. (Okay, so they also both wrote about booze and adultery.) But class and money remained central to their work, perhaps because both writers saw themselves as outsiders to the great WASP moneyed classes. O'Hara was from a small town in Pennsylvania, and didn't have the money to go to college. Fitzgerald was from the frozen landscape of Minnesota, or what people now call fly-over land. (Although Fitzgerald did get to attend Princeton.) If you like Fitzgerald, you'll definitely like O'Hara.

I recently finished reading Great Short Stories of John O'Hara, a volume that combines two short story collections into one volume. The stories are all from the 1930's, most were published in The New Yorker, and most are extremely short. (O'Hara holds the record for the most short stories published in The New Yorker, although John Updike must be right behind him.) The first story in the book, "The Doctor's Son," is the longest in the book, and it tells the tale of an adolescent helping his father administer to sick patients during the flu epidemic of 1918-19. It's one of O'Hara's best stories, and it shows off his penchant for details.

Many of the stories are no more than two pages in length, which makes it difficult to become emotionally involved with the characters. But while the stories don't have the individual power of say, John Cheever's short stories, (which are usually about 10 pages long) their power slowly adds up. It's cumulative, you read twenty good stories in a row, and the variety is amazing. It's really a virtuosic display of talent. O'Hara shows that he had a perfect ear for dialogue, whether he was writing high-class characters or lower-class working men. He seems to have been interested in everything, as the variety of stories shows.

As I mentioned, the book is really two collections combined, and when the later collection starts, the stories become harder-edged and more fatalistic. I don't know if it's the continuing effects of the Great Depression, but the characters become involved in deeper moral dilemmas. An exception to this are the four "Pal Joey" stories, which are highly comical, and feature O'Hara's writing as it's best. Written as letters from Joey to his friend Ted, they are rife with misspellings and fractured grammar, but they get the character of a charming heel across brilliantly. O'Hara later wrote more "Pal Joey" stories, and they became the basis for the 1940 Broadway show of the same name, which starred a young Gene Kelly as Joey. Rodgers and Hart wrote the songs, two of which would become standards, "I Could Write a Book," and "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered." "Pal Joey" was later made into a movie in 1957, starring Frank Sinatra as Joey, with Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. It's one of Sinatra's great performances, and you get to hear him sing some terrific tunes.

O'Hara is sort of an "author's author" now, with little name recognition among the public, but still respected by other writers. John Updike, a fellow Pennsylvanian, is an especially vocal fan. Gore Vidal also wrote a very favorable essay about O'Hara's works. (If you know anything about Gore Vidal, you'll know he's not favorable about very many things.) John O'Hara is a writer well worth reading, especially if you're a fan of similar writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Updike, and Irwin Shaw.