Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Gore Vidal and Me (or Remembering My Goriest Job)

The death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012 almost got by me. Hey, I was busy enjoying my summer, and Vidal has never been a favorite of mine. Of course I admire his malicious wit: you can't help loving a guy who announces “the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so." Still, I found Vidal's apparent coldness profoundly unappealing.

This despite some clever work on the page and on the stage. Vidal had a fair number of movie moments too. His plays The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet both became successful films, the latter with none other than Jerry Lewis playing an outer-space alien checking out life on earth. His novel Myra Breckenridge, a satiric comedy about transsexuality in Hollywood, was made into a notorious Raquel Welsh vehicle that Theadora Van Runkle described to me as “arguably the worst movie ever made.” (Theadora designed the film’s costumes, so she’s entitled to her opinion.) As a script doctor, Vidal took credit for adding a homoerotic subtext to Ben-Hur. (Who knew?) Later he wrote, and then disowned, the script for the notoriously lewd Caligula.

But when I reminisce about Gore Vidal, I think about my own short, not-so-sweet career as a Hollywood script reader. It occurred in 1994, after I was suddenly cut adrift from Concorde-New Horizons. (For more about that, see the Introduction to my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. One thing Vidal and I have in common: we’re not ashamed to blow our own horns. For proof, see below.)

Anyway, I was looking for an honest paycheck, and a phone call from an exec at Interscope Pictures seemed an answer to my prayers. She’d heard about me at an industry cocktail party. When I accepted her offer of employment, I was suddenly plunged into one of Hollywood’s worst jobs. The whole point was to winnow the company’s submission pile, saving busy development folks from having to read most scripts themselves. Here’s how it worked: in mid-morning I’d be summoned to drive to Interscope headquarters (in a highrise at one of L.A.’s most congested intersections) to pick up a script. At home I’d read it, write a detailed synopsis, and add comments that were supposed to focus on the negative wherever possible. Then I had to drive back to Interscope that same day, in rush-hour traffic, to deposit my work in a special cubbyhole outside the office door. Though I enjoyed virtually no human interaction, at least I was efficiently paid. I think my checks rose from $35 to $50 during the few months I was there.

Maybe because I seemed like a sucker who’d put up with anything, I started being assigned novels that someone thought might translate into a Hollywood movie. That’s how I found myself reading Vidal’s historical novel, Burr, about the man who served as our country’s third vice-president and was later tried for treason. It was 562 pages long, so I was given the entire weekend to write my report. Iconoclastic as always, Vidal used his novel to upend the story told in American history books. In his hands, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fatuous windbags, while Burr (who among other misadventures killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel) became an unlikely hero. I spent a miserable weekend on Burr, for which I earned a princely $135.

Soon thereafter I stopped taking assignments from Interscope Pictures. Eventually the company changed hands, then shut down in 2003. I wish there were someone at Interscope to whom I could say, “I told you so.”

By the way -- if you’re a fan of B-movies and Roger Corman, I encourage you to check out the new Facebook page built for me by ultra-fan Bill Dever. (Thanks, Bill!). It’s named after my biography and soon-to-be ebook, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Write to me at beverly@beverlygray.com if you’d like to be invited to join.


  1. I didn't realize you read Burr at that point. Didn't you also pan a script for As You Like It (made into a successful movie) by Emma Thompson?

  2. Well no, a script for Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility -- which later won the Oscar and various other awards. I've felt guilty about that ever since, because when I went back to reread the Austen novel I decided she'd done a really good job. Sounds like another blog post in the making . . . Thanks for writing, Hilary.

  3. I used to see Mr. Vidal on various talk shows in the 70's - I thought he was an interesting fellow - certainly caustic. My wonderful 7th grade teacher had us read Visit to a Small Planet, so I'd also read some of his work without really connecting the two. I still can't imagine he was very happy that Jerry Lewis starred in the movie version. I hope he finds an afterlife filled with sterling conversation and plenty to kvetch about. RIP.

    What an incredible job at Interscope! I wonder if it got any easier in the final days with the aid of email and file forwarding...

    (I've already emailed a request to join the Facebook page too! Please!)

  4. You know, I've tried to add you several times, and I'm not sure it has worked. Have you run afoul of the Facebook gods, Mr. Craig?