They're smiling for the cameras, but if given a chance they'd rip each other to shreds. So we have to settle for a jovial tiff peppered with headline-friendly sound bites. At least until the gloves really come off.
From Bette vs. Joan and Karloff vs. Lugosi to the Donald vs. the (former) Queen of Nice, famous people taking swipes at each other has provided plenty of fodder for fans, media outlets and the codependent relationship between the two. We all love a juicy celebrity feud, and whoever tells you otherwise is in abject denial.
The new documentary Best of Enemies goes back nearly a half century to a time when TV was entering puberty and the fight for ratings between the Big Three networks raged on. The year was 1968, and amid the turbulent rise of the civil rights movement and social unrest across the globe, Democrats and Republicans were gearing up for the presidential election that "Tricky Dicky" would go on to win. But who cares about that outcome?
The real burning question is, which channel would viewers tune into to watch that three-ring circus? The two top networks at the time – NBC, where the revered Walter Cronkite lorded over the news, and CBS, where David Brinkley was making quite a name for himself – weren't looking to break new ground. “They were cementers of ideas, not disrupters of ideas,” says former NBC News President Richard Wald, one of several eloquent sources sharing their war stories. How would the trailing ABC survive against such fierce competition? They came up with a risky proposition: Why not get two intellectuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum to discuss the conventions? The ideal contenders for these segments, titled “A Second Look,” would have to know their stuff. They would also have to hate each other.
ABC got their right-wing pundit first: National Review founder – and failed political candidate – William Buckley Jr., suave, well-bred, a gentleman's conservative. When asked whom he would like to be paired up against, he reportedly told producers something akin to “anyone would be fine, really … except Gore Vidal.” Watching this crisply paced doc, you immediately conjure up an image of viewership-hungry execs licking their chops.
Cue Vidal, the aesthete and bon vivant whose bawdy best-seller Myra Breckinridge, a showbiz satire featuring a transgender woman as its protagonist, turned him into a household name. Averse to labels, the prolific novelist, screenwriter – and failed political candidate – nevertheless made no bones about his dalliances with men. In short, he was the perfect storm of unsavory traits for his on-air foe, everything Buckley detested about liberalism in one fabulously attired package. “Each thought the other was quite dangerous,” observes Christopher Hitchens, who knew a thing or two about debating controversial views under the media's glare.
Directors Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash's America), no strangers to showbiz tales, work in broad strokes, placing the ensuing convention debates, from Miami Beach (GOP) to Chicago (Democrats), in sociopolitical context while establishing that 1) there already was bad blood between Buckley and Vidal, and 2) their pointed banter brought their simmering mutual contempt bubbling to the surface. It all led up to the infamous moment Gore taunted Buckley by calling him a “crypto-Nazi,” at which point his opponent threatened physical violence and snarled back an odious and, for its time, scandalous remark – on live TV, a confrontation the filmmakers build toward with the intensity of a thriller.
Much like their subjects' convention coverage was hardly profound campaign analysis, Best of Enemies is more interested in the clash of personalities than in the chasm dividing their worldviews. To their credit, Neville and Gordon refuse to vilify Buckley, who could have easily been reduced to a caricature but instead comes across as a complex figure deeply affected by his actions.
Which is not to say Best of Enemies is a tough sit. On the contrary, this is a breezy, dishy, slickly put together oral history of a time that, the movie argues, marked a turning point in the way TV news covers politics. Neville and Gordon's thesis – that you can trace the birth of the contemporary, pundit-driven news cycle to these debates – is thought-provoking, and yet one senses many other factors were at play that they don't take into consideration, such as the symbiotic, ever-shifting relationship between print and broadcast media, just to name one.
A director like, say, Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, HBO's Going Clear) would have probably dug deeper to back up such an argument. He also would have probably ended up with a far drier, more stern-faced finished product, so let's thank the media gods this clash of the titans for the ages is being retold by two born entertainers. They have turned first-rate media-driven theater into a great time at the movies. It is, in a word, deeeee-licious.
Best of Enemies opens Friday, Sept. 4 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton.