Alec Baldwin Shows Up for Summerdocs: William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal on Television in Best of Enemies

The first of three documentaries in the Hamptons International Film Festival's Summerdocs series hosted by Alec Baldwin, Best of Enemies was sure to be a hit with the East Hampton crowd. Featuring a historic event of verbal jousting between two well matched public intellectuals, men who could turn a phrase, the conservative William F. Buckley and the leftist Gore Vidal, author of the controversial gender-bending Myra Breckinridge, the movie is perfection for an audience that remembers the media spectacle. That Buckley and Vidal were enemies aided the cause: to boost ratings for ABC, in 1968, when the network was third, or last in the age's few channel options. In the view of Best of Enemies and its creators, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, this televised sparring changed television forever. Ratings for ABC skyrocketed.

Because Alec Baldwin's wife Hilaria was expecting their second child, the festival asked Kurt Anderson to moderate a post-screening panel at Guild Hall, Baldwin's customary role. Arriving at the reception at the Maidstone, Baldwin could not believe he was actually present for the event as the baby boy, named Raphael, was born a month early disrupting not this, his beloved series, but one night of the All My Sons run. Hilaria, elegant as ever, with daughter Carmen, joined in to inaugurate the summer's documentaries.

Morgan Neville won an Academy Award for his last film, 20 Feet from Stardom, a Summerdoc. Best of Enemies would not necessarily be a follow-up to a music film focused on back up singers. On the panel, Neville spoke about working with Gore Vidal: As intern at The Nation magazine, Neville was fact checker to Gore Vidal, who was at the time most often in Ravello, Italy. Neville would have to call there long distance, to explain what the writer had gotten wrong, and would hold the phone at arm's length from his ear to avoid the full impact of the author's ensuing tirade. When Robert Gordon brought him some interesting footage of the television spectacle of 1968, the two men got to work. Knowing Vidal as he did, Morgan Neville knew this could be documentary dynamite.

But that's not all: Dick Cavett, talk show host par excellence in his day knew the men in contention. When Kurt Anderson asked, with which one would you want to hang out, the answer was a toss up with maybe Vidal holding the edge. Then Cavett told a story about Buckley on a yacht in the Caribbean hosting Time magazine editor Richard Clurman. Could he exert some power to have the local television station rewind their showing of The Wizard of Oz? The film rewound, but it was Buckley cranking back a tape recorder all along. The practical joke humanized his cold persona. Well, you had to be there.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.