William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal: Television's Verbal Fisticuffs

04/07/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

In an age when a coinage such as "frenemies" has meaning, the operative word in the title of a new documentary, Best of Enemies, is the word "best." The film is about a particular historic event of verbal jousting between two very well-matched public intellectuals, the "best" practitioners of the English language of their time, the conservative William F. Buckley and the leftist Gore Vidal, author of the controversial Myra Breckinridge. That they 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.

Morgan Neville won an Academy Award for his last documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom. Best of Enemies would not necessarily be a follow-up to a music film focused on back-up singers. At dinner at Le Cirque after a recent special screening, I asked Neville what led him to this project. As an 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, Neville knew this could be documentary dynamite.

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