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

April 7, 2015 9:27 PM

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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, about a particular historic event of verbal jousting, is between two very well matched public intellectuals, "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 Morgan Neville what led him to this project. As intern...

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