That Time Gore Vidal Made Ben-Hur a Gay Movie

As a script doctor for the 1959 film Ben-Hur, Gore Vidal felt politics was an insufficient reason to explain a central plot point, the acrimonious falling out between dear boyhood friends Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd). So Vidal created a back story, a teenage love affair between the two, one that Messala was keen to rekindle and Ben-Hur was not.

The film’s director, William Wyler approved the story and Boyd used the homosexual history to inform his acting, but it was agreed that Heston would not be told about any of it. That little bit of gay subtext wasn’t revealed till 1995, when Vidal was interviewed for the documentary The Celluloid Closey. In the clip below (pardon the Portuguese subtitles), you can see parts of a scene written by Vidal that include the homosexual plot line.

Heston was not amused by the revelation. On March 17, 1996, he wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times downplaying Vidal’s involvement with the film and denying any gay subtext. “Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me,” Heston fumed.

Heston’s full letter, as well as Vidal’s delightfully detailed response, can be found in the L.A. Times archives. Vidal, predictably, won that round, but the take-down punch makes for a delicious read.