When Gore Vidal brought his version of "Lincoln" to the small screen last season, it was a "warts and all" (if you'll pardon the expression) view of America's 16th president. Vidal's objective, it seemed to me, was to trim the heroic, larger-than-life image of Lincoln down to size by showing him as manipulative, power-hungry, insensitive and unable to control his whacked-out wife.
And so it naturally follows that when Vidal brings his perspective on the notorious Old West outlaw Billy the Kid (6 and 9 p.m., TNT) to TV tonight, he seems to be trying to let the world know that William Bonney wasn't such a bad guy after all. So what if he left a bloody trail across the New Mexico Territory. He used to play cute little tricks on his friends. He had a girlfriend that he was semi-faithful to. And besides, when he killed someone he was just following The Code Of The West.Clearly Vidal prefers an unconventional approach to history. His point is that the good guys weren't so good and the bad guys weren't so bad - a notion that may very well be healthy even though it plays havoc with our folklore. But whether or not you agree with his view of history, you have to acknowledge that a film based on a Gore Vidal story is unusual and at least interesting.
I found that to be true of "Billy the Kid." It's not a great movie by any means. But it's interesting to see so infamous a character interpreted as just another messed up kid. If Vidal's Billy had been born in 1940 he probably would have been another 1950s "Rebel Without a Cause." If he had been a teenager today he would have been a punk rocker. But he was born in 1860, and History According To Vidal indicates that troubled teens of the Old West ended up killing - and being killed.
Is that interpretation accurate? I don't know. But Vidal's "Billy the Kid" works largely because director William A. Graham has been faithful to Vidal's vision. There is no bouncing back and forth between myth and reality here; Graham is consistent stylistically from the film's violent beginning until its violent end. The tone is dark and gritty, with filthy men, sweaty women and a setting (shot mostly in and around Arizona's Old Tucson) that is hot and dusty. Nobody really gets cleaned up here - they just move the dirt around. And when they are shot (which happens quite regularly here) the blood tends to explode in gruesome slow motion.
Val Kilmer ("Willow," "Top Gun") does a good job of bringing the show's title character to life. He plays Billy as being wild and impetuous - a guy who mostly just seems to be out to have a good time. There are times when Kilmer's Billy has a sort of vacant look and seems a little slow. But mostly he is sharp and quick to react. The impression is given that his mental deficiencies are compensated by physical gifts of speed, strength and endurance.
This Billy is also extremely loyal, which is why he keeps going back to his girlfriend Celsa (Julie Carmen), and trusting his friend Pat Garrett (Duncan Regehr), the lawman who eventually ends Billy's bloody spree. Indeed, Vidal's thesis is that it is precisely this loyalty that triggered (so to speak) his violence.
"I just have one rule," Billy tells Garrett. "If you kill my friend, I kill you."
Obviously, Billy had a lot of friends.
Regehr and Carmen are both adequate in their roles, although both seem just a little too . . . well, clean for Vidal's dark-'n'-dirty stylishness. Rene Auberjonois is much filthier as the town drunk, and Wilford Brimley even has a ring-around-the-collar sort of feel to his performance as Territorial Governor Wallace.
But if you want to see a Western character played the way Vidal sees them, take a good look at the minister you'll see from time to time - the one carrying both a Bible and a six-shooter. He's scraggly. He's dirty. He's rough around the edges.
He's Gore Vidal, and he plays 'em like he sees 'em - unconventionally.