There they are trading sulphurous jabs, making oratory swan dives and disemboweling each other on live TV – just the sort of grandiloquence that might go well with a nice, bright bottle of rosé.
Smart, taut, testy and thirst-making. That's my rap on Best of Enemies, a fascinating new documentary about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., the two brainiac contortionists of their time. Leveraging a patch of television history, the film follows the left-right war of words waged by the pair during America's political party conventions in 1968.
Set against a sepia palette of cigarette smoke and Don Draper haberdashery, the air thick with sticky schadenfreude, it plays like a duel for the ages. On one side: the lantern-jawed Buckley, founder of the National Review and a mainstay of Truman Capote's New York, blasting passive-aggressive blarney. On the other: the brooding, acerbic Vidal, who, besides being a best-selling novelist, playwright, screenwriter, confidant to Eleanor Roosevelt and a far-but-not-too-far kin of Jackie Kennedy, rarely met a mot he didn't bon.
"Never turn down the opportunity to have sex or to be on television" is Vidal's famous motto. Incidentally, it's one that takes up just half the 140 characters of a standard missive on Twitter, the coliseum where most sword fights take place these days. Are you listening, Katy Perry?
Watching Best of Enemies only made me lament the sorry soup that passes for a proper feud these days: a dying art unto itself. Consider that recent ring-'round-the-rosie featuring Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj – a tiff that started on social media over MTV Video Music Award nominations, and became extra-hyped when Perry dove in head-on, adding to an already long-simmering beef between her and Swift.
It could have been diverting enough if, well, a colony of high-level United Nations interpreters hadn't needed to be deployed to decipher Perry's "shade" aimed at Swift. Demonstrating a distinct lack of Buckley-esque ooze, the chanteuse tweeted: "Finding it ironic to parade the pit women against other women argument about as one unmeasurably capitalizes on the take down of a woman." What's a little verb conjugation between pop foes, right?
Both Buckley and Vidal – who existed in a time when "celebrity intellectual" wasn't an oxymoron, and actual eggheads appeared on the late-night talk-show circuit – worked hard at their enmity. Their debates in 1968 led to lawsuits, back-and-forth articles in Esquire magazine, and a sustained animus all their lives. They were committed.
Language being the bloodstream of any feud, and its subtlest instrument, renders most modern-day rivalries lame by comparison. Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, once claimed that the sorry state of affairs is because people have lost the practice of reading. But it's more than that. With a whole generation being raised on a diet of emojis and GIFs, people simply don't get the practice. Mired in a culture of conveyer-belt brawlers on The Bachelor/ette, today's feuds sound like sinuses draining, or ice cubes shaking in a drink with no liquid. Everything feels mangled, mimicked.
A feud, properly extracted, is something to behold, not to mention key in terms of celebrity singularity – or what today's marketers like to call "brand differentiation." Whatever would the Hatfields be without the McCoys, after all? Joan Crawford without Bette Davis? Tupac without Biggie?
My favourite feud royale? One that once stewed between sisters, and one that showed commitment. Joan Fontaine, the Oscar-winning star of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, and her sibling, Olivia de Havilland, star of Gone with the Wind, had a chill so deep that it travelled to the grave when Fontaine died in 2013. Competing against one another in life, and for Academy Awards, the last time they spoke was during the Gerald Ford administration, with Fontaine once spilling to People magazine, "Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling she wouldn't go near my crib." De Havilland, who is still alive, has opted to say rien, telling London's Independent newspaper, when asked about her sis, "That is the one subject on which I never speak. Never."
But saying nothing can be saying it all. A truism born true, yet again, by the most mysterious feud in showbiz land lately – that between Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi, co-stars of The Good Wife. Fans of the show, long hailed as one of TV's classiest dramas, noted that the two MVPs hadn't shot a scene together since late 2012, and that when they finally did appear together in the final episode of this past season, something was just a little off. As with most things on the Internet, decrypters had it solved soon enough: Body doubles had been employed for the single shots, with the two performers spliced together in post-production. Margulies and Panjabi hadn't even been in the same room together! Even more intriguingly, neither actress has had anything to say about it since.
Proof, again, that if you don't have the verbal flourish of a Buckley or the rhetorical parry of a Vidal, best perhaps to stick to the damning power of silence.