The title of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary about two legendary literary figures of the 20th century proves a bit misleading. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams only speak indirectly to each other in Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation. Nonetheless, this film composed entirely of the two men’s words, many of them read by actors Jim Parsons (Capote) and Zachary Quinto (Williams), is a fascinating portrait that astutely uses their decades-long, sometimes rocky friendship to shed light on their respective personas. The film was recently showcased at the 2020 Hamptons International Film Festival.
Interestingly, the documentary makes one not only nostalgic for its subjects, both of them gay trailblazers who revolutionized American writing in very different ways, but also for a vanished time in which in-depth, revelatory conversations were a feature of the talk show landscape. Some of the documentary’s most powerful moments come from archival footage of Capote and Williams’ separate appearances on David Frost and Dick Cavett’s television programs, in which they talk revealingly about themselves in a way that simply wouldn’t happen on today’s more superficial late-night chat shows.
A fascinating account of a loving but troubled relationship.
“Do I like myself? No, I don’t like myself very much,” Williams admits to Frost at one point. “I’m very personal as a writer. I don’t mean to be, I just am, unavoidably,” he comments in another clip. Discussing the prevalence of rape in his works, the playwright points out, “We’re all victims of rape. Society rapes the individual.” He also complains about his treatment by critics in the later stage of his career. “I never got a good review after 1961,” Williams bitterly complains.
Capote is equally frank in his appearances, such as when discussing Answered Prayers, the roman a clef novel that he spent years working on and which he never finished. “I refer to it as my posthumous novel,” he acidly comments about the work, which featured a character inspired by Williams and the published excerpts of which alienated many of the high-society friends he had long cultivated.
Both men’s appearances in the numerous clips shown are disturbing on a visual level, as their respective physical dissipation, caused by alcohol and drug use, is on vivid display.
Vreeland, who explored similar biographical territory in such films as Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict and Love, Cecil, uses these interviews and extensive excerpts from the writers’ letters, diaries and works to chronicle their lives and careers. There were many similarities between them, including their Southern heritage, troubled upbringings, struggles with their sexuality, early critical and commercial success followed by career downturns and addiction issues.
The documentary also includes numerous clips of films adapted from their works, including Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, Baby Doll, The Fugitive Kind, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, The Night of the Iguana and Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Williams comments that he wasn’t satisfied with the film versions of any of his plays since they had to be toned down for the censors, and that he advised audience members to walk out of them before the last ten minutes. Capote claims that he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly in Tiffany’s, but that Paramount “betrayed” him by casting Audrey Hepburn, while Williams says that the only performers for whom he specifically wrote parts were Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani.
The writers’ relationship was often strained, with Capote in particular suffering from intense jealousy that made him resentful of Williams’ mainstream success and numerous awards. At one point, he remarks that Williams isn’t very intelligent; Williams apparently got back at him by pointedly turning down an invitation to Capote’s now-legendary “Black and White Ball.”
Parsons and Quinto, who recently appeared together in the stage and Netflix screen version of The Boys in the Band, do a generally fine job of voicing the writers’ words. The latter is slightly more effective, perfectly capturing Williams’ languid Southern drawl, while Parsons, whose own voice is quite distinctive, sometimes struggles with Capote’s high-pitched cadences. Other than the archival clips, the film’s visual images are rather banal, such as the dreamy scenes of a boy flying a kite that accompany excerpts from Capote’s breakthrough work Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Lacking third-party commentary and much in the way of contextual information, Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is far from a definite cinematic account of the writers’ lives and careers. But it succeeds beautifully in providing a revealing look at their troubled psyches.
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival
Production companies: Fischio Films, Peaceable Assembly, Gigantic Studios
Cast: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto
Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Producers: Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Mark Lee, Jonathan Gray, John Northrup
Executive producers: Brian Devine, Brook Devine
Director of photography: Shane Sigler
Editor: Bernadine Colish