Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation

 

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Two distinctive voices are brought together in a valuable documentary.

 

Truman & Tennessee

Photo of Tennessee Williams (left) courtesy of Clifford Coffin & Truman Capote (right), 1948

 

In the sphere of documentaries, a favourite of mine is 2011's Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, the first feature from Lisa Immordino Vreeland whose subsequent work whether for cinema or television has all had art of one kind or another at its centre. This latest piece from her is not especially cinematic (it would look at home as a programme made for television) but it is nevertheless innovative in its ideas. To start with there’s the fact that it looks at the careers of two artists who are here put side by side: one is the playwright Tennessee Williams and the other is the author Truman Capote. Each became a major figure and they were lifelong friends both of whom came from the American South, had problems with their parents and achieved celebrity in the mid-20th century despite the fact that their homosexuality might have made them social outcasts but for their talent.

 

Similarities don't stop there (they even extend to both men being highly superstitious) but, as far as cinema is concerned, Williams seems to have dropped out of sight in recent years whereas Capote has been the subject of two dramatised cinema features in addition to being studied in the 2019 documentary The Capote Tapes. Vreeland's film also stands out in its own right for another reason: the words in it come from Capote and Williams themselves. They include footage from television interviews they gave to David Frost and Dick Cavett and the high quality of the talk in these programmes so different from the trivialities in most talk shows today gives weight to this film. No less importantly we hear words that they wrote and which are brought to life here through being delivered on the soundtrack by two noted gay actors, Zachary Quinto who speaks for Williams and Jim Parsons who approximates the unique vocal tones of Truman Capote.

 

More conventionally, Vreeland introduces into her film clips from film adaptations of the work of both men. Williams is heard complaining of how screen versions of his plays were frequently ruined by changes needed to satisfy the censors which actually falsified their meaning and there is certainly some truth in that even if the chosen extracts from the likes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) stand up rather well. So many of his plays were adapted that not all are included here and it is unexpected - but interesting - to find The Glass Menagerie represented not by either of the film versions but by Anthony Harvey's TV movie of 1973 starring Katharine Hepburn. To represent the films based on Capote's books we have as one would expect Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and In Cold Blood (1967) but, although the novels The Grass Harp and Other Voices, Other Rooms are both mentioned, their film adaptations both dating from 1995 are not presented as illustrations.

 

Despite their differences of character, the careers and lives of both men often ran in parallel with both experiencing a career decline and, indeed, both becoming patients of Dr Feelgood. The two were never interviewed together but Vreeland builds up sequences that create links as when she shows each in turn being asked if they are happy. It is apparent too that, although Williams did not escape Capote's bitchy comments from time to time, theirs was a bond that could survive such things and, as the film brings out, both were sustained for a time by a lover who really counted (Jack Dunphy in the case of Capote and Frank Merlo for Williams). All in all, this film offers a welcome insight that could not be more personal since it comes from the words of the men themselves. Not least for those studying Capote or Williams this film will be a valuable resource.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  The voices of Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto, and archive footage of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Frost and Dick Cavett.

 

Dir Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Pro Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Jonathan Gray, John Northrup and Mark Lee, Ph Shane Sigler, Ed Bernadine Colish, Music Madi.

 

Fischio Films/Peaceable Assembly/Gigantic Studios-Dogwoof.
86 mins. USA. 2021. Rel: 30 April 2021. Available in Virtual Cinemas and on Dogwoof on Demand and BFI Player. Cert. 12.