Two Literary Giants

Amos Lassen

Both Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams left indelible impressions on the world. They both challenged notions of American life, sexuality and gender, and both struggled with substance abuse before their deaths. They were close friends throughout their lives and they occasionally vacationed and wrote together.

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland takes us inside the private lives and friendships of the two men in ‘Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation”. She utilizes archive footage, excerpts of the written works of both men, and their private diaries and correspondence to show us the friendship between them. Actors Zachary Quinto (Williams) and Jim Parsons (Capote) narrate the men’s words. The film draws on the many parallels between the men: their sexuality, their Southern upbringing, their vices, their subjects, and the way their private lives translate into their text. The film prefers to look at the written words of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, which are much more interesting and insightful than what we see in film adaptations. The documentary will probably send viewers to bookstores or libraries to look up and read some of the works that they wrote.It is quite clear that the directorread all of their books and plays before turning to their archives looking for original material to use in the film.

Both Parsons and Quinto, read extensively from their writings and capture not only their Southern accents but also the tenor of their voices. The result is that we feel that we have spent 90 minutes in the company of two captivating and amazing personalities.

Both authors knew at a young age that they wanted to be writers, both came from the Deep South, and both came from broken families and while this is biographical information that documentary is not a biopic.

Both writers discuss their homosexuality, both men traveled abroad extensively, occasionally crossing paths. Both visited Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier, but at different times and we see the moments when their histories collide. The film is really about the inner workings of these men=== their weaknesses, their passions, their creative processes, and how difficult it is to be creative and to maintain it. They speak openly about addiction and depression.

“Truman & Tennessee” also includes clips from many of the films made from Williams’s plays, among them “A Streetcar Named Desire” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Williams admitted he was almost always disappointed by the film adaptations of his plays.

There are many photographs of Capote taken at his Brooklyn Heights home by David Attie. The film is almost a live reading of both writers’ diaries, except Vreeland highlights particularly poetic bits of wisdom and framing them around a uniting theme. The visuals are mostly of still photos and talk-show footage. The narrative is framed around their relationship and the film illuminates new sides of both authors.

Visually striking is the moment in the film that introduces fascinating found footage from interviews with David Frost. Vreeland and editor Bernardine Colish split the screen as Frost introduces each man. When placed side by side, it’s amazing to see Williams and Capote take the stage and sit down with similar mannerisms, and demeanors. The two men become knowable and their greatness is shadowed briefly by familiarity.

Vreeland also looks at each man’s great love: The actor Frank Merlo, Williams’ partner of 14 years, and the writer Jack Dunphy, whom Capote called “the only person I will love until the day I die.” Each man’s observations of the other in love are catty, with Williams annoyed at Capote’s hanging onto Dunphy, and Capote finding Merlo somewhat dull.

Both men had personal and professional challenges — both struggled with alcoholism, weak writing periods, loneliness, and disappointed fathers. Both visited the original infamous “Dr. Feelgood”. and a late-in-life filmed interview with Capote finds him ruminating quite profoundly on the nature of addiction, comparing recovery to remission from cancer. They also shared a deep superstitious streak, belief in the occult, and irrational phobias. Some of us know much of what we see in the film but it is great fun to be reminded of it all.