Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation, 2020.
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland.
Starring Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto.
An examination of the parallel lives and careers of two of the 20th century’s most celebrated American writers – Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
Movies about writers can be very dry. However exciting their work, often the people behind it aren’t quite as charismatic when the spotlight is on them. That certainly isn’t true of Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams – huge characters of 20th century America, with personalities every bit as intriguing as their famous literary creations. The connections between them sit at the centre of director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, which puts the two icons of American writing next to each other and examines the ways in which their lives intersected.
The examination takes numerous forms, using footage and images of both men, as well as chat show appearances hosted by Dick Cavett and David Frost. Most intriguingly, the movie uses words written by the two authors as voice-over, with Jim Parsons attempting to replicate Capote’s unique vocal strains – albeit occasionally slipping into The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon – and Zachary Quinto delivering the more relaxed Mississippi twang of Williams.
Vreeland does delve into the respective stars’ greatest hits, with lengthy segments devoted to the likes of Capote’s In Cold Blood and Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. But she’s more interested in what was behind their work, and indeed their shared patronage of the infamous doctor to the stars Dr Feelgood, who treated his clients with highly addictive “vitamin shots” containing amphetamine and methamphetamine. It’s about the men behind the material.
The elegance of the movie is that it’s structured in such a smart way, emerging as neither a chummy fireside chat or a cartoonish war of words. Sometimes the words of the two men complement each other, while they’re occasionally placed in stark contrast, such as when Capote’s effusive praise for New York City segues directly into Williams calling it an “insidious” locale which boasts an “artificial aura”. There were elements of catty mud-slinging in their public rivalry at the time, but Vreeland keeps those on the back-burner here. They seem like performance, and the movie focuses more on trying to cut through that to find the reality.
Indeed, it’s impressive that the documentary features such frank discussion on the part of these two larger than life icons. Both confess to being at least partially driven by jealousy, while Williams is quietly devastating as he discusses his entirely justified fear that his works will be judged not on their stage origins but on the Hollywood film adaptations that bring them into the mainstream. The movie is at its strongest when it scratches beneath the surfaces of these creative giants and exposes the humanity in their souls.
The tone is, as the title suggests, intimate and relaxed. Occasionally, this leaves things feeling a little slow-moving and sluggish – especially when the movie begins to feel less like a discussion and more like a potted history of two careers. It’s as if Vreeland is a little torn between playing to those who are familiar with Capote and Williams and viewers who might be hearing about their respective oeuvres for the first time.
But the overall feel is an interesting one, examining the ways in which creativity and the pressures associated with success can weigh on a person – particularly in the face of constant temptation from parties and drugs. It’s most interesting and compelling as a meditation on writing and the panicked attempts to preserve the legacy of a literary career. In enabling two of the greatest minds of the 20th century to examine their lives through their own words, it emerges as something truly enlightening.
Images courtesy of Getty/Globe Photos/Mediapunch/Shutterstock/Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.