Review: Truman & Tennessee brings two iconic queer writers to life

Fascinating documentary imagines a conversation between frenemies Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams


TRUMAN & TENNESSEE: AN INTIMATE CONVERSATION (Lisa Immordino Vreeland). 86 minutes. Begins streaming Thursday (June 17) at the Hot Docs Cinema. Rating: NNNN 


Decades before the term was coined, writers Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams were the ultimate frenemies.

The queer Southern writers achieved early acclaim and fame in the 1940s – Williams with The Glass Menagerie, Capote with Other Voices, Other Rooms – only to have their careers decline in later years from booze and drugs. The friends admired each other’s work, but were also fiercely jealous of each other.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s fascinating doc draws on decades of individual interviews and writings to splice together an imagined conversation between the two about everything from their unhappy childhoods and their working habits to their thoughts on sex, love and substance abuse.

The spine of the doc is a pair of contrasting interviews with David Frost, whose interest in the two – especially their personal lives – verges on prurience. (I doubt Frost grilled his straight subjects about their love lives with as much persistence and relish.)

Archival photographs, film clips of adaptations and snatches of typed manuscripts round out the visual elements, with queer actors Jim Parsons (as Capote) and Zachary Quinto (Williams) reciting passages in excellent impersonations. Since Williams was notoriously critical of the many films made from his plays – he recommended walking out before the endings, which often made little sense because they were softened by studios – these clips should be taken with a grain of salt.

There are some great anecdotes and observations, including the story of how Capote and fellow queer author Gore Vidal were almost arrested for breaking into Williams’s apartment to surprise him. And how refreshing to hear Williams tell an interviewer that he saw himself as both Stanley and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The result is an absorbing documentary that makes intriguing connections between the two and mid-century queer life without being reductive. Even though Capote was clearly more comfortable in the spotlight, you get a good sense of both men’s wily charm and intelligence – this despite the fact that Capote at one point says Williams was a genius “but not intelligent.” There are enough bitchy comments for an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.

Because of its structure the documentary is free of those talking heads that invariably populate such literary portraits. What Immordino Vreeland (granddaughter-in-law of the legendary former Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana, a friend of Capote’s) does offer is a score by Madi that captures the artists’ milieu with a lilting, melancholy feel.

One section recounting a trip to Ischia in which the two were vacationing with their long-term lovers calls out to be dramatized. If only the two were alive to do it justice.

@glennsumi

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