Two of the most engaging and beguiling talkers—and, oh yes, two of the better writers—of the last century share the spotlight in Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation. Good friends in real life—both were from the South and gay, had difficult upbringings, made it big with early works that were made into popular films and battled drink and drug issues—the two men make for easy and natural stablemates in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s sympathetic and nicely shaped documentary, which takes their great talents as a given and happily refuses to sensationalize their struggles. The film world premiered at the recent Hamptons Film Festival.
Vreeland, whose previous documentaries over the past decade have focused upon Diana Vreeland (her husband’s grandmother), Peggy Guggenheim and Cecil Beaton, is right at home with fashionable greats of the past century. But in addition to the usual archival material, which includes significant amounts of TV interview material (thank goodness for Dick Cavett’s and David Frost’s taste in guests), the director has brought in two actors from the recent stage and film remountings of The Boys in the Band, Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto, to provide first-person voice-over perspectives taken from the work of the subjects themselves (Williams had a tremendously alluring, honey-coated drawl that Quinto conveys reasonably well, but Parsons misses the impudent, insinuating tone that came through in much of Capote’s teasing banter).
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This use of confessional material from the horses’ mouths significantly upgrades the intimacy level of the experience, providing a welcome bonus for viewers who might otherwise feel they more or less know all they need to know about these not exactly publicity-shy men. (Everyone in this film is on a first-name basis, and it’s such a frank and friendly affair that inspires even a critic to take the same posture.)
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The two first met when Truman was just 16 and quickly learned that both he and Tennessee had major father issues and found early refuge in books. Truman says that, from the start, it was “an intellectual friendship” and that the older man was “a compulsive writer,” while Tennessee merely laughs that the precocious teenager “was adorable.” But Truman quickly changed that to “provocative,” based on the outrageous “come hither” portrait of the blond lad that peered out from the back cover of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, an instant success upon its publication in 1948, shortly after Tennessee’s A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway (The Glass Menagerie had appeared three years earlier).
Once the careers are in sync and underway, Vreeland’s film just glides along with seeming effortlessness, shifting back and forth between the two men. Both are pretty frank about their private lives: While claiming on the one hand that he was “just terribly, terribly oversexed,” Tennessee then makes the startling confession that “I never had a consummated love affair until I was 27” (and that he had never even masturbated until he was 26!). But he was openly homosexual by the following year, when he entered into what became a 14-year relationship with Frank Merlo.
Truman, as always, is disarmingly blunt: Noting that he thought things would have been easier for him if he’d been a girl, he frankly adds that, “I was homosexual and I never had any guilt about it at all,” adding nonchalantly that, “I was the only character who was way beyond the pale. I didn’t care.”
As did many Hollywood personalities, both men spent much of the 1950s abroad, and there is a rich smorgasbord of home movie and other footage of them (separately) galavanting around Europe. Unfortunately, there is nothing of Capote mixing it up with Bogart and John Huston, two macho guys who were nonetheless disarmed by the ever-mischievous imp while in Italy working on Beat the Devil.
All of Williams’ major plays during this period were made into films, but the author says he was invariably disappointed because of what was eliminated due to the era’s censorship restrictions. Capote adds the provocative opinion that his friend “is a genius, but he’s not intelligent,” and that his life was usually in “a chaotic state.”
Capote’s own greatest triumph and personal devastation came with the publication of his 1966 “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, a meticulous account of two real-life drifters who murdered four members of a Kansas family. “It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones,” we hear him confess. “It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me,” adding that he had once been a stable person but, “Afterwards, something happened to me.”
What happened is that the bestseller turned him once and for all into a party boy of international renown. First came his gala-of-the-century blowout at the Plaza Hotel (Tennessee was invited but didn’t attend) in November 1966. Truman swanned around later saying things like “Success is a bore,” drinking more, becoming a drug-addled fixture at Studio 54 (“Isn’t it too bad Proust didn’t have something like this?” he remarks) and never managing to finish his long-discussed novel about his rapidly diminishing circle of society friends, Answered Prayers.
Tennessee also went into decline. “I never got a good review after 1961,” he laments, and Frank died (of cancer) two years later. “Everything went wrong—private and professional—and ultimately my mind broke,” he says. After having soared so high, Tennessee and Truman died within a year of each other, in 1983 and 1984, having produced little of note for a long time.
The film could have been even gamier and boisterous, but the intimacy promised by the documentary’s title is largely delivered and makes both men vividly present and, ultimately, rather sad: They both rocketed to the heights, only to come crashing down. Different conclusions can be drawn about what self-destructive impulses might have been involved, but the film succeeds in bringing these remarkable figures a bit closer to us.
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