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Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, two of America’s most famous Southern writers, weren’t the greatest of friends. Their paths crossed meaningfully, however, at times leading to “bitchery”, as Williams put it deliciously, but also to genuine appreciation for each other’s work. Their camaraderie and rivalry get an intelligent treatment in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s scrupulous documentary, Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation.
The film has few direct exchanges between Williams and Capote, but makes up for this lack by weaving their separate television appearances with other archival footage, the writers’ papers, collections and manuscripts, interviews, press clippings, and photographs (some famous, such as by Richard Avedon), to reconstruct their parallel paths to stardom.
The most interesting parts show Williams and Capote on camera. With his impish smile and air of a wistful gallant, Williams is more magnetic, whereas Capote is coy and evasive, if witty. The voiceovers, in which Zachary Quinto interprets Williams and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) Capote, also favour Williams’s persona, not the least because he, a decade older than Capote, is more self-deprecating and perspicacious. “Success is a bore,” Williams comments on New York City’s fame machine, seeing it as a trap, whereas Capote basks in its glow (till he doesn’t). “I’m saddled with myself,” Williams confesses, proclaiming it’s far more important to love than be loved, whereas Capote seems clearly susceptible to sycophantic praise.
Nevertheless, the two writers’ affinities shine through. From solitary childhoods, haunted by pained parental relationships, a conservative society’s rejection of their homosexuality, to a sense of strain amid a cut-throat competitive arts scene, and substance addiction, Vreeland constructs a compelling, albeit inevitably fragmentary portrait of the writers’ dogged ambitions.
One of the film’s juiciest anecdotes has the young Capote and friend drop in on Williams in New York, barely escaping arrest by a policewoman who believes them to be robbers. “They certainly weren’t here when I left,” Williams recalls telling the officer, laughing in a television interview. When they vacation together with their lovers in Greece, Capote finds Williams paranoid and clingy (“like barnacles”), and Williams calls Capote a “boa constrictor”.
The swipes grow more vehement with the years. They reach an apex with Capote’s roman-à-clef Answered Prayers, whose chapters, published in Esquire and borrowing extensively from real persons and events, offended the writer’s wealthy patrons. Williams, too, saw himself in the novel’s “chunky, punchy, booze-puffed runt,” calling Capote a liar. Capote defended himself, by saying that “art and truth [were] not necessarily compatible bedfellows” – a far cry from his ambitions for his ‘nonfiction novel’ In Cold Blood, which had made him a cause célèbre.
In the end, both men are beaten down by critics, and they reconcile out of what seems like mutual respect. Vreeland’s documentary bears out the truth that, for galvanic stars whose demons fuel their work, fame always comes at a price, and happiness proves fleeting.
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Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy