“Life is partly what we make it, and partly what is made by the friends we choose” – Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were two of the greatest writers of American Literature during the Twentieth Century – Pulitzer Prize-winning even in Williams’ case. They were also friends for over 40 years until their respective deaths in 1983 and 1984. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary gives an 86 minute window into this relationship, promising an intimate conversation and doesn’t waste a second.
Utilising archival footage, stills and photographs – beautiful ones courtesy of the Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon collections amongst others – the film establishes the two men as singular subjects as well as through a dual portrait. The split screen of both being interviewed by David Frost (or Dick Cavett) albeit on separate shows is a brilliant touch especially given both are faced with a similar line of questioning in spite of their very apparent (or so this reviewer thought) differences. That’s the beauty of this film, it never presupposes the viewer’s prior knowledge – there is more than enough here to keep ardent fans happy while schooling those less-than-familiar minds. Unless mistaken, it does feel like there is slightly more meat on the bones in relation to Williams’ personal history, career, subsequent film adaptations, etcetera. however, this is not a complaint, he was the older of the two and seemed the more prolific.
The ‘conversation’ begins in 1940 when both men first meet and extends decades until their deaths in the 1980s, it is rendered here and stitched together between their respective correspondence, snippets of interviews as well as passages of seminal works, their great love stories, battles with addiction and personal tragedies. Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto’s voiceovers ‘as’ Truman and Tennessee respectively serve a purpose, however, can be at odds with the archival footage and detracts from an otherwise immersive experience. Neither quite nails the pitch and cadence of the eloquent Southern gents who had such distinctive timbre and speaking voices. That said, it is a brilliant piece of casting.
There is no denying that both TC and TW were supremely gifted, often troubled, men who helped shape the Southern Gothic literary genre and their work, in turn, gave some of the most memorable adaptations committed to film. Although to listen to them neither were all too keen. Capote felt betrayed after Marilyn Monroe – who he had always envisioned as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – was replaced by Audrey Hepburn, and Williams loathed what film censors would do to his plays. He hated that everything had to be intimated and could never be shown, only for the last ten minutes of the film would it become apparent, that, for example, Stanley had raped Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. It was the reason he fought so hard for artistic control of his work.
Their friendship was a complex one, lives often paralleling beyond the 13-year age gap or sheer coincidence – both had non-existent relationships with their fathers who they would compartmentalise, write out of their lives as well as their names – Truman at aged 9 and Tennessee at 18. They both struggled to accept their sexuality believing, somewhat devastatingly, that life would have served them better, or at the very least during childhood, had they been born girls. There were of course a multitude of differences, not least in relation to fame; one sought it unabashed and relentlessly while the other found it a “tedious bore”. One believed his most successful novel (In Cold Blood) was due to the fact that he didn’t appear anywhere in it while the other claimed to have only written the one autobiographical play (The Glass Menagerie).
Yet for all their unfaltering support of each other there were the petty jealousies, churlish goading and combative comments. Certainly, the description of Williams in Capote’s unfinished novel is less than kind but Immordino Vreeland steers her film in a more positive direction. There is enough pathos and poignancy in these frames which gives, not only a nostalgia hit, and a push to revisit their works but a real insight into their frank worldview, compulsions (of which writing was top of the list) and moments of real empathy. Although not new information, to actually hear Williams talk of his own self-loathing, and sister Rose’s ECT treatment is utterly heart-breaking.
Truman + Tennessee is an intimate and fascinating portrait of two behemoths of the written word; a dramatist and a writer (though neither descriptor is mutually exclusive) and definitely one for fans of Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon (2015) in which there is some attempt to demythologise a persona, or in this case two. These men – one a lover of Chekov the other of Moby Dick – butted heads, belittled and bitched about each other, often competitors as well as confidants, and if we’re to believe Truman Capote when he stated: “Friendship and love are the same thing,” then it’s safe to surmise from this documentary that they also loved each other madly.
Truman + Tennessee had its UK Premiere thanks to Dogwoof at the Glasgow Film Festival and is released on VoD on April 30th.