Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary shifts the writers’ prose and personas to the screen.
Typically, when we talk about a documentary, we mean a film that captures, preserves, documents a subject. With her new film Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland turns the genre on its head and becomes a nonfiction work about documents themselves. Painstakingly compiled from libraries and archives of all kinds, it gives us profound insights into the lives of two famous twentieth-century literati frenemies, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, told exclusively in their own words.
It’s a brilliant project given how these queer literary icons wrote and said a lot, especially about each other. Vreeland uses diaries, letters, and autobiographies to chart how these two men turned life into art. Since both Capote and Williams had such a flourish for exacting prose, this comes with a rarely seen and essential glimpse into their minds and ideas.
Both Capote and Williams led tortured inner lives, each turning to parties and drugs to fulfill their mutual needs for affirmation. What Vreeland is able to do so skilfully here is tie some of this need to their queerness by allowing each to tell their firsthand accounts themselves. In doing so, we’re privileged with first-hand accounts of growing up queer, and being famously queer, in the twentieth century, and the effects those difficulties can have on a person’s psyche.
What’s also excellent is the way the film juxtaposes its primary sources’ uses from these authors to the archival television footage. Sometimes they further expound on the topics brought up in the interviews such as love, sex, jealousy, writing women, New York, Studio 54, loneliness, and their deepest fears. But many times, we see a clip of Capote or Williams on a talk show, usually Sir David Frost’s, in which the authors say one thing before revealing something else entirely in private. Most biographical documentaries attempt to get at the split between private and public lives, but Vreeland’s excels because she’s found just the right passages to suit the topic.
But while the entire film is fascinating to watch, the most jaw-dropping moment is well into the credits when Vreeland finally lists out all of her sources. The sheer amount of research displayed staggers. Throughout the film, we’re treated to lyrical and moving passages with a Jarman-esque overlay of surreal images of grainy film footage which feel too perfectly matched, the words too perfect for what Vreeland tries to capture. And yet, this massive bibliography shows that everything being narrated by Capote (voiced by Jim Parsons) or Williams (voiced by Zachary Quinto) is true and from their own hands.
Given this unprecedented level and scope of intimate access to these men’s inner lives, it’s not surprising that Vreeland veers dangerously close to conflating the creative and the autobiographical. As we march chronologically through the careers of these men, we’re treated to snippets of backstory to some of American Culture’s biggest characters like Holly Golightly, Blanche DuBois, Perry Smith, and Amanda Wingfield.
Most biographical documentaries attempt to get at the split between private and public lives, but Vreeland’s excels because she’s found just the right passages to suit the topic.
While both Capote and Williams suggest some infrequent use of autobiographical content, especially the latter in the case of The Glass Menagerie, Vreeland affords them only a little time to explain all the creative things they invented and put into their stories or characters. This, in turn, runs against the intended goal and risks confining these works to only biographical interpretation instead of works that are larger than their author.
One notable social topic that’s missing is the subject of race. Both Capote and Williams have troubling relationships with racial characters (see the ending to Suddenly, Last Summer), and it would have been interesting to hear a twentieth-century cis queer perspective on race and civil rights issues. Maybe it wouldn’t have painted either of them in the best light, but we’d have a more complete portrait if we were given the time to consider the importance of their whiteness for a moment alongside their queerness, class, and masculinities.
Nevertheless, Vreeland has given us as mostly complete and truly intimate a portrait as possible through her intensive research and composition. When your documentary is about such prolific and colorful writers, you don’t need a screenwriter. The words are done for you. What Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation brilliantly demonstrates is that one of the roles a director can play is that of a scholastic compiler. This technique brilliantly and compassionately allows both writers to present their ideas, their queerness, and their selves in their own lyrical terms.
Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is now in select theaters and virtual cinemas through KinoMarquee.