Historical documentaries pose a unique challenge when it comes to dramatizing lives rarely captured on film. When it comes to literary figures, there’s no shortage of written records — whether by them or about them — to communicate the essence of a writer’s life. In the case of the new documentary “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation,” filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland utilizes correspondence between the two monumental figures as well as public comments each made about the other to weave her tale. While the result is visually wooden, the friendship, rivalry, and musings on art and life in “Truman & Tennessee” coalesce into a worthy and at times revelatory diversion.
Described in its opening shots as “an encounter between those lifelong friends in their own words,” “Truman & Tennessee” charts the parallel careers of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, contemporaries with similar backgrounds who faced many of the same personal and professional struggles. The film plays like a kind of live reading of both writers’ diaries, except Vreeland highlights particularly poetic bits of wisdom and framing them around a uniting theme. The visuals consist mostly of still photos and talk-show footage, which aren’t used creatively enough to justify a cinematic treatment. Framing the narrative around their relationship is a slightly more inspired choice, and if the film illuminates new sides of both authors, it has served a purpose.
Capote is voiced by the actor Jim Parsons, and Williams by Zachary Quinto, both out gay actors who recently appeared in “The Boys in the Band.” Without harping on both mens’ sexuality too much, the casting choices underscore the position both writers played in the LGBTQ literary movement. Their massive success, which still influences popular culture today, rendered their sexuality moot while making their openness all the more remarkable.
The most visually striking moment in the film arrives early on, with the introduction of fascinating found footage from interviews with David Frost. Vreeland and editor Bernardine Colish had the brilliant idea to split the screen as Frost introduces each man. When placed side by side, it’s delightful to witness Williams and Capote take the stage and sit down with strikingly similar gaits, mannerisms, and demeanors. In an instant, these two giants of the canon become intimately knowable, their greatness shadowed ever so briefly by a tangible familiarity.
Frost’s interviews become the backbone of the film, and one almost wishes Vreeland had used more of what she found. She stretches their use with the voiceovers, and Quinto and Parsons are both so adept at mimicry it’s often unclear what’s a reenactment, and what’s an archival recording. An intrepid and intimate interviewer, Frost gently pushes each man for his thoughts on friendship, love, and sex.
“Friendship inevitably leads to love,” Capote tells Frost, explaining why he prefers the former to the latter. “I don’t think that sex has anything to do with friendship.” Gentler and more soft spoken, Williams is far less forthcoming than Capote. He cuts Frost off when he gets too personal, but not before revealing: “I’ve never lived without feeling love.”
Vreeland touches on each man’s great love: The actor Frank Merlo, Williams’ partner of 14 years, and the writer Jack Dunphy, whom Capote called “the only person I will love until the day I die.” Each man’s observations of the other in love are playfully catty, with Williams annoyed at Capote’s hanging onto Dunphy, and Capote finding Merlo somewhat dull.
Similarly delightful is an anecdote about Capote and Gore Vidal being caught breaking into Williams’ Manhattan apartment, foiled by a woman cop, apparently then known as “the Bo Peep squad.” Their accounts of Vidal as “a handsome kid” (Williams) and “amusing, bright, and always very vinegary” (Capote) are also quite fun.
Of course, both men had their share of personal and professional challenges — both struggled with alcoholism, fallow writing periods, loneliness, and disappointed fathers. Both visited the original infamous “Dr. Feelgood,” and a late-in-life filmed interview with Capote finds him ruminating quite profoundly on the nature of addiction, comparing recovery to remission from cancer. Oddly enough, the two also shared a deep superstitious streak, belief in the occult, and irrational phobias.
“Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation” doesn’t reach the delightful heights of Vreeland’s first film, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” about the famed fashion editor (and Vreeland’s grandmother-in-law). Working with better documented subjects, she had to find a creative way into the ubiquitous figures. The resulting film, while engaging enough, doesn’t amount to more than an amusing bit of fun.