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New Documentary Examines the Bond Between Literary Masters Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams

'Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation' debuts locally on June 18.

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Tennessee Williams (l) and Truman Capote

June brings Pride Month, and with it, the fascinating new documentary Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation, chronicling the charged 40-year friendship of two gay literary lions: playwright Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) and novelist Truman Capote (1924–1984).

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland delves deeply into their works, their lives, and the demons that haunted the two 20th-century Southern masters. She has enlisted out actors Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto to give voice to Capote and Williams, respectively, charging the film with an extra dollop of star power.
The streaming documentary debuts locally on June 18 as part of the Museum of Fine Arts,
Houston’s MFAH Virtual Cinema series.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his two landmark dramas A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Tennessee Williams blew the doors off the bourgeois conventions of Broadway in the 1950s, exploring previously taboo topics such as homosexuality, adultery, alcoholism, rape, and mental illness. He created a gallery of heroines who all possessed an uncommon psychological depth and complexity. Four decades after his death, his work is regularly performed in New York and London; it has inspired operas, ballets, as well as numerous film adaptations.

Truman Capote was also a trailblazer, creating the new “nonfiction novel” genre with his 1965 work In Cold Blood, a riveting explication of the 1959 murder of a Kansas farm family that became a best-seller and was later made into an Academy Award-nominated film. He first won critical acclaim in 1948 with the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms, which featured a self-portrait of the young writer and was notable for its sensuality and come-hither allure. He is perhaps best known for his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (In the documentary, Capote confesses that he wanted Marilyn Monroe to perform the iconic role of Holly Golightly in the film version, rather than Audrey Hepburn.)

The two writers shared many common traits: They were both handsome young gay men from the South during the deeply homophobic era of the 1950s and ’60s. They were both blessed with prodigious literary gifts and won acclaim and celebrity early in their careers. In the final acts of their lives, they both struggled through a period of critical disfavor in which they were lambasted for not producing pieces of the caliber of their earlier works. As their youth and critical acclaim deserted them, they descended into addictions to booze and drugs. 

“There was a fascination with these people who were unapologetic. They were lightning rods,” observed Zachary Quinto in a recent interview with The Guardian. “It wasn’t the same as what it means today, when it’s about equality, social integration, [and advancing] an agenda for the community. But it was the foundation for all the stuff that came after it.”

Director Immordino Vreeland paints evocative portraits of the most significant romantic relationships in each man’s life. In 1948, Capote seduced the American novelist Jack Dunphy with a glamorous voyage to Ischia, a volcanic island off the coast of Naples. The trip would launch a 35-year partnership. In that same year, Williams met the handsome Italian-American working-class actor Frankie Merlo, whom he nicknamed “Horse.” Merlo built a life for the two of them that was snuffed out when he died of lung cancer in 1963. Williams’ devastation over the loss led to his alcohol and drug addiction, a period that he referred to as “my Stoned Age.”

Zachary Quinto (l) and Jim Parsons give voice to Capote and Williams.

Immordino Vreeland makes vivid use of the revealing 1970s television interviews that Williams and Capote gave to British journalist David Frost and American talk-show host Dick Cavett. In one interview, Capote disparaged Williams’ intellect: “Most people think because somebody is a painter, or a writer, or somehow a creative individual, that they must be intelligent,” he observed. “It is not so. There are many writers who are fantastically creative, even a kind of a genius like Tennessee Williams. And Tennessee is not intelligent.”

She also draws upon excerpts of the film versions of Williams’ dramas to provide a sense of the playwright’s unique voice. (Ironically enough, Williams disapproved of most film adaptations of his works due to constraints imposed by censors, and encouraged viewers to leave five minutes before they ended.)

In 1980, after enduring stints in rehab and being abandoned by the society matrons whom he had so assiduously cultivated, Capote published his final book, Music for the Chameleons, which ascended to the New York Times best-seller list for 14 weeks—a remarkable feat for a work of short fiction. Capote dedicated the work to Williams.

What: Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation
When: Streaming June 18–July (TBD) by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Tickets: mfah.org/films

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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