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Review: ‘Truman & Tennessee’ probes the often parallel lives of writers Capote and Williams

Vintage photos of two men in suits.
Tennessee Williams, left, and Truman Capote are the subjects of the documentary “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation.”
(Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, left; Keystone / Getty Images)

The beautifully constructed documentary “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation” vividly recounts the often analogous lives of two of the 20th century’s most notable writers: author Truman Capote and playwright Tennessee Williams.

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland employs a treasure trove of archival material, some newly shot mood footage and fine work from Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto as the voices of, respectively, Capote and Williams, to bring us back to a singular time in American culture and literary creation.

The film’s conceit is that we’re witnessing a verbal exchange of sorts between Capote and Williams, who were longtime friends — and occasional frenemies. Despite their many parallels — they were both Southern-born men with father issues who were unapologetically gay in an era (the 1940s and ’50s) when homosexuality was anything but widely accepted — they had quite disparate personalities and approaches to their work.

This is perhaps best displayed here via a series of dueling clips from separate TV interviews they did between 1969 and 1972 with iconic chat-show host David Frost. In these bits, Capote comes off more subdued and less acerbic than he so often did in later years (the 5-foot-3-inch Capote became known as “The Tiny Terror” for his gossip-mongering), while Williams appears warm and effusive. How they each handled Frost’s bold, probing questions about love and sex was most telling.

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Excerpts from other interviews with TV hosts such as Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin and Bill Boggs are edifying as well.

With an expert assist from editor Bernadine Colish, Vreeland creates a stirring visual tapestry using images from the writers’ personal papers, manuscripts, photos, outlines, research notes, press clippings, magazine interviews and more.

Added to those are memorable clips from various film adaptations of their work. Capote is represented by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” while starry screen versions of such classic Williams plays as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Glass Menagerie” also get their close-ups.

The documentary’s “dialogue,” as spoken by Parsons and Quinto (the actors deftly evoke, rather than fully mimic, the writers’ distinctive speech patterns), is effectively culled from Capote’s and Williams’ essays, notes, print interviews, letters and elsewhere.

Other similarities between Capote and Williams shown here include that they each had long-term boyfriends (the two couples vacationed together in 1949 on the Italian island of Ischia) and both wove many then-taboo subjects into their writing.

Unfortunately, the scribes also suffered from depression and shared a penchant for booze and drugs that would lead to relatively early — and strangely close — deaths: Williams in 1983 at age 71, Capote in 1984 at 59.

Still, as the movie also makes clear, the prolific Williams remained far more productive than Capote in his later years, even if the quality of — and reception to — Williams’ work paled in comparison to his heyday. Meantime, Capote became more focused on celebrity and the social scene, which seemed to further foster his addictive tendencies.

Watching this captivating film, especially during Pride month, one can’t help but wonder how these outsized talents would have fared in a more open and embracing society — or would their demons have simply followed them into the 21st century? We’ll never know, but Vreeland’s documentary serves as both a wonderfully evocative time capsule and a candid tribute to a pair of artistic legends.

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'Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Starts June 18, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena


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