It was the party of the century. Author Truman Capote hosted the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966. Playwright Tennessee Williams was invited but chose not to attend, reasoning: “People are never so unattractive as when they think you are worth impressing.”
Like a missed bus or discarded draft, this what-might-have-been is just one hint of how the new documentary film Tennessee & Truman: an Intimate Conversation is built on a shaky premise and never quite joins the dots.
Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw observed: “There is nothing here equivalent to an ‘intimate conversation’ between them. The film simply places Capote and Williams alongside each other as if in a diptych.” Speaking by phone from London, John Lahr, a biographer of Williams, agrees: “It made no case. There’s no conversation. It looked meaningful but it had very little content. It didn’t explore the psychologies of either man.”
The film-maker, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, sheds some light on the origins of the project. She had started out making a documentary solely about Capote but then got wind that another film, The Capote Tapes, was in production. Wary of a looming clash, a producer then suggested that she add Williams to the mix.
Immordino Vreeland, 57, was also inspired by Vanity Fair magazine’s “impossible interviews” from the 1930s that juxtaposed unlikely pairings – such as Hollywood star Greta Garbo and former president Calvin Coolidge – illustrated with caricatures by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias.
She says from New York: “I love the idea of ‘the impossible interview’. The whole sense of this film really stemmed from that and the fact there were so many links between Truman and Tennessee. Obviously Tennessee was older, but they both were these creative forces and they both had so many of the same struggles. And they also were friends.”
The film duly underlines those links: both were gay southern writers from alcoholism-ravaged families; both changed their names, admitted to being intensely jealous of their peers and were superstitious about the number 13; both endured late-career declines and substance abuse as they fell out of critical fashion.
They began what Capote called an “intellectual friendship” in 1940 when he was 16 and Williams was 29. But there is little to suggest that they were artistic soulmates. Capote speaks of his admiration for Herman Melville’s great American novel Moby Dick; Williams describes his “fetish” for Russia writer Anton Chekhov.
Even if the film’s case comes over as circumstantial, however, the invitation to spend time with these two titans, bathe in their lost literary New York (with splendid archive photos) and savour their gifts as wordsmiths is hardly unwelcome.
Williams, voiced by actor Zachary Quinto, says of Capote: “Truman was magical and sweet and ferociously curious when I first knew him. Life was a wonderful basket of gifts he loved digging through and he took and he shared. He was adorable.”
Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, voiced by actor Jim Parsons, says of New York: “I like pavement. The sound of my shoes on pavement; stuffed windows; all-night restaurants; sirens in the night – sinister but alive; book and record shops that, on impulse, you can visit at midnight. And in that sense, New York is the world’s only city city.”
Tennessee & Truman also offers cause to reflect on the nature of the author-celebrity (and whether it still exists); the dying of the artistic light (both men fought alcohol, drugs and negative reviews); and expectations of the artist as political activist (neither was an overt spokesman for gay rights).
Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, about murders in a small farming community in Kansas, was perhaps both the making and breaking of him. Gerald Clarke, who knew both Capote and Williams and wrote the definitive biography of the former, says: “They both drank too much. Truman was an alcoholic and I think Tennessee was as well.
“But they’re not parallel in the sense Truman really suffered after In Cold Blood. It knocked him for a loop. He said, ‘It took me down to the marrow of my bones’. It wasn’t hyperbole; he was right. Not just the writing and the reporting but watching the hanging [of the killers] and everything.
“And then he wasn’t really equipped for the fame that came after that. He had been certainly well known before but Truman achieved after In Cold Blood a fame that I can’t think of any other American writer except [Ernest] Hemingway had.”
Speaking from Bridgehampton on Long Island, New York, Clarke recalls: “I would walk down the street with him in New York and taxi drivers and truck drivers would lean out their windows and say, ‘Hey, Truman!’ They’d see him on television. They didn’t know what he was doing but they all liked him anyway. I think that’s hard for anybody to cope with.”
The film leans heavily on archive clips of Capote and Williams on chat shows. David Frost asks prurient questions that reduce Capote to monosyllables and Williams to awkward laughter as he protests, “I’m talking too intimately to you – let’s get on to something more general!” Today it is hard to imagine TV hosts such as Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon interrogating a leading novelist or playwright about their sex lives – or anything else.
Capote’s sexuality was no secret but, even after the Stonewall uprising in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969, he did not actively engage with gay rights as a political cause. Clarke says: “He wasn’t interested, really. He would have obviously been in favour of them, but he died in 1984 and the idea of gay marriage was inconceivable at that time.
“He wasn’t shy about it. He didn’t try to hide anything and never had. He was lucky in the sense that he was obviously gay from the very beginning, whereas I remember I talked to one man he had been friends with at Greenwich high school in Connecticut who had been very successful, had been married and had children, but then came out of the closet when he was in his 40s so probably ruined his wife’s life and a good part of his own.
“So Truman was lucky in that sense. He never had anything to hide. He never was in the closet.”
Neither Capote nor Williams had much interest in politics, Clarke adds. “They were interested in their art. They were both dedicated artists and they respected each other in that sense.”
Williams explored homosexuality in his plays but faced criticism for not using his public platform to be a greater champion of the cause. Lahr, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, says Williams considered himself “the founding father of the uncloseted gay world”.
He goes on: “By the time Stonewall happened, he was criticised by the young Turks for not being braver but he lived bravely. He endured a great deal. He was almost hounded out of his cottage in Key West, Florida for his homosexuality. He was beat up. They would dump trash over his fence. There were letters from him thinking of moving out but he stayed down there. He didn’t hide his homosexuality.”
In one clip, asked by TV interviewer Dick Cavett about his sexuality, Williams replies: “Let’s just say I’ve covered the waterfront.” Lahr adds: “That is as close to coming out as Williams did publicly. He was not like Capote.
“Whereas Capote was outrageous in his sexual performance, Williams carried himself as a heterosexual person in the world. He didn’t on the whole mince or anything like that and so to that extent, from the mores of today, he would seem perhaps timid. But he wasn’t in his time. He was unabashed.”
Lahr also draws a contrast between Capote and Williams’ artistic output. “Unlike Capote, Williams was a kind of folklorist whose plays put characters into the culture, whose fierce flawed lives transcend their stories and speak down the decades to the confusion of our desires and losses: Laura, Big Daddy, Maggie the Cat, Brick, Stanley, Amanda, Chance Wayne, Stanley Kowalski.”
But A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in 1947; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955; The Night of the Iguana in 1961. Williams, whose partner Frank Merlo died from lung cancer in 1963, was sentenced to live for another two decades with his most celebrated work behind him.
Via Quinto, he recalls in the film: “My professional decline began after Night of the Iguana. As a matter of fact, I never got a good review after 1961. I was broken as much by repeated failures in the theatre as by Frank’s death.”
Lahr reflects: “Many people who are blocked put themselves into really extreme situations, economically usually, that force them to write. In Williams’ case, he wrote about his collapse. He always saw his plays as a metaphor of his internal world and that entire world changed and mutated and closed over a long period of time.
“But if you read his body of work, it is a landscape which you can read as a metaphor of the culture, which begins with brilliance and a sort of nobility of purpose and ends in barbarity, which is where we are right now. We’re in a very barbarous moment and Williams’ oeuvre and his life, in their own way, are a metaphor for that.”