Lisa Immordino Vreeland has made something of a specialty of the biographical documentary, her previous works including Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015), and 12 episodes of the television series Art of Style (2016-2018). Her latest film, Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation, currently available for streaming through NewFest 2020, branches out a bit into the realm of dual portraiture and the world of literature. Despite the title, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams never speak directly to each other in this film; instead, they appear alternately or, in a clever bit of split-screen work, simultaneously but at different real times or in different places.
Truman & Tennessee offers the viewer a virtual trip back to the days when serious writers regularly appeared on television talk shows, were asked real questions, and answered those questions thoughtfully and in complete sentences. Vreeland also includes clips from the filmed versions of their works, and a well-chosen collection of excerpts from their writings, read by Zachary Quinto (Tennessee Williams) and Jim Parsons (Truman Capote). (Fun fact: Quinto and Parsons performed together in the recent stage and film version of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.) Despite the emphasis on words, visual interest never flags in Truman & Tennessee, thanks to Vreeland’s inspired use of photographs and film clips, so that even when the background is still, the camera is always moving, providing the film with constant forward motion.
It’s unfortunate that these two writers are often known more from the film and television adaptations of their works, rather than those works in their original form, and the compromises made to bring written works to a wider audience are highlighted in Truman & Tennessee. Considering the Hollywood version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, Capote notes that his first choice for Holly Golightly was Marilyn Monroe, but the movie studio “double crossed” him and cast Aubrey Hepburn, an odd choice for a character Capote describes as “tough,” “touching,” and “unfinished.” And that’s without mentioning the happy ending Paramount Pictures grafted on to the film version, which totally changes the sense of the novella. Williams has even harsher words for Hollywood, finding himself “nearly always very disappointed” at the film versions of his works, because, due to censorship, they were so changed that “unless you had seen the play, you wouldn’t know what it was about.”
The greatest service performed by Truman & Tennessee is the attention it grants to the written words of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, which are about a million times more interesting and insightful than the weak tea served up by Hollywood. Asked why rape features so often in his works, for instance, Williams replies that “We’re all victim of rape. Society rapes the individual.” Similarly, Truman Capote reveals, in his own words, that “My whole life has been dominated by jealousy. It is the one uncontrollable thing with me. It is the key to my character.” Both readers give strong performances, although Parsons has a tendency to sound like himself, however much he tries to imitate Capote’s distinctive voice. If there’s any justice in the world, this documentary will send viewers straight to their local bookstore or library to look up and read some of the works of these literary giants for themselves.
Due to festival restrictions, I can only do a capsule review of Anna Kerrigan’s feature Cowboys at the moment, but I look forward to writing a full review when the film is in wider release. At first glance, it seems to be a straightforward story of a custody dispute: Troy (Steve Zahn) kidnaps his child (Sasha Knight) from his soon-to-be ex-wife Sally (Jillian Bell). Then the detective (Ann Dowd) assigned to the case uncovers an apparent contradiction: the child with Troy is appears to be a young boy, while the same child as described by Sally is “a very pretty little girl.” Special bonus points to Cowboys for casting a trans actor (Knight) in a trans role, and for the beautiful cinematography by John Wakayama Carey. | Sarah Boslaugh
NewFest 2020 runs from Oct. 16 to Oct. 27, and most films in the festival are available for remote screening. Both single tickets ($12, $10 for members) and all-access festival passes ($95) are available. Further information, including details on the films and other events, is available from the festival web site.