Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 17, 2021 10:15 am 
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A gossipy, entertaining compare-and-contrast. Not really a "conversation"

I'm very sorry (as I can hear Truman "&" Tennessee saying, themselves), but this isn't an "intimate conversation." as the title proclaims it. It's not a "conversation" at all. It's lines from each of the two men, both gay American writers from the South who became famous in the fifties, in case you don't know, talking to themselves. Or they are talking to interviewers like David Frost or Dick Cavett. And the lines in some cases are read by actors imitating their voices (Jim Parsons as Capote - not very good; Zachary Quinto - a little better ).

Two monologues don't make a conversation - at least I hope not! Nowadays, one wonders. This is a time when you think the art of conversation couldn't be more in decline and then it gets worse. That a fabricated collage like this could be called a "conversation," and even an "intimate" one, is one more sign of the decline of conversation and the lack of understanding of what it entails.

Truman "says" that when they first met, he being 16 and Tennessee 29, Tennessee wanted it to be an "intellectual friendship," meaning no sex, and apparently it was. Though it had serious ups and downs, this friendship lasted till the end. Tennessee died at 71 from an overdose of barbiturates; Truman, 18 months later at 59 from complications of alcoholism.

Capote's first published works, very precocious, were a story collection, the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, and a slim book of exquisite travel essays, Local Color. I read them when I was a young teenager. (I was a precocious reader.) Williams' first two great successes were the two plays, A Streetcar Name Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Back in the day one heard about them all the time and they are still living theatrical classics.

That these two gay southern men became icons of American writing in the Fifties must be important. What does it mean? Can this breezy, somewhat contrived film tell us? Probably not; but it can keep us entertained for an hour and twenty-five minutes.

The conceit of the "conversation" between two man we almost never see together is the organizing principle. But like so many modern documentaries this one drew on many sources - and frustratingly, flashes on numerous articles about its subjects to allude to them without revealing their contents. A juicy example is James Wolcott's 1976 Village Voice piece about Capote, "Truman Capote Sups on the Flesh of the Famous." That one I glimpsed, freeze-framed, looked up, and found reissued online; but unlike biographical material in print, films like this don't provide the information that would allow one to follow up and read these numerous snapshotted articles. They're like teasers. Does it ever occur to anyone that this makes little sense?

What we get inTruman and Tennessee in lieu of "intimate conversation," are parallel portraits. And they do have things in common besides being gay writers from the South. They both drank and smoked a lot. They both went to "Doctor Feelgood" - Max Jacobson, the name not mentioned here - the celebrity pill and injection dispenser (who reportedly caused President Kennedy, under the power of his injections, to go almost to the brink of nuclear war). Incidentally they both had a femme side, and both are cited saying they felt they had a little girl lurking within from childhood.

The fun side and the dark side are evinced by Truman and Tennessee respectively. Tennessee had his boisterous laugh. But Truman comes off lighter in the clips from interviews, where you can see he was quite funny. He must have been good company - wonder he got to have so many friends and could put on his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, the celebrity party to end all parties. Tennessee on the other hand we keep seeing in nasty, probing moments of patent absurdity when the British interviewer David Frost, once cock of the walk, asks him more and more intimate, embarrassing questions that he answers genially and politely but increasingly uneasily. Here Dick Cavett, shown more briefly, shines forth as a great deal more intelligent. Why did Frost enjoy such fame? Because of his boldness. For Tennessee, the issue of persistent depression, alcoholism, and preoccupation with horrible things like lobotomies and cannibalism come up.

But the clips from movies based on Tennessee Williams plays, featuring the most glamorous and talented actors of the day, Paul Newman, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor, present the playwright in a very favorable light and show how central he was in the popular imagination as a poet of glamorous decadence. Truman says he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golightly in the movie of Breakfast at Tiffany's (more clips), not the harder, more polished Aubrey Hepburn. This book seemed (to me) one of Capote's weakest efforts and the movie uninteresting, a cheapening of something already cheap. But movie clips are used here only illustratively, not evaluated.

The account here of Capote moves on to the magnm opus that both made and destroyed Capote, his meticulous "nonfiction novel" of the Clutter family massacre in Kansas, and again film clips show well, because the movie version of this book sill look very good now, and very close to the real murderers and victims glimpsed in still photos here.

Next we move on to the decline and fall of these two high profile artists, but it seems Capote was a more visible public figure, growing chubbier and more numbed-out all the time, spoiled, pampered, but going under. Gossip becomes the the big theme in Truman's declining years as he causes gleeful outrage with the four successively more scandalous excerpts from his never-finished novel Answered Prayers, which we all read with pleasure and excitement. Capote acknowledged that it was a "roman à clef" (mispronounced by the actor doing his voice) and said every bit of it was "absolutely true," though he also says it was gossip and embroidered. Yet though in a dubious cause, you could appreciate Capote's refined literary craftsmanship raising its head again, which had been neutralized in the masked reportage of In Cold Blood; but the main pleasure for gossip specialists was spotting the famous people - including a very unflattering portrait of Mr. Williams as "Mr. Wallace," client of a call boy service - thinly veiled in these tasty snippets. Capote is heard saying that all fiction is gossip, including Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Madame Bovary "or Proust."

One is surprised to hear Capote, who became a denizen of the short-lived Studio 54, saying that it was too bad "people like Toulouse Lautrec, or Baudelaire, or Oscar Wilde" couldn't have enjoyed it and "Cole Porter would have loved it" as well as Proust. He seems to have gone a bit overboard. Obviously Capote cheapened himself, sold out to celebrity, including his own, and was so exhausted by self-indulgence and his punishing obsession with the Clutter murders that he lost control of his literary gift. Meanwhile Tennessee Williams is heard announcing that he never got a good review after The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963) and could never fully recover from the loss of his longtime companion Frank Merlo, who died of lung cancer in 1963. But this film doesn't fully represent Tennessee Williams' success and productivity during his period of hot play production from 1944 to 1963. He loses here in the celebrity contest. There's moe gossipy material about Truman Capote, even though Capote spent a lot of time not really writing anything.

This movie is like a child distracted by pretty baubles. It's distracted by whatever colorful quotes or clips it finds, and so it provides a confusing picture distracting us from the fact that, alas, Truman Capote, despite his exquisite precocious beginnings, doesn't live up to comparison with other Southern writers, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, and, yes, Tennessee Williams, as the catty gem by James Wolcott cited above will tell you.

This film despite its contrived format will be an introduction to the two important writers that may inspire younger viewers to read their work. Tennessee's plays of course must be seen, not just read. But the questions about why these two writers are important and what their fame means are not answered, and it feels as though Capote's somewhat greater gossip and celebrity value makes the film give him a greater importance as a literary figure whereas that may properly belong to his elder, Tennessee. I enjoyed all the review of Capote's story, but suspect I'd have been better served by less about him and more about Tennessee Williams.

(Lisa Immordino Vreeland has previously made documentary portraits of fashion maven Diana Vreeland (her husband's grandmother), art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and royal photographer Cecil Beaton.)

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation,86 mins., opens in New York at Film Forum and Los Angeles at The Nuart and Laemmle Playhouse & Town Center 5 movie theaters, and is available in virtual theaters throughout the US through starting June 18, 2021.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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