Over the course of just three features, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland has already made a stamp on that documentary subgenre culture hounds find most irresistible — the 20th-century personality portrait — taking names we know well (Diana Vreeland, Peggy Guggenheim and Cecil Beaton) and sharing the private realms of their creative worlds. With “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation,” she delivers two titans for the price of one, drawing parallels between novelist Truman Capote and playwright Tennessee Williams, whose real-life friendship-cum-rivalry serves as a natural dummy on which to hang a tailored homage to this quintessential pair of queer literary pioneers.
The trouble — and it’s no small obstacle — is that unlike Immordino Vreeland’s previous subjects, Capote and Williams were wordsmiths, not visual artists, which makes them harder to represent on-screen. As such, the resulting project feels better suited to book form than that of a feature-length movie, and the devices she uses, like hiring “The Boys in the Band” castmates Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto to read excerpts from interviews and elsewhere as if speaking to one another, can’t quite compensate for the hokey montages strung together from old photographs and calendar-art shots of sun-crowned clouds and leaves blowing in the wind.
Still, the resourceful helmer could hardly hope for two more intriguing subjects than these, whose complementary Southern upbringings and shrewd understanding of human nature reflect one another nicely. They were vastly different individuals as well, but the movie’s strategy is to find the affinities, which it does early on by juxtaposing each of their appearances on “The David Frost Show” — a trick that could be used to compare any two of the talk-show host’s many guests, but one that serves to kick off the movie’s imagined “conversation” between Capote and Williams.
At the outset, the movie sets up the two men’s meeting — Capote was 16, Williams 29 — as Parson recites in Capote’s pinched nasal accent, “It really was a sort of intellectual friendship, though people inevitably thought otherwise.” The movie doesn’t dwell on such speculation, although it’s not shy about considering the two men’s love/sex lives, thanks in part to Frost’s probing interviewing technique. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary interviewer asking such direct questions of an openly gay public figure (these days may be more “tolerant,” but it comes in denying the sexual dimension of homosexuality).
Out at a time when so many celebrities remained closeted, these two admired one another’s company and even vacationed together (with their respective partners) in Italy — a platonic version of the Christopher Isherwood-Don Bachardy pairing depicted in “Chris & Don: A Love Story” perhaps. As in that documentary, their private lives are as significant as both parties’ better-known artistic output. Immordino Vreeland realizes that some audiences know more about her subjects than others, and weaves her various themes — ambition and superstition, jealousy and acclaim, daddy issues and remembrances of their mothers — around a chronological account of their careers. This she does without the usual crutch of outside experts, relying on the two men’s words to supply perspective.
But here the film hits a snag, since neither Capote nor Williams ought to be defined by the Hollywood films that came of their work, and yet, the documentary is obliged to lean on their movies over the books or plays. Marlon Brando may have changed the course of acting with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but that revolution happened four years earlier on the Broadway stage, so scenes from the film, while hardly irrelevant, don’t tell the whole story. Similarly, the movie version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” while certainly beloved, isn’t nearly as interesting to any Capote fan as the novel, in which the author’s voice comes through (and where the character was imagined as more of an “unfinished” type, à la Marilyn Monroe, whom he wanted for the role). Capote was disappointed by the casting of Audrey Hepburn; ergo, clips from the movie actually misrepresent his vision.
The experience of watching “Truman & Tennessee” will surely feel familiar to anyone who has ever purchased a shrink-wrapped coffee-table book about a beloved subject, only to take it home, open it and realize the treatment doesn’t quite measure up. It’s a pleasure to spend an hour and a half in the resurrected company of these two intellects, but the experience feels like the lazy alternative to reading biographies about either man, while the iMovie-style editing strategy of slow-fading between layers of old photographs makes them feel like ghosts of a long-forgotten past.