“It really was an intellectual friendship,” Truman Capote said of his 40-year relationship with the playwright Tennessee Williams. “Though people thought otherwise.”
The two aspiring writers met in 1940, when Capote was 16 and Williams was 29, still a few years off his first success with The Glass Menagerie. Both were southerners (Capote from Louisiana, Williams from Mississippi); had impossible relationships with their families; went from being what Williams called the “teased queer in the schoolyard” to out gay celebrities; created iconic female characters (Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire); and later became recognised as giants of 20th-century American literature.
Their lifelong friendship – and occasionally bitter rivalry – is the subject of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s artful documentary Tennessee & Truman: An Intimate Conversation.
Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons, the actors who lend their voices to Williams and Capote in the film, have plenty in common, too: they are gay men in Hollywood who have spent most of their careers in the gravitational pull of entertainment behemoths playing characters who are fluent in Klingon. Quinto is best known for his recurring role as Spock in three Star Trek movies, Parsons for his 12 seasons as Sheldon the uber-geek in the much-loved sitcom The Big Bang Theory. While they had known each other socially for years, it was a revival of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band, a seminal work of LGBTQ+ theatre, that cemented their friendship – first in the 50th-anniversary Broadway production in 2018 and then in the 2020 movie adaptation for Netflix.
The warmth between them is apparent over a video call. Parsons is at home with his husband, Todd, in New York, while Quinto is in Ojai, California, with a noisy German shepherd puppy.
“We had so many people in common for so many years, but we didn’t really have our own thing until we started working together,” says Parsons. “When we first started the readings for Boys, I wrote to Zach afterwards to say I needed him to play his part in order that I could play my part – I knew instantly that I needed him to play Harold to my Michael.”
Quinto adds: “I’d always enjoyed hanging out, but there’s something much deeper that happens when you show up for somebody every night on stage. I think Truman and Tennessee’s relationship was probably a bit more fraught.”
Quinto who approached first by Immordino Vreeland, whose documentary subjects have included her grandmother-in-law, the former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Quinto proves to be a deep talker (his voice is very much basso profundo) and thinker. He played Tom Wingfield in a production of The Glass Menagerie a few years back, for which he appears to have read every available biography of Williams, and is an astute commentator on the playwright’s life and work.
Parsons was more hesitant to come on board. “I couldn’t figure out how to approach it,” he says. “These two men have such distinctive voices, both in their work and literally. But honestly? It was mostly a question of figuring out what life looks like since I left the TV show.”
His decision to leave The Big Bang Theory in May 2019 should have opened everything up for him (his role as the vicious talent agent Henry Willson in Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Hollywood looks like a conscious step out of the Sheldon mould). However, his options shrank due to Covid and a vocal role was one of the few that he could fulfil in isolation. “In the end, I was like: you know what? I’m not doing anything now, so I’m gonna give this a whirl.” As it turned out, getting his familiar geekish whine around Capote’s waspish lisp was highly rewarding. “I loved working on it in a way I didn’t realise I would.”
Tennessee & Truman is an unexpected pleasure, too. This is partly because it conjures a world of literary glamour far from the reality in which we are all confined: high art, high bitchery, delightful archive photographs of a fiftysomething Capote cavorting in Studio 54. While there is no footage of Capote and Williams in conversation, they wrote and spoke about each other frequently (David Frost and Melvyn Bragg appear prominently).
Immordino Vreeland has arranged their reflections on childhood, the South, homosexuality, writing, fathers, addiction, late-period decline and so on in such a way that the themes echo; it feels as if they are in constant dialogue. Both men changed their names, for example: Capote taking his stepfather’s name, Williams adopting “Tennessee” as opposed to plain old Thomas. “I don’t know if he’d have made the same sort of impact as Tom Williams,” says Quinto. Both were great sunseekers, too. “In Rome, you rarely see a young man on the street who does not have a slight erection,” is one of the choice apercus from Williams’ travel writing.
But here the similarities end: Capote appears vicious, bitchy, highly curated; Williams is large, loose, almost oozing out of the screen. “It’s like comparing an elf to an ape,” as Parsons puts it. Capote was frequently unkind about Williams – “My whole life has been dominated by jealousy,” he admits – and wrote a vicious caricature of Williams as a maudlin alcoholic in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. Elsewhere, he observes that it is possible to be a writer of genius and yet lack intelligence: “Tennessee is not intelligent.”
“That’s a good example where I thought: ‘Did you actually believe that?’” says Parsons. “Truman is in this defensive pose. It makes all the sense in the world why he is the one who hurls more barbs and hurts his friend in that way.” Quinto suggests Williams simply operated at a “lowish frequency” compared with Capote, feeling his way through life, writing compulsively: “There’s always a mechanism of oneupmanship with Truman. Even though he indulged in a similar way, he kept it together a lot better.” As Capote wrote in his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms: “What we most want is only to be held and told that everything … everything is going to be alright.”
The principal challenge for both actors was capturing each writer’s distinctive voice (and, in Parsons’ case, trying not to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Capote in 2005). Parsons grew up in Texas, but his southern accent was “beaten out of me” at school. “I remember it came up later when we were doing Shakespeare at college. There’s this idea that it must be a disadvantage having southern accents, but we had a smart teacher who said, actually, it’s the opposite. There’s such a musicality that lends itself easily to speaking in iambic pentameter and poetry. Both of these men have that exact lyrical quality in their writing. But there’s also a way of leaving things unsaid or hinted at.”
Quinto found a different challenge with Williams’ voice – if you do it accurately, it sounds like you are faking it. “At times, his affectation is so extreme that it’s almost unbelievable – he pushes it so far. He was born in Mississippi, but moved to St Louis when he was eight, for most of his formative years, and he always had a very romantic idea of the south,” he says. “He was performing all the time. Again, it’s one of the differences between them. Truman’s sphere was always a little closer to him – there was more precision about him. Tennessee was just spilling over.”
As astute as Quinto and Parsons’ performances are, the real delight lies in the archive interviews – the astonishing intimacy of the questions asked, the artfulness with which they are answered. Can you imagine Graham Norton inviting, say, Sally Rooney on to his show and asking: “How often have you experienced the purification of love?” and her answering the question?
“If we want to get right to it, it was a very different thing to be a homosexual back then,” says Parsons. “They were so unapologetic about it. There’s a beautiful, brutal honesty about them. And they are game-players at the same time. In those interviews, their answers are both very revealing and also cat-and-mouse. It feels like you get some deep truths from them, but it’s so playfully done.”
Quinto says: “They are both such bombastic figures and they use that to their advantage in the public sphere. But what you also get to see in this documentary is their fragility. There’s something that they see in one another that’s probably, on some deep, unexamined level, a little bit repellent because it’s so close to home. Tennessee and Truman had no choice but to be loud and unapologetic. They couldn’t front. They were incapable of obfuscating who they were, for better or for worse, and I’m sure for them it was for worse a lot of the time. So what did they do? They leaned into it. And that can generate a sort of self-loathing.”
The careers of Quinto and Parsons appear not to have been harmed by being out gay men in Hollywood – indeed, Parsons was until recently the highest-earning TV star in the world (between 2014 and 2019, he was paid more than $25m a season for The Big Bang Theory). Now, having spent the past few years concentrating on LGBTQ+ stories, both are hoping to diversify as production cranks up again.
Quinto says he is looking towards comedy and “more political things”. Like Parsons, he cites Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You immediately when I ask what work has impressed him most in recent months.
Parsons, meanwhile, says that lockdown has allowed him some much needed time to find himself again. “For all humans, so much of our identity is what’s reflected back to us from the people we encounter – and if you’re known for one particular thing as an actor, it’s even more acute,” he says. “So, for the first time in about a decade, I’ve just had my own self and my husband as a reflection of who I am.” He has found that what he craves most is theatre. “There’s nothing like just being buck naked in front of everybody. I guess I’m just sick enough to get a real thrill out of that.”
How do they think Williams and Capote would have got through lockdown? “Tennessee loved swimming,” says Quinto. “He would have probably tried to maintain some balance for at least the beginning – then he would have abandoned it for a handle of bourbon. I wonder if he’d have survived.”
Parsons says: “Truman would have tweeted his way through it. No doubt.”
Quinto hopes that the film will bring renewed respect to Williams and Capote as “trailblazers” at a time when there were few out gay public figures. “I think, back then, identity was less tied to social progress, representation, political advancement. There was a fascination with these people who were unapologetic. They were lightning rods. It wasn’t the same as what it means today, when it’s about equality, social integration, progressing an agenda for the community. But it was the foundation that all the stuff that came after it was built upon. All of the things that we’re able to advocate for today wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for these outliers.”
Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is available on Dogwoof on Demand and other platforms from 30 April.