'Capote vs. The Swans' Truman's deadly crash landing from high society

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday February 13, 2024
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Naomi Watts as Grace Paley and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)
Naomi Watts as Grace Paley and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)

Although dead for almost 40 years, gay author Truman Capote is having his moment. In the last four years, he's been the subject of two documentaries ("Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation," "The Capote Tapes"), as well as two books, one of which, "Capote's Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal and the Swan Song of an Era" by Lawrence Leamer, is the basis for the Ryan Murphy anthology series "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans," which premiered on FX and is now streaming on Hulu. All these works deal only incidentally with Capote's written oeuvre and center on him as celebrity raconteur and eccentric television talk show guest.

The first "Feud" in 2017 profiled the well-publicized juicy rivalry between Hollywood actresses Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) before, during, and after their 1962 campy horror thriller film, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Capote's fallout with his high-society elite New York women friends whom he called his swans, the original ladies who lunch, is a worthy successor.

Publicity photo for 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)  

Un-'Answered Prayers'
This second eight-episode installment recounts how Capote (Tom Hollander, the gay villain in "White Lotus 2") in an infamous fictionalized story "La Cote Basque, 1965," published in Esquire magazine, November 1975 (La Cote Basque being the restaurant they frequented) betrayed these rich, glamorous, stylish socialites with wealthy husbands, by exposing their naughty behaviors and dirty laundry as well as those of their often philandering spouses.

Although he used pseudonyms, everyone knew to whom he was referring, with this tale being just one chapter in his long-promised book "Answered Prayers," exposing the outrageous escapades of the jet set glitterati, his masterpiece American version of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time."

To retaliate, the women vindictively exiled Capote, never forgiving or talking to him again, a kind of social isolation as revenge, and the first cancel culture. It exacerbated his accelerating alcoholism and drug abuse, which led to his death from liver disease complicated by intoxication in 1984, a month before his 60th birthday at the home of his last remaining swan, Joanna Carson (vivacious Molly Ringwald), ex-wife of the legendary "Tonight" talk show host Johnny Carson.

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)  

His frenemy Gore Vidal commented notoriously that his death was a "wise career move." Capote never finished "Answered Prayers."

Who were these women —self-creating performance artists— who made New York City the social capitol of the world? They included Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), former fashion editor for Vogue, who married William S. Paley (the late Treat Williams in his final role), the CEO of CBS.

Considered one of the most beautiful, best dressed women in the world, hostess extraordinaire, with Capote observing, "She had only one fault: she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect."

Slim Keith (Diane Lane) was married to Hollywood director Howard Hawkes and discovered Lauren Bacall. Later she wed talent agent Leyland Hayward, then finally British aristocrat Lord Kenneth Keith.
Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) was the younger sister of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, but also a failed actress and interior decorator, who married a wealthy Polish aristocrat Prince.

The women of 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)  

C.Z Guest (Chloe Sevigny), a fashion designer, was married to a cousin of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Because she wasn't mentioned in Capote's story, she remained friends with him.

Finally, there was Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), a swan wannabe, rejected by Capote, because in 1955 she shot and killed her rich husband, banking heir William Woodward, at their home, mistaking him for an intruder.

However, Capote believed she did it deliberately because she would make more money as a widow than as a divorcée. Innuendo resulted in her being socially shunned. In a shocking scene, she calls Capote a faggot to his face. She committed suicide by cyanide after learning she was included in Capote's Esquire story.

Tom Hollander and Jessica Lange in 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)  

Ghost mom
Then there's Capote's long-suffering significant other Jack Dunphy (Joe Mantello). They lived together for 30+ years in an open relationship, but here he serves as a kind of humorless, scolding Greek chorus, criticizing Capote (for not writing) and his swans (as a vacuous waste of time).

Jessica Lange, Murphy's good luck charm, appears here as the ghostly apparition of Capote's disparaging mother Lillie Mae, who abandoned him as a lonely child, attempting unsuccessfully to become one of these elite social women, but ultimately rejected by them, she committed suicide.

Finally, in a terrifying performance, gay actor Russell Tovey plays John O'Shea, a straight married banker/lover of Capote toward the end of his life, who is emotionally and physically abusive towards him.

This series promises and delivers on glamour, intrigue, sex, and style, the highlight being the sumptuous costumes. One might think this would be an amusing outing in what has been dubbed the original "Real Housewives." While there are moments of vicious wit, bitchy asides, character assassinations, and scandalous gossip, (Capote watching Andy Warhol on television: "They've put embalming fluid in his makeup") by and large, this is a sad, somber even moralistic cautionary tale.

Just about everyone in this huge cast is unhappy and damaged, particularly all the swans, with Capote descending into a long black tunnel of addiction and mental illness, abandoning his writing, becoming a strung-out, scandalous TV personality "to pay the bills."

Russell Tovey as John O'Shea in 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)  

Grim assessment
The series rubberstamps the grim assessment made when Capote died that he had squandered his talent on the pursuit of celebrity, riches, and pleasure with his fatal attraction to power and privilege. The question haunting the series is why did Capote commit social suicide by publishing his "Esquire" article?

Warned by other writer friends that high society would react badly to the story, Capote replied, "Nah, they're too dumb. They won't know who they are," a ruinous miscalculation. In his estimation, as a writer they should have known he would use anything (confided gossip) as source material.

Perhaps he got tired of being the homosexual court jester singing for his supper (Babe Paley's description), resenting the discrimination and condescension he experienced as a gay man. The series doesn't posit a theory, leaving it to the viewers, but regardless paints the whole sordid episode as the end of an era, now replaced by celebrities and social media.

"Capote vs. the Swans" is a thoroughly gay enterprise, with not only Murphy as producer, but playwright Jon Robin Baitz ("Brothers and Sisters") as scriptwriter and Gus Van Sant ("Milk") as principal director. Our favorite episode recalls the 1966 masquerade Black and White Ball, later dubbed the Party of the Century, that Capote threw for 540 of his famous closest friends at NYC's Plaza Hotel.

Shot in black and white, the Maysles brothers ("Grey Gardens") interviewed Capote and the swans executed in their trademark cinema verité style, which never happened. Still, it highlights Capote at the top of his game playing his swans one against the other, as they all wanted to be the guest of honor, Instead he chose "Washington Post" publisher Katharine Graham.

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in 'Feud: Capote vs. The Swans' (photo: FX)  

Luminous mess
The acting is top-notch glorious. Hollander, following Robert Morse ("Tru"), Oscar-winning Phillip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") and Toby Jones ("Infamous") acquits himself brilliantly (strange how one of the 20th century's gayest figures has always been played by straight actors) mastering his high-pitched voice, mannerisms, and élan.

Unlike previous performers, Hollander portrays a Capote in serious decline, a total mess, yet we grieve and empathize with his inability to turn his life around as he hits rock bottom. It's an authentic performance without going over the top and dissolving into caricature.

Of the swans, Watts is the most luminous, mainly because as Capote's closest friend and the one most devastated by his betrayal, she has the best-written role. Both Babe and Capote loved each other as soulmates minus any sex. A brittle perfectionist, she came to realize how empty and absurd her life was. It may well be Watts's best performance.

The other actresses are all fine but unidimensional, so we have an angry tough-as-nails Lane, spearheading the campaign to demonize and oust Capote, while a semi-wasted Flockhart is the personification of bitterness, unfairly compared to her sister and always viewed as second best.
Sevigny skillfully combines a razor-sharp wit with compassion, grouchy but forgiving toward Capote, witnessing firsthand his breakdown.

Williams is heartrending as the husband realizing too late what a stunning jewel he had in his wife, wanting to start over, but permanently scarred, she wants nothing to do with him.

The series is maddening in that the action jumps back and forth relentlessly, so at times one is disoriented as to what period one is in, whether it's 1955 or 1975. It's also a bit too long; seven episodes would have sufficed.

But overall, the series manages to bring us back to a gorgeous, opulent, cruel world long vanished and helps us understand what a tragic waste it all was. "Capote vs. the Swans" is a dishy delight, appointment television for all queens, which could've been a bit more buoyant and less morose in warning us of the danger in confusing performance with reality.


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