Setting the opening scene of Capote vs. the Swans at a lake where an older Truman Capote stares at a number of the birds lazing about on the water is perhaps a bit on the nose. But then, the subject of this Ryan Murphy–produced series demands such operatic visual language. The rift that drove the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood out of the stylish, moneyed set of society “swans” he was so fond of cultivating was the stuff of tabloid fodder and of more hushed (and therefore far more vicious) gossip among the wealthy elite. The story all but demands to be told in a cursive headline font or the equivalent thereof — which translates to Tom Hollander as the fedora-sporting writer looking fondly at actual swans as he muses on what he has lost and whether his banishment from society was worth it after all.
Soon, Jon Robin Baitz’s script for this premiere episode — based, as is the entire season, on Laurence Leamer’s nonfiction book Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era — will shuttle us back to 1968, 1955, and, eventually, 1975, when a bombshell Esquire excerpt of a promised Capote book shook an entire generation of Manhattan socialites.
We begin in the late 1960s. Decades after being celebrated as an emerging voice in American literature, Capote had further cemented that reputation with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. Both were literary events that allowed the fey southern author, whose small stature was matched by his honeyed, high-pitched voice, to infiltrate the highest echelons of society. It’s amid that self-possessed world that we first meet him in Feud. He’s on a mission to arrive at a Manhattan apartment where his services — namely, his presence — are required. He’s all brisk efficiency as he alights at the home of his most beautiful of swans: Babe Paley (Naomi Watts, fully coiffed).
By Capote’s estimation, Babe was sheer perfection — which, as we hear in this episode, was her biggest weakness. As played by Watts, you can see how the wife of a CBS executive could have so fascinated Capote. But their first meeting comes a bit later in this episode. Right now, she’s all tears because of a fully unspeakable indiscretion involving her philandering husband and a bed stained with blood courtesy of his vengeful mistress.
Readers of Answered Prayers, Capote’s unfinished novel in which he’d hoped to chronicle the world of Babe and her ilk (much to their chagrin), perhaps know this tale all too well: A woman has sex with a married man knowing that she would bleed all over his sheets, thus all but guaranteeing the man’s wife would find out about his flagrant indiscretion. (“Think you can get that stain out before your cunt wife gets back?” says the mistress.) Watts’s Babe is aghast at the entire thing. “There are rules. Certain rules,” she complains, “about how many humiliations one can stand.” She knew about her husband’s affair with Happy Rockefeller (the governor’s wife!), but this just makes it so much harder to haughtily ignore. Truman consoles her the best he can, convincing his dear friend that she should put this all to rest, remember how good she has it, and make her husband, Bill (the late Treat Williams), pay in ways that don’t lead to scandal, let alone divorce.
But the scene mostly serves to plant the seed of what’s to come. “The only person who could ever hurt me,” Babe says to Truman, remembering that she’s above being hurt by Bill these days, “is you.” No truer words are spoken.
To understand why Babe could be hurt so much more by a friend than by her husband, Feud sends us back to 1955 to the first fateful meeting between Babe and Truman. Capote is invited to a dinner with the Paleys where his charm is on full display. He’s a renowned raconteur and knows exactly how to best deploy the juicy gossip he has amassed for his audience’s delight. In this case, he ends up at the center of a conversation about the role of storytellers and who should have the last word; to someone like him, a writer would always have the last word, but to others at the table who traffic not in words but in displays of power, wealth, and status, such allowances are impermissible. What follows is Capote showing just how mighty the pen, or at least the gift of gab, can be.
He regales the guests with a tale of a woman who did not accidentally kill her husband, thinking him a burglar — as she led the police to believe — but rather orchestrated that scenario to get away with the crime. Director Gus Van Sant shoots Capote’s story in black-and-white (with Demi Moore’s Ann Woodward, the wife in question, stylishly reenacting the various conflicting narratives Capote spins around this well-known gossip) and thus archly stylizes his delivery. The story is successful in getting both Bill and Babe’s attention, and they cannot wait to invite the writer back for more entertaining sojourns in the days, weeks, and years to come.
Again, readers of Answered Prayers (or of the Esquire excerpt, “La Côte Basque, 1965”) know this tale by heart. Hollander’s lines are all but lifted wholesale from that Capote piece, giving us a sense not just of the author’s brilliance on the page but of the way his prose, at least in those stories, brims with the singsong hum of late-night gossip.
Which brings us to 1975, the year the Esquire excerpt arrived on newsstands — years since Capote first boasted about what he hoped would be his crowning literary achievement. The initial contract for the book was signed in 1966 with a planned release in 1968; it was neither delivered nor finished and was only posthumously published as an unfinished novel.
By the mid-1970s, Capote had lost much of his luster. In Cold Blood, in which he chronicled gruesome murders and their ensuing media frenzy (see the 2005 film Capote for more), had drained him, and he turned to alcohol for comfort. In Feud, we find him now rambling to his editor about his new book, alienating his longtime partner, Jack (Joe Mantello), and, later, ingratiating himself with a straight bathhouse trick named John O’Shea (Russell Tovey), who eventually convinces Truman that all he needs to finally crank out this long-gestating project is the gift of transcription: After meeting three of Truman’s swans (Babe, Diane Lane’s Slim Keith, and Chloë Sevigny’s C.Z. Guest) at a lunch that goes horribly wrong once Ann drunkenly confronts Truman about his libelous gossiping (“It’s not libel if it’s true,” he quips), John is convinced that all his new writer friend has to do is put to paper all that he witnesses.
Which is what he does. Borrowing the name of the restaurant where he had first introduced his swans to John (much to their dismay, so little did they think of this loutish commoner Truman had become infatuated with and quickly hired as his manager), Capote publishes “La Côte Basque, 1965,” which features not just a thinly veiled version of Babe dealing with her husband’s bloody indiscretion but also a tale clearly inspired by Ann’s alleged murder of her husband.
Capote’s swans’ feathers are all ruffled. Babe in particular is in shambles. She trusted Truman with her innermost secrets and long-buried desires, and this is how he repaid her? With a dishy tell-all that has left her now twice humiliated? Bill tries to appease her, but she’s once again inconsolable. “My heart is broken,” she says, even as Watts portrays her as fully in control of her emotions. Swans paddle below the water’s surface, of course, rarely showing the effort it takes to appear so self-possessed.
This leads to yet another La Côte Basque meeting, this time between Slim and Babe, with the former trying to close the swans’ ranks and retaliate as efficiently as possible against this “homosexual court jester.” It is she who delivers the episode’s most shocking revelation: Ahead of the publication of the article in Esquire, Ann committed suicide. Better dead than having to deal with the fallout from Capote’s libel.
“He killed Ann,” Slim tells Babe. “We will kill him.”
And so the stage is set for our seasonlong feud between the tiny, flouncing literary sensation and the beautiful socialites he loved and betrayed — a scandal decades in the making wherein the question of which role storytellers can inhabit in such social strata is rife with possibilities. Here’s hoping Baitz and this amazing cast give us everything we want and then some.
• How delicious did that Baked Alaska look? Capote might once have written that the way to tell the moneyed from the rest of us is their vegetables (tiny and sumptuous), but their desserts are not far behind.
• In case you were wondering, the real Capote was five-foot-three. Hollander is five-five, the same height as Toby Jones, who played Capote in Infamous. Philip Seymour Hoffman, for comparison’s sake, won an Academy Award for his performance in Capote while being a full seven inches taller than his character. I do love that Hollander’s petite figure helps present Truman as a kind of elvish fiend (or friend, depending on the scene) who so clearly doesn’t belong in this world of beauty and elegance.
• Trust Van Sant to offer us a delectable, if still tasteful, shot at a bathhouse (of a hand getting the job done in full close-up).
• Any television show that gifts with us Sevigny uttering the words “It’s bad mojo, kid” deserves the world. Ditto Moore’s delivery of the episode’s most acidic takedown of Truman: “What I called you was a venomous little faggot.” Fun fact: Truman’s “southern fag” routine with Ann is partly taken from an infamous appearance he made on The Stanley Siegel Show in 1979, when, responding to allegedly being called a fag by Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister), Capote unleashed his venomous routine on-air. “You know us southern fags,” he said. “We just can’t keep our mouths shut.”
• What do we think of the Saul Bass–inspired opening credits? I keep going back and forth between thinking them inspired and wishing they were a tad more elegant (maybe they’re a bit too long and therefore repetitive). Who knows, maybe they’ll grow on me.
First appeared on www.vulture.com