When a biography of Truman Capote was published in 1997, a review that ran in the Denver Post distilled his singular place in pop culture to its essence: “The uneducated arriviste from Monroeville, Ala., sneaked into the postwar jet set as court jester, raconteur, father confessor, partygoer and giver, scandalmonger and manipulator. And decades before gay liberation, he wore his homosexuality like a flamboyant badge of honor. It’s easy to forget that he actually wrote books.”
Those books included “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” His final (and ultimately unfinished) work is at the center of the FX series “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.”
After the massive success of “In Cold Blood,” Capote turned his professional attention to his friends, the women of New York’s wealthy elite — his Swans, as he called them. The book was to be a lightly fictionalized but savage tell-all. Esquire magazine ran early chapters in the mid-’70s and the result was a scandale. The high-class avian excrement hit the fan and the Swans ejected him from their social circles. Capote’s world fell apart.
The book project was an albatross and Capote was plagued by writer’s block, in part because he was drowning in a pill and alcohol addiction. But also: An expose only works if you’re willing to reveal the ugliest truths and let the chips fall where they may. Capote was pained — baffled even — by that bargain, and he lived to regret it.
This is the second season of the “Feud” anthology series for FX, which premiered in 2017 and focused on the fraught relationship between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Ryan Murphy is executive producer once again, but this time out Jon Robin Baitz is the showrunner and writer of all eight episodes, and he brings a smart and vividly piquant energy to the series.
That brilliance dissipates in the final two episodes, when death comes for Capote and one of his Swans. Like the show’s central character, perhaps Baitz lost his nerve in the end. Even so, everything that comes before is some of the best television of recent memory.
On the big screen, Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for 2005′s “Capote.” A year later Toby Jones played him in the film “Infamous.” But the FX series feels like the definitive version with British actor Tom Hollander. (His credits include everything from “Gosford Park” to the Italy season of “The White Lotus.”)
Hollander captures all the right outward traits — Capote’s look, his nasally voice and distinctive carriage — but also a sense of his soul. He plays Capote as a man with real self-awareness of his flaws. It’s a performance that also understands the power of a flourish, bringing a cigarette to his mouth and taking a drag before removing it with the other hand. (Fidelity to the era means everybody is lighting up constantly; the cigarette budget for the show must have been eye-popping.)
Baitz has surrounded Hollander with actors who understand the subtle camp and teeth-gritting entitlement of the Swans as they lunch at La Côte Basque and hold court like dull but popular girls in the high school cafeteria, forever jockeying for status.
Naomi Watts is the faux serene, helmet-haired perfectionist Babe Paley (wife of media exec William S. Paley), who was the queen bee and Capote’s favorite. Diane Lane is the beautiful but grudge-holding Slim Keith (who was married to a couple of Hollywood bigwigs before landing herself a banker). Chloë Sevigny is C.Z. Guest, who is more than meets the eye, with her bouncy blonde hair and days spent gardening and horse riding (Ernest Hemingway was best man at her wedding).
Calista Flockhart is the elegantly brittle Lee Radziwill (trapped in a toxic rivalry with her sister Jackie O) and Demi Moore is Ann “Bang Bang” Woodward, who shot her husband when she mistook him for a burglar, but was rumored to have killed him on purpose. (Capote was only too eager to fan the flames of that speculation.)
These names will be familiar to anyone who lived through the 1960s and ‘70s, and to regular readers of Vanity Fair magazine. For everyone else, the show offers a delicious opportunity to fall down internet rabbit holes looking up backstories. These wives of tycoons created stylized personas for themselves, which in turn requires stylized performances from the cast, and yet they remain grounded in realism. The result is some of the best work of their careers. (Someone should cast them all in a remake of “The Women.”)
Baitz captures Capote’s humor and insights with real wit, but also his cruelty and manipulations and self-delusions. At one point, Capote is followed around by documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles in 1966 as he prepares for his famous Black and White Ball. The Maysles did indeed make a half-hour doc with Capote that year, in which he pontificates about writing “In Cold Blood.” But the FX series takes a different approach: What if they filmed him with his society friends instead?
It’s such a terrific premise because it allows for Capote to be interviewed on his own, and he speaks in blunt but ruminative terms about why he’s so fascinated by these women. He craves their attention and the trappings of their lifestyle, and perhaps that proximity was a way to muffle his own insecurities and mommy issues. “Our mothers give us our most ingrained patterns,” he tells the camera. “And mine, she was the torchbearer of unbreakable patterns.” (Jessica Lange plays Capote’s dead mother, who visits him as a ghostly apparition hounding him from the grave.)
Despite his adoration, Capote sees the Swans for who they are. Boring. Vapid. Catty. Uninformed about the world. Terrible to their children. Desperate to keep up appearances.
That comes into focus when he spends a day with the author and fellow straight-shooter James Baldwin, who arrives to shake Capote out of his self-pitying stupor. It’s the best episode of the season, and while Chris Chalk may look nothing like Baldwin, he gives such a hilariously on-point performance, getting the voice and verbal rhythms just right.
“My swans would never do this — have lunch alone with a Black man,” Capote says.
“I am aware, this is not news,” Baldwin replies, pressing him to talk about the racism and classism of this world he idolizes. Capote doesn’t need much prodding. Then he pauses. “I spend so much time with them, how can I not be guilty as well?”
“Well, you are, of course,” Baldwin replies. “The question is how you address it.”
Their back-and-forth is vital, because it prevents the series from succumbing to the fetishizing of empty glamour in recent television depictions of the rich and dysfunctional. “Your book, it is the firing squad that killed the Romanovs,” Baldwin tells him. “It’s your guillotine that beheaded Marie Antoinette.” Baldwin gets it wrong, though, because a literary takedown of the rich and corrupt doesn’t kill them off, it only centers their feelings. And people will eagerly swallow that whole. Just look at the response to HBO’s “Succession.”
Even so, I laughed at the contrast “Feud” lays out between the glittering, pretentious elegance of a New York dinner party and the more relaxed but comparatively drab California casual Capote encounters in Los Angeles, post-banishment, when he’s welcomed into the home of Joanne Carson (wife of Johnny Carson), played by Molly Ringwald. You can see, through Capote’s eyes, why the latter environment was so underwhelming by comparison.
Capote saw his falling out with the Swans as a great tragedy. But were any of them — including Capote — capable of true friendship? They had fun together. And intimacy. But intimacy is not necessarily friendship.
A marvel of costuming and period details, the series is richly executed and a hoot, but also unexpectedly moving. Capote is a bon vivant and sad clown all at once. An anthropologist of America’s ruling class, he judged them but also yearned for their love. He wanted it both ways.
“We’re Pomeranians to them,” he says in one of his more lucid moments, “there to cuddle when they need something fluffy to hold on to. But should we growl or show our teeth, then it’s off to the pound we go.”
Perhaps being their lap dog came not only with tangible perks but psychological perks, as well. Or maybe Capote just didn’t have the courage of his convictions.
In 1970, Stephen Sondheim famously mocked New York’s snobs in his song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” skewering their pointless, performative, overindulged lives: “Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger/ Another reason not to move, another vodka stinger.”
I’ll drink to that, goes the next line. It’s a sentiment Capote took to heart.
'FEUD: CAPOTE VS. THE SWANS'
3.5 stars (out of 4)
How to watch: 10 p.m. ET Wednesdays on FX (and streaming on Hulu)