“What are they upset about? I was a writer. Did they think I was with them ‘cos they were so interesting?”
Truman Capote is fun even when he’s merely spoken of, so Ebs Burnough‘s bitter-sweet doc The Capote Tapes (2019) is immensely entertaining, much like the man, himself. Which is the only thing you have to be if you want to make it in New York City, deadpans Bright Lights, Big City writer Jay McInerney, who knew him.
Capote came from no money, rose from humble beginnings, wrote the unapologetic Other Voices, Other Rooms in his early twenties, was an openly homosexual man in the homophobic 1950s, reinvented himself and an entire genre of prose in his forties with In Cold Blood, and much like his Breakfast At Tiffany‘s heroine Holly Golightly, ended up the social butterfly, a man-about-town, welcomed into to the inner sanctum of the richest, most influential, most epically bored people in the world. A group he was thoroughly fascinated with, then burned down to the ground, to his own detriment, with almost compulsive gusto.
Not that he did not have great affection for some of them, like socialite Babe Paley, but many of the interviewed friends concur his heart was not in that world. So he never published (or perhaps, even finished) his last novel, the high-society roman à clef referred to in the intro quote – Dick Cavett‘s recall of Capote’s words on burning bridges with NYC high society after excerpts of his Answered Prayers were published in Esquire.
‘Andy [Warhol] was Truman Capote’s’ groupie’, quipped the editor of Interview magazine Bob Colacello when asked about the impact of the brilliant writer and artful gossip who inaugurated the idea of persona as art form with one swing of his decadent pen. His Black & White Ball in 1966 was the anno zero of celebrity culture as we know it, and the most coveted invite of the era.
The director uses an array of thick & thin brushes to paint the picture of an entire life in the public eye, honouring Capote’s maxim of never letting truth get in the way of a good story. The baseline of the doc are journalist George Plimpton‘s recordings, featuring the writer’s many illustrious contemporaries, ones Plimpton collected for his bestselling biography of Capote. We hear the likes of Norman Mailer and Lauren Bacall praising him highly, a wistful Mailer admitting Truman ‘wrote the best sentences’ of anyone in their generation, and admiring his courage to be who he is amidst all the danger and ridicule. And Bacall talking about how his intellectualism was life-enhancing for all that met him. Even some of his group of high society ladies who later spurned him, ‘his Swans’, like Marella Agnelli and Slim Keith, share their thoughts, as well as his long time partner Jack Dunphy, and many other friends, talking about him in intimate, warm, amusing ways.
Along with literary interludes from his novels (lest we forget Truman’s exquisite way with words), the archival images of the young, bright Capote slide elegantly in the background, while the lively testimonies of a life lived with gumption and panache unfold, particularly touching the stories from his adopted daughter Kate Harrington (whose father was an ex-lover), and friend writer Dotson Rader.
Suddenly, one realises how much was hidden about Capote when his early days come up in the reels – his mother’s abandonment (her life a template for Holly Golightly, McInerney suggests), life with his two aunts in Alabama, befriending Harper Lee in childhood, and the close relationship with his cousin Sook, whose gingerbread men he kept in a cookie box, and nearby, his entire life.
Truman’s mother did make it to the big city – an aspiring socialite, she married money, and took him back in, but ended her life in suicide, something that haunted Capote, like only something like that can. Therein must lie the darkness seething underneath the glitz in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which was, as writer Sadie Stein points out, ‘a much grittier book’ than the film turned out to be, to Truman’s dismay. Likewise, In Cold Blood, a masterpiece of American literature – personal odyssey through a gruesome passion and tenderness. Both journeys straight into the underbelly of the America he knew, and left behind.
Truman Capote lived many lives, and inhabited manifold identities, partied hard, betrayed rich people, wrote the first openly gay novel in the US, defined what glamour is for generations, and penned elegant, sharp words for posterity. Yet this doc, somehow, managed to tailor it all to size – an hour and a half of note-perfect jazz.
Author: © Milana Vujkov