The fabled photo of Truman Capote staring out from the back cover of his first novel, the semiautobiographical Other Voices, Other Rooms published in 1948, was the dust-jacket equivalent of making an entrance. Lounging on a divan, the seductively posed author – disturbingly looking much younger than his actual age of 23 – announced himself to the world with a come-fuck-me gaze copied from sultry Hollywood starlet pinups. It was an unapologetic introduction to a talented writer eager to cultivate his own unique celebrity, who boldly embraced the outward identity of an unabashedly gay and effeminate man of elfin stature whose Alabama whine of a voice seemed to bypass the larynx and emanate straight from his adenoids.
Determined to shed certain specifics of an unbefitting childhood, the young Capote fashioned a public persona better suited to his ambitions, not unlike the call girl chameleon Holly Golightly in his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For a heady period of time, he succeeded. A critical darling in literary circles and essential fixture of the Manhattan social scene, his aspirations culminated in the publication of the immensely popular true-crime account In Cold Blood in 1966 and the legendary Black and White Ball he hosted the same year. But much like what happened to his spiritual forebear, Oscar Wilde, excess and hubris eventually sabotaged Capote’s success, relegating him to bitchy guest slots on late-night talk shows and druggy Studio 54 all-nighters reported in “Page Six” that propped up a declining fame exacerbated by a crippling case of writer’s block. The fresh face that appeared on that scandalous book jacket years ago had become bloated with alcohol and self-pity. A victim of his own making, assisted by a culture that too often denies fallen idols a second act, Capote was a hot mess right up to the end, promising to unveil his unfinished Proustian masterpiece that never was, Answered Prayers, almost to his dying breath, expelled in 1984.
This familiar narrative of Capote’s remarkable life-cum-cautionary tale is dutifully recounted by Ebs Burnough in The Capote Tapes, a documentary whose calling card is the inclusion of never-before-aired audio clips in which friends, colleagues, and a hodgepodge of other intimates discuss the late author and their relationships with him. These titular aural interviews were conducted by George Plimpton, co-founder of The Paris Review and East Coast cultural jack-of-all-trades, in researching a 1997 biography of the deceased writer and socialite. While the recurring image of a reel-to-reel tape machine dominates the film visually as choice snippets of the newly discovered recordings are played, the documentary also prominently features talking-head appearances by many of Capote’s contemporaries, as well as some excellent vintage footage and photographs that bring both the writer’s heyday and subsequent decay into vivid focus.
For those acquainted with his biography beyond the fictional character of Dill in lifelong friend Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the 2005 film starring an Oscar-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman, there’s not much new here in terms of the highlights of Capote’s life (exception: information provided by “adopted daughter” Kate Harrington), though the perspectives and details offered in a few instances are illuminating. In particular, there’s the section of the film relating to his friendships with the “Swans,” the wealthy New York City society doyennes like Babe Paley and Slim Keith who embraced their wittily entertaining ugly duckling only to mercilessly drop him upon the perceived betrayal of their confidences in the gossipy opening chapter of his opus-in-progress that was excerpted in Esquire in 1975. It’s a titillating story of social suicide worthy of Capote’s imagination, had he only dared to inscribe it with his own words.
Read our interview with the director, “Ebs Burnough Plays The Capote Tapes,” Aug. 5, 2020.
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