The Capote Tapes – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director: Ebs Burnough
Writers: Ebs Burnough, Holly Whiston
Stars: Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer, Jay McInerney
Possessing neither physical beauty, a loving family, social connections or particular educational accomplishment, Truman Capote, nonetheless, blazed comet-like through the New York literary world and its hothouse-like social whirl in the 1950s and 1960s. And even when his stellar status waned he remained an iconic figure for the city.
In a New York before Sex and the City, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, he represented, at least for some, – the essence of that New Babylon. This was that city of dreams where ‘… I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere’ also resonated for generations of Irish. Challenging the staid world of the cautious post-war Truman era in publishing his gay novel; Other Voice, Other Rooms (1948), he was lionised by the cream of society, particularly the bored but uber glamourous wives of the rich and powerful, his ‘Swans’ – a world of haute couture, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, unrivalled luxury and emptiness.
Taking us into this dazzling world, The Capote Tapes, is insightful, entertaining and touching all at once. And even if one never heard of Capote it is a feast for the eyes and ears – the historic footage and archival recordings are a joy in and of themselves, a treasure trove, revealing a world that is often suggested on screen but in reality, limited to few. And one where Chatham House Rules definitely applied. It is that limitation that is the nexus of this wonderful assemblage. Following a string of literary successes, and the even greater success of his often dodgy self-invention and social triumph, Capote embarked on the never-to-be fully published Answered Prayers. It was to be his, and New York’s, answer to À la recherché du temps perdu (1913-27). But the publication of extracts in Esquire in late 1975 was like an explosion in the brittle world of the social elite. Already challenged by the changing tastes and mores of society, Capote’s insights and salacious asides was a case of biting the hand that fed him. The unprepossessing bitch entertainer that added sparkle to dinner parties was dropped like a hot potato. The documentary benefits from considered and hugely informative insights from his ‘adopted’ daughter and our own Colm Tóibín, among others. We gain insight into Capote’s world, his particular and peculiar genius. At a deeper level, we may also consider the fleeting nature of fame itself, Capote’s own, and the world of his ‘Swans’, those Manhattan princesses who were not cut out for the dance floors of Studio 54 and the new celebrity world, not to mention the social media world then not even imagined.