“THE CAPOTE TAPES”— Remembering Capote


Remembering Capote

Amos Lassen

Here is Truman Capote in all of his disingenuous glory. “The Capote Tapes” is part character assassination, part hidden/lost manuscript mystery, controversial and very entertaining. We just do not know whether or not to believe it.  Capote was a hard-drinker, a pill-popper and a “disco-dancing pitiable diva” who  took no prisoners. He was regarded as a figure of/for fun, had and lost many a noteworthy friend all in the name of the literature that made and [eventually] killed him. “The Capote Tapes” is a documentary film that is pieced together from recently found audio tapes with archival footage with ‘fresh’ voices and opinions. It is not the definitive portrait…and, definitely not a tabloid kiss-and-tell.  Director Ebs Burnough  balances the good and bad and the affection that he has for Capote is what makes this film play so well.

Newly discovered interviews with friends of Truman Capote made by Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton are the basis for this documentary about Capote, the author and socialite. Truman Capote was a singular figure in the 20th century. With no apologies, he appeared on television at a time when most gay men tried to avoid publicity. “His high-pitched voice imparted wit and indiscretion. His fiction was both popular and critically revered; then he reinvented nonfiction and crime writing with ‘In Cold Blood’. His work has a deep cinematic legacy from the sanitized adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Capote.”

“The Capote Tapes” gives us a fresh portrait of the man and it reinvigorates our understanding of Truman Capote. Among the film’s revelations are newly discovered tapes of interviews that The Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton conducted with Capote’s friends for a never-completed biography.

The film spends time on Capote’s final uncompleted novel “Answered Prayers” which was to expose Manhattan’s social aristocracy after he became friendly with some of the A-listers. Capote published three excerpts as magazine pieces that caused high scandals and recriminations, but no further manuscript was ever found. Plimpton’s tapes give new thoughts  on what happened. The tapes are interwoven with Capote’s notorious television appearances and insightful interviews with personalities Dick Cavett and Jay McInerney. One unexpected interview is with Capote’s assistant Kate Harrington whose father was his lover.

Filmmaker Ebs Burnough brings an understanding of elite cultural circles and adroitly navigates the complexities of Capote’s life. The film includes Capote’s darker side, but it really celebrates his achievements. This is a “peek behind the curtain into the life of the great writer, his troubled mind, and the book(s) that killed him.” 

Director Burnough has quite an extensive resume  that includes working as the social secretary and brand strategist for Michelle Obama and whose personal life is cited in society page reports about the kind of soirées that Truman Capote himself might have attended during his life. The doc is a revealing study of society life from someone who has been among the inner workings of the world from its upper echelon. Burnough’s access to archival materials is quite amazing. 

The film is, in effect, a time capsule of high society glamour in the 1950s and ‘60s as Capote thrives in the nightlife. There are images of his famed Black and White Ball and “opulent illustrations of Capote’s loneliness.” Burnough finds sadness in Capote’s desire to be loved, throwing parties to elevate himself in a world to which he was an outsider. We also see his cruelty in using these friendships to propel his work.

The recently-discovered audio interviews conducted by George Plimpton of “The Paris Review”, haunt the film with value judgements and razor-sharp one-liners. The elite members of New York’s social circle tell great tales but they speak plainly. Plimpton taped interviews with Capote’s “friends” as he was preparing to write  a biography that, like Capote’s final novel, was never finished.

That incomplete Capote book, “Answered Prayers” becomes mythic proportions in the new interviews conducted for this film, alongside the Capote tapes and the archival interviews with the author. Some people say that Capote finished it and assume the manuscript lost, while others doubt he ever actually wrote it aside from the few excerpts that were published in magazines. It is a literary little black book that allegedly dishes dirty secrets that Capote gathered while mixing with Manhattan’s socialites and observing their behavior.  Burnough’s film builds to the unfinished chapter of Capote’s life, but to understand why Capote never completed it (or never published if he did), we must one must learn why the book was such a betrayal for Capote’s friends.

The film builds Capote’s biography into his literary oeuvre, “treating books as the adverbs to the verbs of his life”. From his early years growing up on Park Avenue with his mother and her second husband, the film sees Capote as a master social climber and navigator. He learns the ins and outs of the social circles and becomes a confidante and companion to many of his mother’s friends after she committed suicide. He endears himself to his circle of women that he lovingly/sarcastically calls “swans,” and they receive some of the most brutal blows in the parts of Answered Prayers that were published.

The film looks at Capote’s unlikely celebrity during the years of his success. Burnough shows how Capote always made an impression, whether through his interviews or his piercing stare. In his breakthrough novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, Capote “ openly and unabashedly chronicled the desires of gay men.” 

The interviews show how Capote modeled Holly Golightly upon his mother (a somewhat controversial choice given that Holly is a small town girl working as an escort of the wealthy men of Manhattan). The sequence on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” shows  Capote’s process that led to “Answered Prayers” and we know that it’s common for authors to draw from life, but Capote’s biographical influences are too obvious for comfort.

 Capote’s manipulation of his personal relationships is most evident in “In Cold Blood”. The film intricately builds Capote’s panache for being the life of the party with his sense of entitlement over the lives of those he invited to the table, while his abuse of relationships compounded the alcoholism he used to numb the pain. There is some wild footage of Capote in his later years as he appears on talk shows either drunk or drugged and aged beyond his years because excess pleasures.

The talking heads and interviewees suggest that regardless of the completion of “Answered Prayers”, Capote was breaking ground again as he did with “In Cold Blood”. Excerpts of “Answered Prayers” are filled with  gossip  and the interviews argue that Capote anticipated the mania of reality television and, social media selfie culture. Everyone wants to be adored, loved, and famous in the worlds of Truman Capotes, but this come with a price, as the film poignantly shows.

No character created by Capote on the page ever gave off quite the magnetic damaged resonance of his own. Capote died in 1984, at 59, having spent the last 18 years of his life living off of his tremendous celebrity. Capote would have done well to place himself at the center of his fiction but he left himself out (he remained the silvery observer, the ghost voyeur),  and then he burned himself out. He was “consumed by a toxic cocktail of gossip, alcohol, and prescription drugs, he lived the high life but trashed his promise.” In doing so, he remained a character par excellence.

There’s great footage of Capote wandering the back roads of Kansas during the years he was there reporting “In Cold Blood.” However, the essence of “The Capote Tapes” is a kind of immersion into the man and   who he was and the worlds he moved within.“The Capote Tapes” captures the Truman Capote who wormed himself into the world of the wealthy, the elite, and aristocratic women who became his reason to exist. His fall actually began before it became visible, with the suicide of his alcoholic social-climbing mother. He never recovered from the lack of acceptance she had shown him.

A friend says that Capote swore by the motto, “Don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Capote never believed anyone loved him but it was almost as if he’d designed it that way: he knew that people were reacting to a performance. The Truman they might have loved was kept hidden away.

“The Capote Tapes” leaves us with a “Truman Capote who became the most famous writer of his time yet was too broken to answer his own prayers.”

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