‘The Capote Tapes’ serves up a powerful cautionary tale

“The Capote Tapes” (2019 production, 2021 release). Cast: Interviews: Dick Cavett, Jay McInerney, Sally Quinn, André Leon Talley, Kate Harrington, Dotson Rader, Sadie Stein, Lewis Lapham, John Richardson, Colm Toíbín, Stephen Mitchell (voiceovers). Archive Footage/Interviews: Truman Capote, Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Candice Bergen, Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Johnny Carson, Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill, Harper Lee, Perry Smith, William F. Buckley Jr., John Megna, George Axelrod, Gavin Lambert, Barbara Lawrence, Babs Simpson, Bob Colacello, Donald Brooks, Jack Dunphy, Babe Paley, Kate Paley, Bill Paley, Ann Woodward, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli, Louise Malhado Grunwald, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Loel Guinness, Phoebe Pierce, Nancy Ryan, Leonora Hornblow, Piedy Lumet, Judy Green. Director: Ebs Burnough. Screenplay: Ebs Burnough and Holly Whiston. Web site. Trailer.

It’s truly astounding how we can sometimes blind ourselves to what should be obvious. Yet, if we let our imaginations run wild, we may fall prey to delusional notions that leave us oblivious and sitting in the middle of a mess that’s nearly impossible to rectify. It might not matter how intelligent or talented we are, either; when erroneous beliefs settle in and make themselves comfortable in our consciousness, there’s no telling what havoc they can unleash. As unlikely as such a prospect may seem, however, that’s exactly what happened to a prominent American literary icon, as detailed in the captivating and stunning new documentary, “The Capote Tapes.”

Truman Capote (1924-1984) was one of the most noteworthy American authors of the 20th Century, even if he was not known for being overly prolific. Born in New Orleans as Truman Streckfus Persons, he was abandoned by his mother when she divorced his father. At age 2, he was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, and, several years later, when his mother remarried, Truman moved to New York and took the last name of his Cuban stepfather, José Garcia Capote. But, by the time he moved north, many aspects of his future had already started to develop, particularly his love of writing and his fascination with the lives of others.

While still living in Alabama, Truman’s innate interest in writing received a boost from his relationship with friend, neighbor and budding wordsmith Harper Lee (1926-2016), who would later go on to become the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Capote and Lee had many childhood adventures together and would remain lifelong friends and colleagues. What’s more, they were also sources of literary inspiration for one another. Lee provided the template for one of the characters in Capote’s debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, while Truman was the inspiration for Dill Harris, a talkative, precocious young lad who always seemed to be in the middle of everybody’s business in Mockingbird. One need only see actor John Megna’s portrayal of the character in the movie version of Lee’s book (as apparent in film clips included in this documentary) to see how Truman helped give birth to the fictional youngster’s pompous, busybody persona. In many ways, a young Capote would eventually grow up to become the adult, real life version of Dill Harris, and that’s important to recognize in light of what this film is all about.

When the scampish young storyteller from the South arrived in the Big Apple, the talents and traits that emerged in his formative years continued to grow. As he was wont to do in the land of his roots, he was known for being a gossip. His flamboyant personality flourished, too, unabashedly expressing himself as an openly gay man, a prohibitively uncommon practice at the time. These qualities helped to ingratiate Truman into New York’s high society; his exotic, eccentric and outlandish manners captivated a community of often-unhappy and terminally bored individuals. Nevertheless, Truman relished these interactions with the rich, famous and powerful, and, as he spent time with them, he listened to everything he heard, tucking away the information for as-yet-determined future use. This included not only the flattering details, but also “the dirt” that many of his high society friends were hoping to keep hidden. Unfortunately for them, they had no idea who they were really dealing with.

In essence, that’s what this film is all about. In 1997, author and journalist George Plimpton (1927-2003) penned Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, a biography for which he interviewed a wide array of Truman’s associates. Plimpton, who was well known as the ringmaster of many elite New York house parties (many of which Capote attended), used the tapes of those interviews to write the book, but the recordings themselves were never made public – until now. They paint a colorful, candid, no-holds-barred portrait of a man who was once the toast of Gotham but who became a pariah when he was seen as having turned his back on his onetime friends.

That material has been transformed into this film. Director Ebs Burnough presents an in-depth look at Capote’s life, particularly his relationships with others, especially late in the author’s life The filmmaker draws from Plimpton’s interviews, featuring archived audio segments with such luminaries as actresses Lauren Bacall and Candice Bergen; writers, editors and authors Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr., Barbara Lawrence, Babs Simpson, Bob Colacello, George Axelrod and Gavin Lambert; Truman’s longtime partner Jack Dunphy; and many of Capote’s acquaintances, mostly sophisticated and fashionable New York socialites (like Lee Radziwill, younger sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and Babe Paley, the supremely elegant wife of CBS Chairman Bill Paley), all of whom Truman collectively referred to as his “swans.” Intercut with these sound bites are contemporary conversations with those who knew or who have studied Capote’s works, including TV talk show host Dick Cavett; authors Jay McInerney, Dotson Rader and Colm Toíbín; journalist Sally Quinn; Vogue editor André Leon Talley; critic Sadie Stein; screenwriter Lewis Lapham; art historian John Richardson; and Truman’s adopted daughter Kate Harrington, a young woman whom he befriended when her closeted father, Jack O’Shea, left his family to begin an on-again/off-again affair with Capote. Also included are vintage television interviews with Capote, including appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show, along with narrated readings from a number of Capote’s works, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood, A Christmas Memory, and Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Despite the acclaim that Capote attained through many of his early writings (most notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, clips and trailers from the movie versions of which are included in this film), none of them achieved the degree of attention that was accorded to what was to be his final work. In the mid 1960s, Capote began work on a book titled Answered Prayers, a fictional tell-all based on his years of circulating in New York high society. The much-anticipated work, originally scheduled for publication in 1968, was the topic of considerable speculation, especially given the subject matter and the astronomical advance he received to write it.

However, Capote’s progress on this new book came slowly. It was the first work he attempted to write after penning In Cold Blood, a nonfiction crime novel about the brutal killing of a Kansas farm family and the subsequent trial and execution of its perpetrators. That project wore heavily on him, especially in light of the highly personal, clandestinely quasi-romantic relationship he developed with one of the convicted murderers, Perry Smith. The rigorous, emotionally draining work involved in this undertaking, as well as the story’s eventual outcome, left Capote “a basket case,” according to one of his colleagues. He had difficulty getting back to writing after that.

In addition, Capote began a downward spiral of substance abuse. His drinking and addiction to prescription painkillers took a toll on him, landing him in and out of rehab. He also experienced emotional distancing in his relationship with his partner. It was indeed a hard time to stay focused on writing a new book, one that Capote himself had heavily banked on as being the crowning achievement of his career.

For much of his career, author Truman Capote was respected and successful. But, in penning his final novel, he crossed lines that cost him dearly, as seen in the captivating new documentary, “The Capote Tapes.” Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

Given the crushing weight of these issues, Capote appeared to be losing interest in writing. When asked about his slow progress on Answered Prayers, he described the book as “my posthumous novel … either I will kill it, or it will kill me.” Instead, Truman seemed more preoccupied with cultivating celebrity, both for himself and in his relationships. In 1966, for example, he staged his legendary Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a spectacle of celebrities that drew approximately 540 guests. He also made many appearances on TV talk shows and even took a stab at screen acting in the Neil Simon comedy “Murder by Death” (1976).

Eventually, however, Capote managed to resume work on the book, several advance chapters of which were published in Esquire magazine in 1975 and 1976. Much to his surprise, however, the reception was not what was expected. While he often insisted that Answered Prayers was merely a work of fiction, he also openly admitted during a talk show interview that it wasn’t. The detailed descriptions of incidents involving his friends were too thinly veiled to not be identified for what they really were. He naïvely thought he could simply change the names of the characters and nobody would recognize who he was talking about.

In the published excerpts, Capote revealed unspeakably horrible and shocking details about the deepest, darkest secrets of very high-profile individuals through the supposedly fictional adventures of characters who were obviously based on his friends. For instance, he wrote a segment about a woman who was apparently patterned after New York socialite Ann Woodward, contending that the character had had her wealthy, old money husband killed, a fate not unlike what befell Woodward herself. Similarly, he wrote about a philandering character allegedly based on CBS Chairman Bill Paley, who had an affair during which he experienced an embarrassing incident of attempting to have sex with a woman while she was on her period.

Because of such accounts, Capote’s friends walked away in droves. According to Kate Harrington, Truman shocked and hurt his friends in two ways – first by revealing the precise nature of their dirty little secrets and then by betraying the confidences he supposedly placed in those friendships. For his part, Capote had difficulty believing that his familiars would react as they did. In fact, prior to the excerpts’ publication, he even boastfully proclaimed that “No one’s going to be upset with me [about the book] unless they’re left out.” So much for underestimating one’s friends.

This failed effort cost Capote a lot. He lost many of his friends. His relationship was severely strained. His health began failing quickly. And he never wrote another book. In fact, it’s unclear whether he even completed Answered Prayers (or had any intention to do so). Consequently, a full novel was never available for publication, despite the project’s many, many years of development. It’s a project that author Jay McInerney speculated could qualify it as one of the all-time greatest literary hoaxes.

Capote died in 1984. But, considering what he lost prior to that time, one could say he died well before that. A series of poor choices led to his downfall, and, as they unfolded, they spawned many problems that he sadly didn’t anticipate.

This illustrates what can happen when we embrace questionable beliefs, and that’s important in light of the role our thoughts, beliefs and intents play in shaping the nature of our existence. This is the end product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw on the power of these intangible resources in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s unclear whether Capote ever heard of this school of thought, but it’s apparent that it had considerable impact on his life, both for better and worse.

One of my favorite Old World expressions offers up a simple but important piece of advice: “Don’t shit where you eat.” As this axiom maintains, we can set ourselves up for real trouble when we chart a perilous course, especially one that’s foolishly embarked upon intentionally. Our beliefs are powerful tools in materializing what shows up in our existence, and, when we wield them recklessly, problems often await us, which is what happened to Truman.

One need only look to Truman’s life experience to see where some of his problematic beliefs originated. For example, even though Truman had become famous as a prominent fixture in New York high society, he was never truly accepted in the way he thought he was or wanted to be, and, on some level, he may have suspected this, even if it wasn’t consciously acknowledged. As a number of the film’s archived and contemporary interviews reveal, he was treated like a court jester. According to his friend and swan Slim Keith, Truman was liked for being “a freak,” a curiosity, but not as someone New York high society sincerely embraced as one of its own. According to John Richardson, Capote was “expected to perform,” with Harrington characterizing him as being “the entertainment.” Capote also often played the role of “walker,” an escort for high society women when they attended events unaccompanied, a role frequently assumed by gay men. Truman willingly did this for the access it provided, despite the fact that it came to be seen as a role in which he essentially was “a servant” for the wealthy.

In 1966, at the height of his popularity, author Truman Capote (right) staged the Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a grand celebration of high society life, as depicted in director Ebs Burnough’s debut feature, “The Capote Tapes.” Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

One could argue that Capote came to believe, at least subconsciously, that he was being used and that he felt the need to get back at those who took advantage of him. And this, in part, could have been his motivation for writing Answered Prayers. But one also can’t help but ask, “Is retribution a wise course?” Based on how events unfolded here, it’s obviously something that could have used some more reasoned assessment before acting, especially in light of the connection between actions and consequences.

As became apparent as far back as his childhood, Capote was fascinated with the lives of others. He playfully enjoyed swapping overheard stories, and, over time, he made a ritual of starting his days by trading juicy tidbits with gossip columnists. But there’s a big difference between impishly exchanging tasty little morsels with fellows and seeking to capitalize on that information for personal gain or vengeful payback. Indeed, as Truman boldly proclaims in an interview included in the film, “These people are my material.” And, considering how he used that material, he made himself a target for the same kind of retribution he was dishing out.

Moreover, given Truman’s stormy upbringing, the search for love and acceptance was a priority for him throughout his life. His belief in this need was obvious and sincere. But, considering the way he went about seeking its fulfillment, he seemed to pursue it at all costs and without regard for the consequences, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. This practice would help to explain his sexual promiscuity, for instance, especially later in life, when his relationship with Jack Dunphy began to slide. It might also shed light on Truman’s infatuation with Perry Smith, a desperate romantic longing for someone who is inherently unavailable.

Un-conscious creation would also help to account for the retribution theme that characterized some of Truman’s personal motivations. For example, Holly Golightly, the protagonist of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a “café society girl” who “escorted” wealthy men in exchange for various forms of remuneration, was said to have been based largely on Truman’s mother, who abandoned him to pursue her own interests when he was still a toddler. Can one imagine a greater betrayal than that when it comes to the need for pursuing absent love and acceptance? And is it any surprise that it might subsequently come to be a source of intentional reprisal for someone who lived through such circumstances? If that’s indeed the case, then, it’s easy to see how such a characterization might arise – and how a project like Answered Prayers could be viewed as an extension of that same thinking, only writ much, much larger.

Capote’s plan to undertake Answered Prayers makes clear another belief-related problem – embracing delusional, unrealistic notions. There is a distinct difference between visionary ideas and wishful thinking, and, in many ways, Truman followed the latter when it came to this book. That’s apparent in his belief that the subjects who served as sources of inspiration for this novel would unquestionably see it as fiction, that any similarities between them and his characters would be dismissively overlooked or, even more outlandishly, that they’d be flattered to be included in the book. As friend Slim Keith succinctly put it, “He was a shit stirrer.” Indeed, how utterly naïve can one be?

What’s more, Capote had overly idealistic expectations for what this book would be. He saw it as a masterpiece in the making, a work that he placed on par with writings of the likes of French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Like playwright and satirist Oscar Wilde, Capote was full of himself in this regard, holding an obviously inflated opinion of the work in progress. And, when he premiered portions of the draft in readings to close friends, they often burst his bubble, calling the work “shallow.” But, when it comes to writing that amounts to little more than “fictionalized” accounts of gossip, should he have really been surprised by so honest an assessment?

Clearly there was a need for better discernment here. However, given the circles that Capote traveled in, that capability may have very well become lost, making it difficult to employ it objectively or judiciously. That green-lighted his unrealistic beliefs, actions and expectations, and, sadly, they didn’t pan out as hoped for, falling prey to a host of unexpected, unintended and unwanted side effects that cost Truman virtually everything. So much for prayers being answered.

“The Capote Tapes” presents a captivating look at a talented, troubled and towering figure. It incorporates a wealth of insightful observations and captivating archive material, providing us with a compelling look at a different world and a different time. It also delivers a potent caution that we should all heed when it comes to the projects we undertake and the implications they can carry. After all, given that none of us wants to be a source of shadowy whispering for our failings (especially our most embarrassing ones), it shouldn’t take much to see where the protagonist here went wrong if we’re to avoid a similar fate. Keeping our own noses clean is always advisable, but that doesn’t give us license to point out the shortcomings of others, either. The film is playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

It should be noted that this offering is not to be confused with “Truman & Tennessee,” another film about Capote released earlier this year. That documentary examines the life and work of the author, as well as his long-term friendship with fellow writer Tennessee Williams. “Truman & Tennessee” does not delve into the Answered Prayers story to any great length, thus providing a wholly different, and considerably more flattering, look at this iconic artist.

Ideally, we’d all like to hope that we should be able to walk away from a cautionary tale like this fully aware of the kinds of mistakes to avoid. But will such a lesson truly sink in? That ultimately depends on the beliefs we each hold. If we recognize the wayward example set here and embrace notions designed to counteract such misguided pursuits, we should be fine. However, if we stubbornly cling to ideas that stem from wishful thinking or clouded judgment, we could saddle ourselves with burdens not unlike those Capote experienced, and no amount of prayer would likely be sufficient enough to extricate ourselves from such circumstances. Relying on a rosary to get ourselves out of a jam may not be nearly as effective as simply learning how to prevent such fiascos in the first place.

Copyright © 2020-2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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