There’s a necrophiliac fascination to this documentary about the life and times of Truman Capote, author of the 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s – filmed with Audrey Hepburn – and the true-crime reportage masterpiece In Cold Blood from 1966. The latter was about the brutal slaying of a Kansas farming family in which the cold-bloodedness of the crime was matched by the cold-bloodedness of Capote’s literary and journalistic performance – befriending the culprits with prison visits and privately agitating for their death penalty to give his book a sensational ending. If anyone had the splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene said a novelist needed, it was him.
Capote was also a gay man in an era when being one was dangerous, but when those prominent in the arts could hide it in plain sight with extravagant mannerisms. Norman Mailer admired his courage and I found myself thinking of a German word invented by the English writer Ben Schott: schmetterlingsschnauze, or “butterfly jaws” – the toughness of the dandy.
The Capote Tapes from Ebs Burnough, based on a cache of audiotaped interviews with Capote’s intimates made by Paris Review editor George Plimpton, is chiefly about the strange case of Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. This was his anatomy of the New York idle rich with whom Capote mingled and for whom he threw the supposedly legendary Black and White Ball in New York in 1966, a bafflingly iconic event whose guest list – like the cast of people on whom Answered Prayers is based – now seems mostly like a pageant of wealthy mediocrities and Eurotrash narcissists. Maybe Capote’s novel-fragment attacking them was intended as the definitive, contemptuous dismissal: a final flick of the switch on the electric chair.
If anyone had the splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene said a novelist needed, it was him. But the contempt was surely also for himself. When a few chapters were published, it apparently lost him some A-lister friends, though he gained new ones to hang out with at Studio 54 in the 70s, including his acolyte Andy Warhol – who was really Capote’s cultural heir in the new age of celebrity. (This film could have said more about their relationship.) It is salutary to be reminded of a great writer, whose heyday was at a time when literary authors were at the center of culture.
Peter Bradshaw is a U.K.-based writer and film critic
The Capote Tapes is available in the U.K., with a U.S. release to come shortly