The old line you hear about certain authors — he’s as much of a character as anyone in his books! — doesn’t tend to be true even when we say it. Yet in Truman Capote’s case, it’s virtually an understatement. No character he created on the page ever gave off quite the magnetic damaged resonance of his own.
He told the tale of his own youth, more or less, in “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948), the autobiographical novel that put Capote — and his homosexuality — on the map. Holly Golightly, from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958), is an indelibly chic vagabond-waif, but the main reason we still talk about her is the 1961 movie version that cast Audrey Hepburn as a so-toned-down-she-was-barely-even-the-same-character version of Holly. Capote singlehandedly invented the New Journalism with “In Cold Blood” (1966), but as revolutionary as that book was, the disappointment of it, to me, has always been that Capote’s portrait of the two killers doesn’t go deep enough. (He paved the way for Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” but it was Mailer who made good on the dramatic possibilities of the ”non-fiction novel.”)
And then? Then, Capote was done. He died in 1984, at 59, having spent the last 18 years of his life feeding off the fumes of his celebrity — which was immense — and failing to complete another book. Joel Harrison Knox from “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” Holly Golightly, the murderous Perry Smith? Good characters all. But how could any of them compete, in the end, with Capote himself, the high-society homunculous dandy with the wispy baby voice and the queen-bitch remarks that dripped like honey and scalded like acid? 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), then burned himself out.
“The Capote Tapes,” a meticulous and lovingly assembled documentary that takes in Capote’s life and career, but with a special emphasis on the years after “In Cold Blood,” goes over a lot of terrain you already know, and pokes into a lot of corners you didn’t. It offers, among other things, a definitive recounting of the broken saga of “Answered Prayers,” the epic novel of New York society — Proust for the age of Warhol — that Capote was supposedly writing for 10 years, though in the end he only produced three chapters of it. Consumed by a toxic cocktail of gossip, alcohol, and prescription drugs, he lived the high life but trashed his promise. Yet in doing so, he remained a character par excellence. “The Capote Tapes” could have been called “In Cold Fame.”
Assembled with fluid psychology and skill by the first-time documentary filmmaker Ebs Burnough, the movie is built around a series of reel-to-reel audiotape recordings in which George Plimpton interviewed Capote’s “friends, enemies, acquaintances, and detractors” for his 1997 oral history of Capote. Burnough supplements the interviews, heard here for the first time, with his own on-camera talking heads and layers the whole thing with hundreds of never-before-seen photographs and home movies.
Are there revelations? One or two. There’s great footage of Capote wandering the desolate back roads of Kansas during the years he was there reporting “In Cold Blood.” But the essence of “The Capote Tapes” is a kind of immersion in Truman Capote — in who he was and the worlds he moved within.
Take, for instance, the Black and White Ball, the fabled masquerade ball that Capote threw at the Plaza Hotel on November 28, 1966. It’s an event that has been chronicled in great detail, yet watching “The Capote Tapes” you feel like you’re there. There’s Norman Mailer giving Capote a playful punch, there’s Frank and Mia looked spooked, there’s Principessa Luciana Pignatelli wearing a jewel so huge at the center of her forehead that she was shadowed all night by a pair of Pinkerton security detectives, there’s the swirl of New York’s power players looking slightly abashed in their Venetian masks. And here’s a telling anecdote about how Truman greeted each and every one of his 540 guests with the giddiness of a 12-year-old boy, jumping up and down and telling each one that they were the best thing ever.
He was really telling that to himself. “The Capote Tapes” captures the Truman Capote who embedded himself with the wealthy, the elite, and the bevy of aristocratic women he called his “swans,” mostly because without them he felt like he didn’t exist. His genius for branding was evident from the photograph he insisted on for the back jacket of “Other Voices, Other Rooms”: Truman, sprawled on a couch, a boyish blond sprite lost in his insinuating beauty. That shot became so iconic that one of the swans describes how when you walked down a New York street with the young Truman, everyone stared at him. And that was before he began to turn into the even more famous bloated talk-show version of himself. His tumble into that abyss 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.
The people on the tapes include Mailer, who tells a terrific story about drinking with Truman in an old Irish bar and realizing what adrenaline (and courage) Capote must have lived with at every moment, and a friend who says that Capote swore by the motto, “Don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story.” The film’s highly compelling interview subjects include Dick Cavett, André Leon Talley, and Capote’s close friend Dotson Rader, who does a peerless impersonation of Capote and says, with authoritative conviction, that Truman never believed anyone loved him. But then, it was almost as if he’d designed it that way: His baby-genius-on-acid persona was so entertaining that he knew, at every moment, that people were reacting to a performance. The Truman they might have loved was kept hidden away.
That distance became treacherous when, in 1975, he finally published an excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” the magnum opus people were waiting for as ardently as they waited for Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind.” The three chapters turned out to be not just gossip but a compendium of secrets — the things that his swans had told him in confidence. They felt morbidly betrayed, especially his closest friend, Babe Paley.
Yet the movie makes the case that what looked ugly (and not very literary) at the time was, in fact, Capote’s anticipation of the harsh-glare voyeuristic age of reality TV. He got there first, just as Kenneth Anger anticipated the tabloid era with “Hollywood Babylon.” But did he have the rest of the book stashed away? Jay McInerney, interviewed in the film, says he’s all but certain that no more of the book ever existed. But Dotson Rader believes that the manuscript absolutely exists, and is convinced that someday it will be found. Until then, “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.