Capote vs. the Swans: Watch why it was the scandal of an era

When a celebrated writer reveals the intimate secrets of his socialite friends

Capote vs. the Swans

Feud: Capote vs. the Swans
8 episodes

My favorite line in The Sound of Music is said by actor Richard Haydn. He played the opportunist friend of the Baroness and is Uncle Max to the Von Trapp children. He quips, “I like rich people. I like the way they live. I like the way I live when I’m with them.”

Since the 1930s, many Hollywood films featured variations of Uncle Max.  He’s the sort of man who came from humble beginnings and he gets to insinuate himself with the very rich. Oftentimes he’s tasked to serve as confidante to wealthy but unhappy women. He‘s usually fey, which was the word Hollywood used for being gay in those golden years.

Uncle Max is thriving well in some of today’s movies, especially the homegrown ones (onscreen and off-screen). It’s more interesting when the plot is based on fact and the protagonists are real and larger-than life. Such is the case of Truman Capote, the esteemed author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. He was already the toast of the literary world when he became a fixture in New York society. His friend David O. Selznick (producer of Gone with the Wind) had introduced him to socialite Babe Paley (wife of CBS head William Paley).

Capote and Mrs. Paley became fast friends. He was now her confidante and a part of her rarified circle of friends that included Jacqueline Kennedy’s younger sister Lee Radziwill (whose ex-husbands included a Polish prince and a Hollywood director), Slim Keith (ex- husbands included a Hollywood director, a Broadway producer, and a British baron), and CZ Guest (married and widowed just once!). Capote called them his swans. Perhaps it was because the ladies were very slim, tall, and willowy.  They also carried an air of elegance that seemed innate.  It was easy to tell they led a life of privilege.

His friendship with them soured when he wrote a short story, a roman a clef on the swans. It revealed the dirt of troubled marriages, especially that of the Paleys. Titled La Cote Basque 1965 (the name of the restaurant they frequented), it was published by Esquire Magazine in 1975, and billed as an excerpt from his upcoming novel Answered Prayers. The story emerged to be the scandal of the year.

The repercussions of this betrayal were almost immediate. He was ostracized by the swans and he stopped receiving invitations to their parties. Being estranged and blacklisted led to depression. Alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy sexual and romantic relationships took their toll on his health and his ability to continue writing.

This is the story producer/director Ryan Murphy tells in his latest miniseries, Feud: Capote vs. the Swans.  Now streaming on Disney +, the eight-episode show encompasses the second season of Feud. Its first season showcased the epic animosity between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Ryan Murphy has produced several high-profile TV shows and films. Many of them are about gay men, both fictional (The Boys in the Band) and non-fiction (Halston). He broke ground with the provocative Nip/Tuck. His shows are also known for their first-rate production values.

The script was partly based on the book Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era by Laurence Leamer. In the series the story is told in non-linear form. It begins with Capote (played by Tom Hollander) driving alone on a desolate highway in California, just months before his demise. He stops the car to do some reminiscing. And so we’re shown the first flashback.

Capote’s advice: Stick to the marriage. Being the Mrs. Paley is better than being a bitter New York divorcee. Force the cheating husband to buy that expensive painting

The first flashback is designed to give viewers a jolt. We get too see how close he was to Babe Paley (Naomi Watts). He was the go-to person whenever there was a crisis in her marriage to William Paley (Treat Williams in his final role).  It reenacts a bombshell of a scandal that effectively jumpstarts the show. She now wanted a divorce. Capote’s advice:  Stick to the marriage. Being the Mrs. Paley is better than being a bitter New York divorcee. Force the cheating husband to buy her that expensive painting she coveted.

Indeed, the scene clearly illustrates why Capote was so treasured by his swans. He was gay confidante, marriage counselor, court jester, and Abigail Van Buren all rolled into one. Further flashbacks dwell into the blossoming friendships between the literary genius and these four ladies who lunch. And because it’s a Ryan Murphy production, the show dares to include his dalliances with men.

Capote the iconic writer comes to life courtesy of Tom Hollander who loses himself in the part. Capote was tiny (barely five feet tall) and rotund. He spoke with a strange and snarky but recognizable voice. Any actor who played him ran the risk of doing a caricature.  Hollander expertly avoids that. He’s a triumph in the part.

The real Capote did turn himself into a sort of cartoon character when was cast in a major movie. It was the star-studded whodunit spoof, Murder by Death.  He was the film’s single liability. He comes across as Daffy Duck trading barbs with the likes of Peters Sellers and Maggie Smith. Amazingly, the making of that movie was recreated in this series.

One of the highlights of the show is the Black and White ball Capote hosted in New York in 1966.  The Ascot Gavotte number in My Fair Lady was the inspiration. At that time he was still basking in the success of In Cold Blood. He had New York at his feet and his ball (a masquerade) was the only game in town.

In Feud’s first season, Ryan Murphy painstakingly recreated the 1963 Academy Awards. Every detail of that Oscar night was accurately reconstructed, from the hubbub backstage to the silver powder that was dusted on Joan Crawford’s hair to match her silver gown.

I expected the same kind of treatment for Capote’s ball, which was filmed to resemble a news reel or a 1960s version of a reality show. The black-and-white footage was supposedly shot by a famous documentary filmmaker Capote had hired (that actually didn’t happen). Further embellishments include confrontations between Slim Keith (played by Diane Lane) and the woman who stole her second husband, the Washington D.C. socialite Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman (Alison Wright). Meanwhile, gatecrasher Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) was barred from entering the ballroom. A former showgirl who married well, Mrs. Woodward was blackballed following the death of her husband under mysterious circumstances.

It’s interesting to note that gold diggers Pamela Harriman and Ann Woodward were the subject of separate TV films. Both women were played by Ann-Margret. Ryan Murphy was certainly aware of this. They wrote in a scene that was an in-joke of sort. Capote is watching TV, but he quickly shuts it off when it’s announced that the next program stars Ann-Margret!

The fact that Vanity Fair published a retrospective article about the ball is a testament to the party’s social significance. What was underscored by the magazine, but was missing in this episode, was the desperation of those who weren’t invited.  It was the party of the year and not being on the guest list was equivalent to slipping off the social ladder.  According to Vanity Fair, the press begged Capote to release the list, but he did so only days after the party. It’s too bad the show overlooked this angle and went for fictional melodrama instead.

The last two episodes are rather dour…. to be expected, since Capote is well on his way to self-destruction

The last two episodes are rather dour. It’s to be expected, since Capote is well on his way to self-destruction. At this point, we noticed how claustrophobic the show is. Director Gus Van Sant fails to capture the allure of upscale New York.  It never ventures out to other fashionable locations. The restaurants don’t look chic and the penthouse apartments seem dimly lit. Capote vs. the Swans just seems like an upper-class version of Desperate Housewives or Mean Girls. It doesn’t have the sweep and majesty of The Crown and Downton Abbey. It‘s even short of wit and verve, which Feud’s first season had in spades.

Also, much of the situations of the last two episodes were mere concoctions. The ghost of Capote’s mother (played by Jessica Lange) starts haunting him. The ghost appears to serve as his conscience, and she certainly does riddle him with guilt. Likewise, his frank opinion on the swans is conveyed through an encounter with writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin (Chris Chalk). An entire episode is devoted to this meeting between two prolific authors. Since this never actually occurred, it comes across as unnecessary.

Tom Hollander’s take on Capote makes this series worth watching

Gore Vidal would have made a more intriguing adversary. He’s merely mentioned when he sues Capote for slander. I can’t understand why they didn’t involve him in any scene. He would have been a pivotal character, and he was somewhat related to Lee Radzivill.  His feud with Capote is also intriguing because Capote didn’t mince words when it came to making snide remarks about his enemies. The bitchery is intact in Capote vs. the Swans but they’re presented as mere afterthoughts.

Nevertheless, Tom Hollander’s take on Capote makes this series worth watching. He should be collecting several TV awards soon. Naomi Watts is fetching as Babe Paley. She beautifully transforms herself into the fashion plate Paley was. The rest of the cast give such expert performances. Among the other swans, it’s Chloe Sevigny who comes off best as C.Z. Guest.

Calista Flockhart is on hand as Lee Radziwill, and she doesn’t make much of an impression. It so happens that Radziwill doesn’t’ figure much in the first three episodes.  Talented as they are, these actresses lack a sense of mystery. They look too approachable, whereas the swans carried an aura that seemed inaccessible to lesser beings like us.  It’s why Jessica Lange easily steals the show with the few scenes she’s in. She’s long been the muse of Ryan Murphy, and it’s easy to see why.

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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