Documentary Review: What he really thought, and what his “friends” really thought about him — “The Capote Tapes”

Oh, to have someone say this about you after your death.

“I haven’t had a good laugh since he died!”

Most of us only experienced the late life “public” Truman Capote, the bitchy literary gnome who flitted among the beautiful people, drank with the great and near great and the elfin “bad boy” chat show guest who scored laughs by insulting many of those whose paths he crossed.

But he was a publishing sensation at 23, world famous in his ’30s, threw “the only important (masked) ball of the 20th century,” and had barely sobered up from his infamous Studio 54 days when he died at 59 at the end of the summer of 1984.

“The Capote Tapes” is the second documentary appreciation of his talent and how he used or abused it in the space of a year, following “Truman and Tennessee,” the similarly structured (tape recordings) documentary about his long friendship and rivalry with the great playwright Tennessee Williams.

The hook here is in the title — “Tapes.” Former White House deputy social director and first-time documentary filmmaker Ebs Burnough got his hands on “tapes.” Not just talk show interviews, radio conversations or TV documentary footage from Capote’s glory years — the 1960s — although Burnough generously samples those. No, he acquired the recordings of “a journalist,” a coy early credit in the film teases, someone who knew Capote and traveled in his circle.

He could have just said “I got George Plimpton‘s extensive interviews with Capote and those in his social whirl, writers and rich people, friends and colleagues, and made a film out of them.” Because as polished and entertaining if not exactly exhaustive and thorough as “The Capote Tapes” is, with a solid lineup of fresh on-camera interviews with the likes of Dick Cavett and Jay McInerney, Sally Quinn and fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, it’s Plimpton’s work that makes it.

Plimpton got on the phone with Lauren Bacall and Lee Radziwell and Slim Keith and other surviving Capote “swans,” the beautiful society women he was friends with. He collected anecdotes from Norman Mailer about dragging Capote to a New York Irish working class bar, without thinking, and marveling over how accepted the famous, tiny and effeminate writer was and just what it “cost him” to maintain the cocky, swishy New York persona he first affected in his 20s throughout his later life. Plimpton recorded the screenwriter, George Axelrod, tasked with sanitizing Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into a general audiences blockbuster starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Mancini’s wistful “Moon River,” and got Jack Dumphy, Capote’s longtime companion on the phone.

Those interviews provide the killer, pithy quotes. “Truman saw everything and he remembered it.” Film siren Bacall called him “an intellect…someone you looked forward to seeing.” “Lionized” and “Sleazy” and “seductive,” and someone who remained, his entire life, “a naughty little kid,” Capote made an impression. And even some of the people who never forgave him for publishing a scandalous magazine excerpt of his never-finished “masterpiece” and final “non-fiction novel” “Answered Prayers,” were full of opinions they were willing to share with Plimpton after Capote’s death.

Burnough complements those with a collection of still-surviving friends and acquaintances who provide the distance and whole-life framework that the film needs. This isn’t a PBS film built on chats with Capote biographers. Here’s playwright and sometimes cruising companion Dotson Rader, and the daughter of Capote’s manager, who left his wife for a fling with the writer in the ’60s. Kate Harrington, along with chat show host Dick Cavett and peers like Lewis Lapham provide lots of context and sympathetic views of Capote’s celebrity “trap” and how his partying and drinking cost him years and books he might have written.

“Bright Lights, Big City” author Jay McInernery, a former “boy wonder” of publishing himself, adds the perspective that “early success is a bit of a curse.”

We tend to forget Mailer was a fan, and he comes off as someone who appreciated what Capote had to struggle with, from his emotionally crippling childhood to his mother’s suicide, not long after he became famous. Conservative columnist, magazine publisher and chat show host William F. Buckley Jr., a notorious homophobe, gave Plimpton a snide, patrician thought on two of the “not a fan” variety.

The movie leaves out much of Capote’s Hollywood experience, and avoids some worn out anecdotes while recycling others, such as Capote regaling Johnny Carson about how “great an actor” Brando is, while noting that he is “so stupid he makes your skin crawl.”

The most revealing Capote nugget of all might be the one that provided the title of his “lost” last book, a roman a clef that was to serve up much of the dirty gossip about “the bored rich” he thought he’d become friends with, but whom he came to realize “saw him as a servant.”

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

The early fame, topped by the sensation that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” created, may have allowed him to host the celebrated, all-star “Black and White Ball” at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1966. His celebrity exceeded his wildest dreams, and led to endless travel, sailing yacht vacations and every high society invitation that was worth having. He was a gay icon before such creatures existed, and normalized gay acceptance with every florid and flamboyant TV appearance.

But in the end, those “answered prayers” were his undoing as a star writer, A-list guest and famous wit.

This may not be the “definitive” Capote biography. Perhaps PBS will be the one to get around to that, some day. Burnough’s still made an entertaining and generally brisk overview of the career and the life of the most famous writer of his day.

Rating: Unrated, profanity, adult subject matter

Cast: Dick Cavett, Kate Harrington, Sally Quinn, Dotson Rader, Jay McInerney, Lewis Lapham, Andre Leon Talley and the voices of Truman Capote, George Plimpton, William F. Buckley Jr., Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer, Lee Radziwell and Slim Keith.

Credits: Directed by Ebs Burnough, scripted by Ebs Burnough and Holly Whiston. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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