LIMITED SERIES "Feud: Capote vs.the Swans"
WHEN|WHERE Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Streaming on Hulu day after FX broadcast.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In 1975, Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) published a story in Esquire titled “La Côte Basque, 1965,” about the doyennes of New York high society, but mostly about their husbands' affairs. Close friends and longtime lunch companions of Capote's at the East 55th restaurant (which closed in 2004), they are friends no more. While their names had been changed, Slim Keith (Diane Lane), Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny) and Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), wife of CBS chairman William S. Paley (Treat Williams) still plot their revenge, but Paley strikes his Achilles' heel — they will ostracize him. Before publication, the Esquire piece (which was supposed to be part of a long-delayed novel, “Answered Prayers”) has tragic consequences: Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) kills herself because Capote insinuates that she murdered her husband, Bill, at their Oyster Bay home in 1955.
Why “swans?” Beautiful above the surface (Capote explains), paddling as fast as they can beneath.
This eight-parter — directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Jon Robin Baitz — is the second season of the Ryan Murphy anthology.
MY SAY There's a scene late in the fourth episode where Capote, or a long-buried version of him, comes into focus. After taking a protégé under wing and explaining how to become a writer, a middle-distance stare suddenly freezes his expression: “Start taking notes, all of it,” he advises her. “The people you talk to, the hidden sounds underneath, all the talk … where all the secrets live.”
That nice, resonant line (one of many in “Feud”) is a glimpse into the heart of technique — his own, which shaped the two triumphs (“Breakfast at Tiffany's,” “In Cold Blood'') that got Capote a ticket to the rarefied world of these “swans” in the first place. But just as quickly as this self-revelation arrives, it flickers and dies. Back to being Tru of “Capote vs. the Swans”: Vengeful, shallow, drunk and blocked.
Sometimes you have to take what you get in a series, and what you get in this one is a Capote you may not want all that much of. As brilliant as Hollander is here, his Capote circa 1975 has fallen far and has little interest in getting back on his feet. His prodigious talent hollowed out by the booze, he approaches his Smith-Corona Electra as if it's a viper about to strike. Instead he becomes the viper who strikes at will, without discrimination or discernment (but with lots of color).
Like a TV version of Sondheim's “Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company” (“a toast to that invincible bunch/The dinosaurs surviving the crunch!”), “Feud” only sees lives of quiet — and well-fed — desperation. Liquid lunches turn into venomous gripe sessions or catalogs of who's sleeping with who. Expensive chardonnay loosens tongues, then discretion. Capote hardly needs to listen to the sounds underneath. The gory details are right there for the picking. Along with their feckless Boswell, the swans are empty at the core, incapable of self-reflection, and paddling as fast as they can.
Why Capote turned on them in real life is a subject “Feud” explores, implying that he never considered this a betrayal in the first place. In his mind (pickled at the time, to be sure) this version of their truth would set them free. Besides, who wouldn't want to be immortalized by America's most famous writer?
Capote eventually understands the magnitude of his treachery when Guest lays it out to him in terms he can understand: “You cheapened the nuance of our lives'' by turning them into a “two-dimensional cave scratching.” Amends are attempted but (without giving too much away) you can guess how those turn out. Some cuts are just too deep — particularly those that scrape the bone.
BOTTOM LINE A beautifully acted, directed and written bummer.