There have been two excellent biopics about Truman Capote but now the documentary The Capote Tapes takes an all-new approach, based on never-heard audio recordings. Boyz film critic Jack Cline reviews the new documentary.
Truman Capote portrait taken by Irving Penn
Truman Capote is one of the most colourful figures from queer history, an author and public personality who was far ahead of his time. This queen diva was a major figure on the New York social scene from the mid-1950s into the early 1980s. There have been two excellent biopics about him: Capote (2005), for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar, and Infamous(2006), with the London Critics’ prize-winningToby Jones.
And now the documentary The Capote Tapes takes an all-new approach, based on never-heard audio recordings made by notorious journalist George Plimpton, who interviewed Capote’s iconic friends after his death in 1984 at age 59. Filmmaker Ebs Burnough plays these recordings as a voiceover along with a terrific mix of archival footage, movie clips and new on-screen comments from people who knew and worked with him. And everyone has a number of juicy anecdotes to share.
Truman Capote at the Black and White Ball, 1966
These lost interviews include the likes of Candice Bergen, Lee Radziwill (Jackie O’s little sister), playwright Norman Mailer, pundit William Buckley Jr and Capote’s long-time boyfriend Jack Dunphy. And there are also comments from a range of high-society wives who swirled in Capote’s orbit, providing him with gossipy tales that he was adding into his scandalous novel Answered Prayers. Much of this doc centres on this mythical book, which only had a few excerpts published in magazines (much to the horror of these wives of the rich and powerful) and basically predicted the Real Housewives concept. Never discovered among his things, the full manuscript is like the holy grail to publishers.
Meanwhile, Capote’s family, friends and editors appear on-screen to walk us through his entire life, from the pain of being rejected as a child due to his obvious homosexuality to his emergence as a sparky celebrity on New York’s social scene who in 1966 threw what is still called the best party of all time: The Black & White Ball. The film also includes detailed explorations of his classic novels Breakfast at Tiffany’s (including the hugely de-sexed movie version) and the genre-busting In Cold Blood.
All of these things feed into a remarkably astute portrait that resonates with the larger theme of how people who don’t fit into their families or hometowns tend to move to the big cities where no one questions their colourful personalities and rampant sex lives. Capote’s flamboyantly queer writing and lifestyle were shocking in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. And his relentlessly bitchy way of lifting the lid on polite society still feels fresh and funny.
If Truman Capote were alive today, it’s likely that he’d still be in trouble with those stiff, conservatives who are trying to maintain an image of propriety. Because he’d be puncturing them mercilessly. And he’d still be ahead of his time.