Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Review: ‘The Capote Tapes’

A peek behind the curtain of Truman Capote’s literary genius

8 mins read

The Capote Tapes
(UK, 91 min.)
Dir. Ebs Burnough
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

Is there anything left to say about Truman Capote after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s immersive Oscar-winning performance as the late author? The answer to this question after seeing Ebs Burnough’s insightful and thoroughly entertaining The Capote Tapes is a resounding, “Yes!” The beautifully assembled doc offers a peek behind the curtain into the life of the great writer, his troubled mind, and the book(s) that killed him.

The Capote Tapes marks an impressive debut feature for Burnough, whose extensive resume includes working as the social secretary and brand strategist for Michelle Obama and whose personal life is cited in society page reports about the kind of soirées that Truman Capote himself might have attended back in the day. The doc is a revealing study of society life from someone who has seen the inner workings of the world from its upper echelon. As a film, Burnough’s access to archival materials is quite striking.

The fluidly assembled film offers a time capsule of high society glamour in the 1950s and ‘60s as Capote thrives in the nightlife. Images of his famed Black and White Ball are snapshots from another era, but also dazzlingly opulent illustrations of Capote’s loneliness. Burnough finds a stirring note of sadness in Capote’s obvious desire to be loved, throwing parties to elevate himself in a world to which he was an outsider, and his cruelty in using these friendships to fuel his work.

Key to the film is a stash of recently-discovered audio interviews conducted by George Plimpton of The Paris Review. These voices haunt the film with frank assessments and razor-sharp witticisms. The elite members of New York’s social circle tell great tales, but they speak plainly. Plimpton conducted the titular Capote tapes with friends of the author while researching a biography that, like Capote’s final novel, was never completed.

That incomplete Capote book is Answered Prayers. It assumes mythic proportions in the new interviews conducted for Burnough’s film, as well as in the Capote tapes and the archival interviews with the author. Some people say that Capote finished it and assume the manuscript lost, while others doubt he ever actually wrote it beyond the few excerpts that were published in magazines.

This mysterious novel is the ultimate buffet of Capote lore. A literary little black book, Answered Prayers allegedly dishes dirty secrets Capote gleaned while schmoozing with Manhattan’s socialites and observing their behaviour. Answered Prayers is like a Holy Grail in literature as Burnough’s film builds to the unfinished chapter of Capote’s life, but to understand why Capote never completed it (or never published if he did) one must learn why the book was such a damning betrayal for Capote’s friends.

The drive towards answering Answered Prayers’ fuels The Capote Tapes. The film brilliantly builds Capote’s biography into his literary oeuvre, treating books as the adverbs to the verbs of his life. From his early years growing up on Park Avenue with his mother and her second husband, Burnough’s film observes Capote as a master social climber and navigator. He learns the ins and outs of the social circles and becomes a confidante and companion to many of his mother’s friends following her suicide. He endears himself to his circle of women he lovingly/sarcastically dubs “swans,” who receive some of the most brutal blows in the snippets of Answered Prayers that see publication.

The Capote Tapes unpacks Capote’s unlikely celebrity during the years of his success. As a short, strange-looking homosexual with a nasally voice, Capote wasn’t the poster boy for his or any time. Burnough’s portrait shows how Capote always made an impression, whether through his striking interviews or the piercing gaze in his portrait for his breakthrough novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms – a ground-breaking work that openly and unabashedly chronicled the desires of gay men.

Art imitates life again in the hugely popular Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For audiences who mostly know Breakfast at Tiffany’s through the wonderful (if comparatively safe) adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, The Capote Tapes offers a primer on why the film is frequently cited as an example of Hollywood prudishness. The interviews in Burnough’s film share how Capote modeled Holly Golightly upon his mother—a somewhat controversial choice given that she’s a small town girl working as an escort of the wealthy men of Manhattan. The sequence on Breakfast at Tiffany’s illuminates Capote’s process leading up to Answered Prayers: it’s common for authors to draw from life, but Capote’s biographical influences are too obvious for comfort.

The weight of Capote’s manipulation of his personal relationships is most evident in his landmark non-fiction novel In Cold BloodThe Capote Tapes agrees with the assessments of prior works, like Bennett Miller’s film Capote, that the author’s intimate relationship with killer Perry Smith proved a psychological burden. It can be easy to get close to someone and know they have to die to give your book the ending it needs, but The Capote Tapes also holds the author accountable for being so flagrant to suggest as much aloud to his friends. The film intricately builds Capote’s panache for being the life of the party with his sense of entitlement over the lives of peers he invited to the table, while his freewheeling fun and his abuse of relationships compounded the alcoholism he used to numb the pain. There is some wild footage of Capote in his later years as he appears on talk shows either drunk or coked out of his mind, aged beyond his years by excess pleasures.

As the film speculates on the status of Answered Prayers, the talking heads and interviewees suggest that regardless of the book’s completion, Capote was breaking ground again as he did with In Cold Blood. As excerpts of Answered Prayers spill juicy gossip into the pages of magazines, the interviews argue that Capote anticipated the mania of reality television and, to an extent, social media selfie culture. Everyone wants to be adored, loved, and famous in the worlds of Truman Capotes, but these tickets come with a price, as Burnough’s film poignantly shows.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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