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Review: 'The Capote Tapes' An Illuminating Portrait of a Monumental Gay Writer

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Sep 21, 2020
'The Capote Tapes'
'The Capote Tapes'  (Source:OUTShine)

Confession time: Truman Capote was one of the great queer iconic figures of the 20th century that we would have loved to have known personally. Not the version of him in the biopic "Capote," which won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award back in 2006. It's the "real" Capote that is captured in "The Capote Tapes," a new documentary by first-time filmmaker Ebs Burnough, a onetime White House Adviser to Michelle Obama.

Burnough's film centers around a series of never-before-heard taped interviews in which George Plimpton interviewed Capote's "friends, enemies, acquaintances, and detractors" for his 1997 oral history. Burnough supplements these interviews with some stunning archival footage, interspersed with his own interviews, most of which focus on Capote's promised last novel "Answered Prayers," which never ever materialized.

Capote was an extraordinary character quite unlike anyone else. He pursued Manhattan's high society, and once he was accepted as one of them, he repaid them with thinly-veiled, vicious attacks that exposed them for their vapid, materialistic, and outrageously wealthy existences. He was, as one of his coterie of female hangers-on described, a real "shit stirrer."

It was the many contradictions of his life that are the most fascinating. Already riding high on the critical and commercial success of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Capote was offered a choice of new assignments. One is another Manhattan society event; the other is a serial killing in Kansas. He, of course, chose the latter and it would take up the next few years of his life.

"In Cold Blood" would become the definitive murder story, and the peak of Capote's writing career. However, there is talk in the documentary not only of his close relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith, but how in the end, with the appeals dragging one for years, he somehow persuaded the authorities to get on with Smith's execution so that he could finish the book.

If that was the summit of this professional career, then the highlight in his private life was hosting the fabled masked Black and White Ball in 1966, which was ostensibly in honor of The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Capote was suddenly the center of society's universe as he dangled prized invitations for months, snubbing early supporters.

Sadly, would-be Capotes these days — like the ubiquitous André Leon Talley — are a pale shadow in contrast to this larger-than-life queer, with his wicked wit happily exposing the hypocrisy of all the high society denizens who had adored him.

After this time Capote threatened to keep writing, but in fact became a full-time celebrity and a regular guest on all the TV talk shows. When this coincided with his nightly visits to Studio 54, where he participated in everything, his TV appearances became incoherent, with Capote still high on whatever he had taken the night before.

An interesting take away from Burnough's film is that whilst his coterie of high society dames couldn't wait to dump him after he stopped being a willing plaything, Capote always kept the respect of his fellow writers. The likes of Norman Mailer, Dotson Rader, Jay McInerney and Colm Tóibín lined up to talk affectionately about both man and his works.

Surprisingly, Jack Dunphy, Capote's longtime lover, who must have had the patience of a saint, has nothing but good words to say about him.

Whether he had actually written "Answered Prayers" is a question still unanswered, but if the manuscript ever does show up, it will be another humdinger.

Whenever Capote turned his attention to write about the unhappy rich, he didn't bother to hide his contempt. They hated him for what they considered a betrayal, but those writings would make for perfect TV soap opera material nowadays.

We have nothing but admiration for Capote, who died way too early aged just 59, and so loved this excellent portrait of him. He was, as Dick Cavett commented, "a ballsy little guy," but even so we are still not sure whether we would have liked him as a friend.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.


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