Cinema has a love/hate relationship with Truman Capote. On the evidence of The Capote Tapes, almost everyone did. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a slim novella a cigarette holder away from plagiarising Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin – was made into an iconic film with a luminous Audrey Hepburn.
The filmmakers schmaltzed Tiffany’s up, to Capote’s disgust and chipped off the sexual ambiguity of the original. In Cold Blood was filmed in 1967 with Robert Blake playing the one of the doomed murderers, himself later to be convicted of his wife’s murder. He co-wrote John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) and appeared in the strangely flat Murder by Death (1976). Toby Jones, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Megna have played him: the latter in To Kill a Mockingbird (1963), where he appears as Dill, a childhood friend of the Finches.
Ebs Burnough’s point of entry for his documentary are the tapes made by the late George Plimpton as he was researching his 1997 tell-all: Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. It’s fitting that we hear this rasping analogue tape of Lauren Bacall and Norman Mailer spilling their beans on the literary man. It gives that same delicious frisson of gossip that Capote himself delighted in.
And yet for the first three quarters, the film is a fairly rudimentary biography which plots a familiar trajectory from his modest town where he grew up friends with Harper Lee, writer of To Kill a Mockingbird (see above), early success with his first novel, which boasted a gloriously louche author’s photograph and his introduction into New York high society. With a jazz soundtrack and the more straightforward on camera interventions from the likes of Dick Cavett, Jay McInerney and Colm Tóibín, the film portrays Capote as a man who even at the height of his greatest success was often open to controversy.
Capote’s singular achievement, the non-fiction novel In Cold Blood – would launch an entire genre of literature, including Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. However, he would also be accused of cold-bloodedness in his obvious wish for his subjects to be executed in order to provide his book with a fitting ending. The other ostensible hook of the film is the fate of Capote’s never completed, or perhaps never written, novel Answered Prayers. Here things are murkier as post-In Cold Blood, Capote reinvents himself as a talk show guest and partygoer, hosting an infamous ball in New York which became a who’s who of the rich and famous.
Mingling with the rich and famous, but never being fully included, Capote’s various performances leads to an enigmatic aura. As with another internationally famous gay artist Andy Warhol, the center was elusive and the question became tempting as to whether there was any there there. When finally extracts of the book were published, his friends and patrons were horrified to find thinly disguised versions of their own private lives being exposed to anyone who could afford a magazine. Upon his death at the age of 59, no book was forthcoming, no manuscript uncovered.
There’s always that insatiable tendency to want more from artists. If only Kubrick had done that Holocaust film he’d been talking about; Orson Welles owed us at least five more films! But be careful what you wish for. The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix or Harper Lee’s Go Tell the Watchman were not greeted with universal adulation. There are more tears from answered prayers than from unanswered ones, as Capote’s final ‘work’ quotes. The Capote Tapes show a talent that seemed to go to waste while at the same time teasing us with the possibility that there is more yet to come.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty