- Movie Rating -

The Capote Tapes (2019)

| August 28, 2021

[This review is part of my ongoing coverage of the films screened at Birmingham Alabama’s 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival]

Truman Capote was a jerk to his friends.  At least, that is the message that I took away from the new documentary The Capote Tapes which traces the life of one of the most famous people of the latter half of the 20th century.  He was never the picture-perfect image of the glamour of New York scene into which he so gallantly strode, so he made himself the center of attention.  He was brutally honest, bitchy when the moment called for it, and also one of the greatest literary minds of his time.  Capote was an original in nearly everything that he did and the movie does a good job of taking a look behind the curtain to unearth who he really was.

Assembled as a carefully pieced-together visual scrapbook by director Ebs Burnough, one gets the sense that perhaps his flippant and often catty personality was a cover for something else.  He may have spent his formative years in Monroeville, Alabama, but as an adult he buried himself in the New York high society scene and charmed the most famous people on the planet in order to work through the puzzle of his sexual orientation.  Remember this was before Stonewall, still at a moment when such a revelation could get one thrown into a mental institution – or worse.  Added to that was the pain of his childhood; he never knew his father and his mother had given him up only to later reconcile and then commit suicide.

The frankness with which we see Capote in those old films is striking, taking us into another time, another place as we see him sink deeply into the nightlife.  Was he looking for love?  Acceptance?  Approval?  The answers might seem to come from the narration, provided by recently unearthed audio interviews that Capote conducted with George Plimpton. 

He is confident in his vocal stride (he always was) but one can hear underneath Capote’s famously pinched and lispy voice a note of sadness, the demeanor of a man who was hiding in plain sight, who threw lavish parties to remain the center of a world in which he himself was always on the outside and made friendships that would effectively, and sometimes cruelly, become part of his work.

That body of work is studied here perhaps as a defense against the shallow and tedious people that he so associated with – and to whom he often made his famously cutting remarks.  Were they simply study-points to lacerate in his work?  One is likely to think so.  Capote wasn’t shy about his feelings toward these people but he had such a lilting way of cutting them down that you almost sensed that he was a compliment.  One clip from an interview with Johnny Carson has Capote speaking on Marlon Brando with the opinion that he was a wonderful actor who was as dumb as a post.  The public Capote is not that different from the private one that we hear on the tapes.  You have to listen underneath his words.  It was the same in his writing.  Capote could write about one thing but could address something else under the surface.

That may have been the reason that his long-delayed unfinished book “Answered Prayers” spent so much time getting finished that it took on a life of its own.  Capote was so proud of his work, considered it his masterwork and even compared it to Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”  What came out the other end seemed like a giant ‘screw you’.  After years of delving into the lives of terrible and shallow people, the book was a lacerating account of the personal lives of those closest to him.  And yet, the entire book never emerged.  Instead, there were four chapters that were sold to Esquire magazine which details the story of CBS executive Bill Paley who allegedly had an extra-marital affair with a woman on her period.  Such stories would lead to Capote’s ousting from the social scene and ultimately his downfall.  Knowing this, you understand what he meant when he told Dick Cavett that “Answered Prayers” would be his posthumous work – “Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.”

What Burnough has assembled is a cleanly-drawn portrait of a very complex man.  He was a man of deep insecurities, who hid himself in plain sight and used friends for research material – that’s the feeling that you get, and yet he never vilifies Capote.  You are asked to consider for yourself that his story was all about.  He was a man of such complexities that even when you get the whole story, you sense that there was something more that is still needed to complete the picture.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2019) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary