Reeling 2020: “The Capote Tapes” fills in the gaps of Truman’s world

The Capote Tapes (Reeling 2020) USA. New York City. 1966. Truman CAPOTE at his "Black and White Ball" at the Plaza Hotel.

Ebs Burnough’s composite portrait of Truman Capote reveals all the melodrama and queasy class navigation that seeped into every pore of his queer being.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)

How do you solve a problem like Truman Capote?

The famed author lingers in several literary imaginations. For some queer literati, he’s an American Isherwood, a transitional figure between pre and post-Gay Liberation. In Cold Blood continues to trouble modernist genre scholars. Though quite far from the imagery in the source novel, the style of Breakfast at Tiffany’s will be associated with him. Burnough gives plenty of time to each of these works, so that someone curious about Capote might get a sense of where they might like to enter his bibliography.

The Capote Tapes compiles soundbites from newly-unearthed interviews by journalist George Plimpton to tell the tale of Truman Capote from the people who loved and later hated him the most: his friends. As we roll through his bibliography, director Ebs Burnough pulls out biographical insights to show how, like his best works, Capote himself was a work of creative nonfiction. The result is a perfectly charming yet tragic biography.

One would expect a documentary about Capote to overflow with melodrama, and Burnough doesn’t disappoint. The persona you glean from these archival recordings is that of a profoundly unloved aesthete, but the doc never tries to make Truman loved at last. Instead, Burnough’s most exciting and emotional moments comprise the setup (and eventual falling out) between Capote and his “Swans,” the rich New York housewives who kept him as entertainment. For any upper-class white women, queers were pets and they were the “walkers,” as one interview tells us. These women loved him, but they loved the image of him more. It complicates the way Capote bites back with his sharp pen when he writes Answered Prayers, published posthumously in 1986.

The Capote Tapes‘ focus on this relationship reveals the intricacies with which some then-called “homosexuals” could navigate society in the mid-20th century. The popular imagination has it that, pre-Stonewall, queers were all passing as straight, keeping their secrets hidden. This is, of course, not how it was. Burnough’s documentary boldly draws the class contours of queer acceptance: amongst the white upper class, a pervasive tolerance encouraged queer men to be a spectacle, not cause one.

Like his best works, Capote himself was a work of creative nonfiction.

But Capote’s queerness, by nature of his whiteness and class associations, was both privileged and unprivileged at once. He had the privilege of white upper-class access where he could live as open but not out. The menagerie of glamorous people who freely gave interviews about Capote is staggering.

For queers like Capote, however, they’re already-outed by their own bodies—the way they sound, the way they move, the way they dress. Capote didn’t have the ability to hide his queerness when he left the accepted spaces. Stares and judgments followed him everywhere. 

Oddly, the most astute record of this comes from Norman Mailer, the grump of Modernism. Mailer, an old friend of Capote’s, observes the way Capote bore the glares with tremendous fortitude. He recalls one memorable instance of Capote walking into a brutish bar and having the courage to sit at the amongst gruff patrons. Mailer could tell Capote was aware of their leers, but his resolve to live his life was stronger than their judgment.

With such ripe and emotional material, Burnough colors in our already-vibrant idea of who—or what—Truman Capote was. Where Capote and Infamous take us into Truman’s mind, The Capote Tapes takes us into his world. Once inside, we can see how queers like Capote succeed in creating themselves when the world seems determined to do it for them.

The Capote Tapes Q&A:

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