Gus Van Sant & Jon Robin Baitz collaborate on a miniseries rich in both vintage style & human drama.
Nora Ephron once said “Everything is copy.” When you’re a writer, anything you see, experience, or hear, even in confidence, might be filed away to use as creative fodder later, despite the potentially sketchy ethics of it. If you’re lucky, maybe your friends won’t recognize themselves quite as easily as the friends of Truman Capote did when he wrote “La Côte Basque, 1965,” a short story published in Esquire. Though the story purported to be fiction, it was thinly veiled fiction at best. So thin, in fact, you could see right through it.
The events leading up to the publication of Capote’s work in 1975, and the fallout afterward, is the focus of Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, a limited series that at first blush looks like it’s going to be camp nonsense in the vein of the interminable Real Housewives franchise, but has a deep sense of melancholy at its core. With the first four episodes directed by Gus Van Sant, where an easy approach would be to clearly delineate villains and heroes from the beginning, instead it offers something a little more complicated, and asks some uncomfortable questions about friendship, creativity, and trust.
Feud opens in 1984 with Truman Capote (Tom Hollander, not to be confused with actor Tom Holland, or director Tom Holland), once the beautiful golden boy of American literature, in sharp decline. His health is failing due to years of alcoholism, his most important work is decades behind him, and he’s desperately lonely. He reflects on a better (if not necessarily happier) time in his life, when he was still the toast of New York, the rare celebrity author who was an in-demand party guest, and an honorary member of high society. He was particularly close to whom he dubbed “the Swans,” a collection of glamorous older women, all of them extremely wealthy, and either married to, or divorced from (some several times) powerful men.
Truman’s favorite of the Swans is Barbara “Babe” Paley (Naomi Watts), the most beautiful and elegant of them all, about whom he says “Her only flaw is that she’s perfect. Other than that, she’s perfect.” Babe adores Truman, and turns to him when she discovers that her husband, head of CBS television Bill Paley (Treat Williams, in his final role), has been unfaithful. In fact, all of the Swans use Truman as a confidante and sounding board (and sometimes a surrogate husband minus the sex), sharing all kinds of dirt and gossip about both their own lives, and the lives of their friends and acquaintances, unaware that Truman is taking it all in with the ears and eye for detail of a journalist.
Years overdue in delivering a book on contract (and having already spent the advance money), Truman scrambles to put together something to show to his agent, He eventually submits “La Côte Basque, 1965,” a harsh skewering of the high society he so badly wanted to be a part of at one point, which bares the gruesome details of not just Bill Paley’s infidelity, but the murder of William Woodward, Jr., who was shot by his wife, Ann (Demi Moore), after she allegedly mistook him for a burglar. Though it was intended as an excerpt from a novel (Answered Prayers, which was never fully published), it’s impossible to not know who the story is about, and, rather than being celebrated for its sharp-tongued wit, it’s met with shock and anger. Once it’s discovered that Ann, distraught over the article and its allegations against her, has committed suicide, he’s frozen out by his beloved Swans. They plan to destroy him in the most effective way they know how: by cutting off access to the world he worked so hard to charm his way into.
Some of the Swans, like tough, no-nonsense broad Slim Keith (an excellent Diane Lane) have no problem circling the wagons and shutting Truman out, not just to protect Babe, but also out of a sense of propriety. You just don’t air people’s dirty laundry like that, even if you think changing their names hides anything. Others, like C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny) and Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), struggle with their allegiances: after all, everything Truman wrote about was true. His only crime was putting it all out in the open, instead of continuing to let it be whispered about behind people’s backs. Their united front doesn’t last very long, and a rift gradually develops between them.
No one struggles as much as Babe, however. Stricken with lung cancer, she needs all the support she can get, and her best friend has betrayed her and broken her heart. She’s the picture of quiet, almost regal dignity and grace, only reflecting the pain she feels in her eyes, both over the loss of Truman, and the fact that it takes a terminal illness for her philandering husband to finally show some appreciation for her.
Truman, for his part, is alternately crushed by and defiant over the reaction to his story. “I’m a writer, they knew that about me!” he protests, while at the same time trying to woo his Swans back with flowers and phone calls. While he’s tangled up in a volatile, occasionally violent relationship with his mostly straight lover John O’Shea (Russell Tovey), Truman’s long-suffering ex-partner Jack Dunphy (Joe Mantello) tries to help him get his life back in order, to no avail. After sacrificing friendship and (perhaps misplaced, but still) trust for his art, Truman is now facing the consequences, and begins a devastating spiral.
Written by acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz (and based on Laurence Leamer’s 2021 book), where Feud: Capote vs. The Swans could have just been a catty soap opera, it instead goes for something a little more insightful, and mostly succeeds. Truman’s desire to out his friends isn’t just a creative decision, it’s driven by resentment. He’s not so much befriended by these people as treated like their pet homosexual, a court jester they invite to parties to entertain the guests; indeed, after Truman’s shunning, Slim suggests that they simply find another witty homosexual to replace him. Though when they’re alone the Swans express insecurity and vulnerability, together they’re insufferable, a collection of vapid, aging, hypocritical spoiled brats who do little else but gossip, pick at their overpriced lunches, and complain about having to meet Princess Margaret. If Truman wasn’t skewering them, then someone else would.
It seems implausible at best that anyone would trust Truman with deeply personal information, considering how he observes everything with a sly look in his eyes and possesses a gleeful mean streak. When he says “Tell me everything,” it sounds sinister, especially when he plies his so-called friends with Valium and booze. But the core problem is that none of them, Truman included, have ever had real friends. They’ve only had acquaintances, people they occasionally go shopping with or politely chat at during someone’s deeply boring dinner party. If the Swans ever had any real friends, they would know who had their back, and who didn’t. If Truman ever had any real friends (or at least, knew how to recognize one), he would understand that there are some lines you never cross no matter how much it would make for good copy.
Did Feud: Capote vs. The Swans need to be eight hours long? It absolutely did not need to be eight hours long, and, indeed, it does get a bit draggy and repetitious after an episode 5 high point, when Chris Chalk appears as Truman’s friend and colleague James Baldwin. I’m also not entirely sure it needed Truman to be haunted by the ghost of his mother, a plot point that seems to exist mostly to create a role for Jessica Lange, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nevertheless, it makes for a poignant ending to episode 3, and further adds to the surprisingly downbeat tone of the whole thing.
The show successfully captures an era of New York City that has long passed, when it was still ruled by old guard wealth, the kind of people who looked at the nouveau riche like Donald Trump with naked disdain (and man, wouldn’t you have loved to read what Truman Capote had to say about him?). The Swans’ lives seem to be stiflingly dull and empty, but they’re certainly nice to look at, in particular the recreation of Capote’s lavish Black and White Ball in 1966, an event that was such a big deal an entire book was written about it. You can certainly see why someone like Capote, an outsider his whole life, would have been so drawn to it: who wouldn’t be, at least at first?
Naomi Watts and Diane Lane both add some depth to characters who could have come off as empty, brittle shells so obsessed with keeping up appearances that they forgot how to be human (although Watts’ immovable hair helmet is a thing of wonder). While Tom Hollander doesn’t look all that much like Capote, he does have his odd, very singular voice down, occasionally to comic effect, as demonstrated in one scene where he tells a demanding agent “I can’t give them money I don’t haaaaaaaaaaave.” He successfully maintains a balancing act between Capote’s two personas, the slick, egotistical trickster-genius, and pitiful wreck. You can certainly see why someone would be drawn to him too. Just don’t tell him your secrets.
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans premieres today on F/X.