In the opening of the new documentary The Capote Tapes, we hear a plethora of voices describe the celebrated writer: “seductive,“ “wicked,” “lionized,” “naughty little kid,” “candied tarantula.” The terms are bandied about by friends and acquaintances as an image of him in his grande dame years lingers onscreen.
The labels evoke Capote as the witty scribe who scandalized the literary world with a queer debut novel, created indelible characters like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, became a biting TV talk show guest, and threw the much-chronicled Black and White Ball.
But “absolute freak“ is another term thrown into the mix. And the film also calls attention to the way Capote’s disruptively femme persona came off as an aberration in the era of the so-called open secret.
Capote died at 59 following a history of drug and alcohol addiction. After his untimely 1984 death, mystery lingered around his last, unpublished, manuscript, a novel titled Answered Prayers that was loosely based on the rich society circle he’d gained entry into after the success of In Cold Blood.
Published excerpts before he died scandalized the public, especially as they dealt with the friends he called his “swans” — society ladies like Babe Paley, the wife of CBS boss William S. Paley, who were the kind of rich people who’d never go on Real Housewives and were horrified by his fictionalized exposures of their foibles.
The Capote Tapes turns the fallout over that moment and manuscript into a compelling investigation of the mystery of Capote himself. Directed by a gay former Obama White House social secretary, Ebs Burnough, the film draws from the tapes of writer and editor George Plimpton’s 1997 oral history of Capote to build a more complete portrait of the writer.
That oral history also served as the basis of the 2006 film Infamous, but Burnough avoids the tendency in representations of gay artists to simplify the role of identity in their lives and works. It’s part of a new wave of docuseries, such as last year’s Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation and the Ken Burns multipart docuseries of Ernest Hemingway, that attempt to grapple with the intersections of queer interiority and artistry.
Through the director’s sensitive rendering, Tapes gets at the weight Capote felt in existing in an era where he had to play a court jester and adds insight into his life, defiant final act, and downfall.
The Capote Tapes avoids strict chronology and weaves back and forth through Capote’s life, his writing, and his image. The film features new interviews from writer friends, including the author Colm Tóibín, and Kate Harrington, the daughter of his last lover.
Harrington recalls how Capote’s mother abandoned him in rural Alabama, and that he confided in her about how “dreadful” it was to live there as “this little gay, sawed-off man.” Capote took off for Manhattan and became a New Yorker copy boy. With his first novel, 1948’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, he managed to turn his femme abjection into high art, creating an autobiographical character who was deemed not a “‘real’ boy,” whose “girlish tenderness softened his eyes.” His author headshot, where he’s seductively reposed on a couch giving face and twink sensuality, was as scandalous as the topics he wrote about.
With Capote, the writing and feminine identifications were always compellingly intertwined. Even when he changed the setting from rural south to New York with Holly Golightly, the proto-Sex and the City single girl protagonist of 1958’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she was in some ways modeled after his mother, who died by suicide.
In Cold Blood, though, is what turned him from in-crowd literary sensation to a full-fledged Life magazine celebrity in the ’60s. The two big Hollywood movies about him — 2005’s Oscar-winning Capote, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Infamous — zero in on that era of his greatest mass market success, when he presciently turned the murder of a prosperous Kansas family into the then-groundbreaking format of a nonfiction novel.
Capote especially draws all kinds of conclusions from his tortured, homoerotic relationship with the book’s criminal protagonist, Perry Smith, and the fallout of his journalistic betrayal as he awaited their execution. That period is addressed in Tapes, as he convinced people to talk to him for the book.
"People don’t love me; I'm a freak. People are amused by me, people are fascinated by me, but people don’t love me; you don’t know what it’s like to be me.”
But the most interesting insight in the documentary comes when the attention shifts to the period after Capote became richer and powerful, and as he grew close to members of the self-styled elite. The film adds class and historical specificity to Capote’s role as queer man in a particular milieu. The columnist Sally Quinn, for instance, points out how he played into the role of the “walker,” the role given to closeted gay men at the time as party mates and confidantes of women, even as nobody spoke openly about queerness. “I’m sure their husbands did,” she says, adding, “The word ‘pansy’ was flying around Park Avenue.”
Still, he confided his fears and feelings of inadequacy to these women friends. Slim Keith recalls that when she said, “I love you,” he’d reply, “No, you don’t; people don’t love me; I'm a freak. People are amused by me, people are fascinated by me, but people don’t love me; you don’t know what it’s like to be me.”
Capote started working on a novel that he claimed would be his master work, a Proustian masterpiece about the American upper class. There has been lots of speculation about why Capote “betrayed” high society with the novel. But the documentary frames the moment as part of the long history of the unspoken dance between writer and subject, magnified by the imbalance between these straight rich friends and the queer outsider.
Babe Paley’s daughter recalls that her mother thought she was cultivating Capote almost in the way patrons did with artists: “It was a thrill because they were investing in this great artist; you’re part of history and literature and hundreds of years from now people will know you because of this great book.” Clearly, they had high hopes for their depictions.
As his friend John Richardson points out, Capote, in contrast, saw himself as “exposing shit”; Richardson seems to mean the rottenness of the upper class, but more specifically, Capote also seemed to be alluding to a critique of that era of heterosexuality.
The excerpts of the novel published in Esquire in 1975 portrayed, for instance, Keith as a gossip and Paley’s husband as a philanderer (which, according to the documentary’s talking heads, he was), and they were horrified at these depictions. When the expectations of the patrons and the reality of Capote’s vision collided after the excerpt’s publication, the women closest to him never spoke to him again.
But there’s a striking point that a friend of Capote’s, Judy Green, makes about the intentions of Answered Prayers. “He was just trying to, in his warped mind, say: ‘I understand how awful it’s been for you, I’m your only friend; I’m your savior; I’m going to tell the world... You will be the heroines of your lives.’”
“It’s much more an attack on the men than it is on the women,” she points out. “He really hated the men and adored the women. Of course the women were the ones who fought back and thought it was horrible.”
Paradoxically, as queer visibility opened up in the ’70s, Capote seemed to lose his way, indulging in drugs and alcohol. Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello recalls — bitingly — that Capote only became interested in Andy Warhol and the queer crowd after his straight friends dumped him. And we see him deteriorate in his talk show appearances as friends recall how he lost his writing ability and discipline.
If the documentary is limited, it’s by the fact that, like most cultural work on gay men, it conflates femininity and sexuality in ways that occlude further insight about gendered identity. One of the critics, for instance, points out that Capote’s mother never accepted “his sexuality.” But Gerald Clarke’s 1988 biography chronicles how his mother specifically hated his femininity; she even wanted to inject him with hormones.
Throughout the film, contemporaries describe him as a “spectacle” and a “creature” whom people “gaped” at. To some degree, we’re meant to marvel or chuckle at these descriptions, but they also hint at the ugly othering in the fascination with his femininity on an assigned-male-at-birth body.
In a clip from Plimpton’s oral history interviews, the late Norman Mailer recalls meeting Capote at a working-class Irish bar and how his adrenaline rushed because he feared the men’s reactions to Capote’s “faggot prince” persona. “It took me half an hour for the adrenaline to come down,” he explains. “I thought ‘My God, if I was that man, I couldn't live; I'd die of adrenaline overflow.’"
Capote himself confided to Slim Keith how exhausting it was “when you walk into a room, the shock in people’s faces.” He admitted he became a humorous spectacle in part “to relieve them of the sudden embarrassment.”
These testimonies are a sobering reminder of the fact that before terms like nonbinary provided a myriad of ways to interpret and remake gender, there was no way for assigned male at birth people to really control the way their self-presentation was interpreted. At different moments, multiple friends point out how much being “on” cost him; his life sounded exhausting, almost entirely reactive.
Though Tapes includes the perspective of gay friends, in some ways, Truman and Tennessee, which puts Capote and Tennessee Williams into conversation as queer writers throughout, brings out certain connections that this insightful film still misses. Through snippets of their writing, diaries, and television appearances, the film lays out their lives as gay men grappling with fame and visibility and adds to the understanding of both.
In Answered Prayers, for instance, Capote describes Tennessee Williams as a “dumpy little guy with a dramatic mind who, like one of his own adrift heroines, seeks attention and sympathy by serving up half-believed lies to total strangers.” He was calling out Williams’ delusion and dissociation, but he could have been talking about himself amongst the swans too.
One moment of footage toward the end of Tapes stands out when Capote, looking lost, is thoughtful about his lack of insight about himself: “I can see something extremely clearly in another person; all their motivations and what’s making the whole thing turn around and do it with great objectivity, and I hope compassion,” he says. “But if I were to reverse the whole thing around on myself, I can’t do it.”
This inability to see himself echoes through Truman and Tennessee, where he also meditates on his gender: “I didn’t feel as if I was imprisoned in a wrong body; I wasn’t transexual; I just felt things would be easier if I were a girl.” Down to that disavowal, he sounds, from a contemporary vantage point, less like a gay man settled in his gender nonconformity, and more like a trans femme person struggling to figure themselves out in a violently binary world.
The way Capote ultimately found himself cornered in a binary world adds pathos to the fact that he always believed in the power of the written word, even though it couldn’t save him either. When he all but adopted Kate Harrington in his final era, she moved in with him, and he explained that if she wanted to live with him, she had to keep a journal. Why, she asked. “Your life’s about to change,” he says, “and it’s the only way to hold on to who you really are.”●