Although Feud: Capote vs. The Swans is only the second installment of Ryan Murphy’s Feud franchise — Bette and Joan aired way back in 2017 — the anthology’s core seems clear enough. To qualify as a Feud season, the focus must be on a rivalry of little to no cosmic importance that’s somehow integral to the very essence of the people involved. It must exist as nothing and everything all at once.
Capote vs. The Swans creator Jon Robin Baitz understands the general assignment. In focusing on the society kerfuffle between Truman Capote and some of the most powerful women of New York’s upper crust, Baitz has a clash that’s entirely inconsequential and yet cataclysmic within its milieu. Unfortunately, a jumbled approach to time and a limited understanding of character make it a story without momentum.
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Capote vs. The Swans is eight hours of exceptional performances and interesting formal ideas, a few of which work fairly well. But when it comes to the eponymous feud and building drama from its stakes, it is mostly two different series that only occasionally intersect: Feud: Capote vs. Alcoholism and The Real Historical Housewives of Manhattan, though I guess the latter description implies camp and almost nothing in Feud feels camp (or, honestly, fun), despite a setting and subject that afford every opportunity for that sensibility.
In November of 1975, Esquire published “La Côte Basque 1965,” an extended chapter from the long-awaited Answered Prayers, a roman á clef about New York City’s elite by Truman Capote (Tom Hollander).
For many readers, the chapter was just a dishy run-down of high-society women, their secrets and lies. But Capote’s closest circle of female friends saw the piece as a poorly veiled betrayal of decades of confidences, an unforgivable violation of patrician omertà.
Over the years to follow, those women — collectively nicknamed “swans,” in a heavily fleshed out piece of symbolism — conspired to get their revenge, freezing Capote out of the only place he ever felt at home, while at the same time denying themselves his companionship, which audiences may or may not interpret as a fate worse than death.
First among the swans is Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), wife to philandering former CBS titan William Paley (the late Treat Williams, exceptionally blustery) and Capote’s ostensibly perfect best friend. The cabal, each member less developed than Babe, includes “Slim” Keith (Diane Lane), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), plus to a lesser degree Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), who everybody suspects of killing her first husband, and Joanne Carson (Molly Ringwald), who barely counts because she lives in Los Angeles and is therefore inherently gauche.
Is it a series about the precarious links between writers and their subjects, between storytelling and reality? Maybe a little, especially in the desperate-to-tie-things-together finale. Is it, like Laurence Leamer’s source text, a snapshot of an opulent era on the brink of crumbling, the fall of a 20th Century Rome meets our current moment of eat-the-rich agita? For an episode or two maybe, but mostly not. Is the feud a product of entrenched misogyny and homophobia among the thin-blooded one percent? Sure, but to what end?
The pulverizing of the timeline, which hops through the years occasionally with warning and often without — also frequently without regard to facts, like when Truman references CBS’ 60 Minutes some 13 years before the show premiered — can only barely obscure that as far as Baitz is able to illustrate, the central feud has no progression at all.
By the start of the second episode, the swans are entrenched in their positions. Babe is seriously wounded on a spiritual level and also dying of cancer. Slim wants to destroy Truman, though not always for clear reasons. Lee wants to destroy Truman because her sister is Jackie O and she’s jealous, or something. C.Z. is grouchy but forgiving.
This cycle repeats over and over in at least a half-dozen catty lunches where it hardly matters what year it is because nobody’s position is mutable. Apparently once you disinvite Truman Capote from Thanksgiving, there’s really nowhere to escalate.
For Truman’s part, he doesn’t understand why the women were surprised and hurt by what he wrote, but he’s trapped in his own repeat cycle of alcoholism, testing the patience of long-time partner Jack Dunphy (Joe Mantello, radiating casual decency). It isn’t an unrealistic cycle and the series tries to get to the root of Capote’s self-flagellation in rudimentary terms — mommy issues of the sort that become all the more plausible when your mother is played by Jessica Lange — and as it manifests in Truman’s abusive relationship with John O’Shea (Russell Tovey, terrifying).
That the alcoholism played a role in the desperation of the Esquire piece, while the reaction to the piece accelerated the alcoholism, makes the feud just a cruel betrayal on the part of Capote’s friends. That’s another piece of the Feud core, that however vicious the squabble, everybody has to be wrong, making “insufficient empathy” the true culprit, for whatever that’s worth.
Baitz tries to keep the story moving through a series of stand-alone episodes with varying returns. There’s a very good episode related in pseudo-verité monochrome as the Maysles Brothers document Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball, a 1966 event in which the writer got to be the ultimate arbiter of “belonging.”
There’s an episode in which absolutely everything relates to Capote and the other characters discovering that they’re old — in separate scenes they’re horrified to learn nobody wears hats or gloves anymore! — an hour undone by the bizarre miscasting of Vito Schnabel as a salt-of-the-earth air-conditioning repairman, whom Truman romantically devours like a hunky fountain of youth.
Then there’s a rather awful hour that plays as Disney’s Hall of 20th Century Queer Literary Icons, in which Capote and James Baldwin (Chris Chalk, better than the material) wander around spouting Capote-esque and Baldwin-esque bon mots in a failed effort to break up the show’s very white, very privileged perspective. Treating James Freaking Baldwin as a one-episode Ghost of Christmas Past feels thoroughly disrespectful to Baldwin’s actual legacy. But that episode does feature my favorite moment in the entire series, even if it’s a moment that feels like it belongs in a different series altogether.
The direction, primarily by Gus Van Sant, but with Max Winkler and Jennifer Lynch helming an episode apiece, tries to hold everything together with more sincere appreciation for this world than the world perhaps deserves. It’s a world of cruelty but not grotesquerie.
The greatest appreciators of Capote vs. The Swans are likely to be viewers who know their Limoges from their Majolica — who appreciate impeccably photographed pseudo-French bistro cuisine, who can debate the auction values of Monets and Manets like ordinary people debate brands of mayonnaise and who will be able to carefully catalogue each of Capote’s myriad hats. It’s all in the details, or at least the production design.
And it’s all in the performances.
Hollander nails all of the broader affectations that make Capote a figure who it’s almost impossible to overdo — the high, whispery voice, the wandering accent, the gesticulating that turns him into the conducting maestro of every storytelling opportunity — and there are just enough quiet beats to indicate that there might have been a “real” Capote beneath the performative veneer. He’s victimizer and victim at once and the show’s general empathy is in his direction, perhaps stacking the deck lest anyone find Capote “too much,” which he absolutely is.
Watts is the easy standout among the Swans, as the series reminds us multiple times that Babe Paley’s impeccable exterior required a tremendous amount of effort. She’s always on the verge of breaking, making for a good contrast with Slim’s tough-as-nails posturing, which Lane implies is masking something to which we’re not privy.
Flockhart is so good at Lee’s mean girl pretense that I wished she was given more to do here, ditto with Ringwald, who makes Carson’s general kindness a ray of sunshine in the often somber series, even if she’s never a real person. Moore is a mercurial viper in another underutilized role, while Lange pops up here and there in what feels like a continuation of every part she’s ever played under the Ryan Murphy umbrella.
Though Murphy’s role on Capote vs. The Swans is strictly as executive producer, it’s interesting to examine the series alongside his own frequent mining of not-so-distant history for dramatic purposes. Shows like Feud or American Crime Story or especially Monster wouldn’t exist without the novelistic approach to history that Capote pioneered, but it’s hard to see any awareness of how the anthologizing of real people and their stories is or isn’t similar to “La Côte Basque 1965,” to how a 21st Century obsession with the tawdry lives of the rich and semi-famous — see the entire Bravo brand — rose like a phoenix from the ashes the Esquire piece allegedly left behind.
Unlike Capote himself, Capote vs. The Swans is happy just to observe this world without engaging in much by way of conversation. It’s easy to tell that everybody in the show finds what’s happening to be very important. Efforts to invest from the outside are more difficult.
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