The conflict that existed between Truman Capote and his numerous swans, the socialite ladies whose connections he valued and then stole for his never-finished (but always imminently published) novel, stemmed from their differing opinions on manners. over what should be kept private and what can be done and discussed in public. For the author, his art was about portraying the private reality of a wealthy society that many people only dare to dream of; for the swans, however, it was about crossing a boundary and letting things out that should never have been available to the general public.
It is impossible for Capote to have known his friend Babe Paley was dying when he published “La Côte Basque 1965.” Cancer wasn’t going to stop Babe from living her life as usual, as the opening scene of “Ice Water in Their Veins” shows. Despite receiving treatment, Babe is still determined to dress elegantly and act like a hostess. Her portrayal of normalcy, of a lovely life continuing despite difficult circumstances, was a component of her artistic quality that qualified her to be one of Capote’s swans.
We get to witness how those other swans are coping with Ann Woodward’s (Demi Moore) death as well, as we watch Babe stoically endure treatment and reluctantly view it as an opportunity to make amends with her husband, who still showered her with gifts and affection. This is all in response to the publication of an excerpt from Answered Prayers in Esquire. Following their attendance at Ann’s funeral, where her son publicly entrusts Truman with her suicide, Slim, C. Z., Lee, and Babe get together for lunch to talk about what comes next. The four appear to be a coven preparing for battle as they discuss how to best defeat the ruthless snake that is Truman while dressed in funereal black clothing. Lee informs her friends, “He’s insidious,” concurring with Slim that they should keep their distance and watch Truman’s social life—the only life he’s been concerned about lately—wither and die.
Author Jon Robin Baitz will use the lunch to set up a discussion on why Truman’s writing touched such a raw nerve. Slim and Lee claim that his portrayal of those women dining at La Côte Basque was rife with misogyny and that his writing was dripping with disgust. C. Z. is a little more forgiving, maybe because she survived most of it. She even objects to the social icing Slim recommends, saying it is cruel. and purposefully tiny.
In the completed version of Answered Prayers that was never published, Capote staged a conversation between his fictitious autobiographical narrator and a fellow character who questioned him directly about whether the novel he was working on was really based on his socialite friends. There have long been rumors that completed manuscripts were burned, stashed away, or perhaps read aloud but never committed to print.
“Even though they are in it, I wouldn’t say it’s about them.”
“So, what is the topic?”
“Illusion as truth.”
“And delusion as veracity?”
“The initial one. The second is an additional claim.
The passage from a written admission—or evasion—that “Ice Water in Their Veins” takes up and puts at the center of the conflict between Truman and his swans. The author had put a great deal of effort into uncovering the truth behind Babe and her kind’s gilded superficiality (all the incidents he wrote about were real, weren’t they? ), but since that world so obviously deals in appearance rather than truth, such observations would always be not only unwanted but downright offensive.
The swans emphasize to one another that the betrayal stems from the love that spurred it as much as the hurt it caused. “He miscalculated the extent of our love for him,” Babe remarks. “The way he wounded you, only true love could.”
Truman is obviously losing it, as he misjudged the extent to which his artistic ability could outweigh the obscene personal information he has revealed about his close friends. Not only will Babe not accept his flowers or apology notes, but she won’t even return his calls. He appears to be trying his hand at acting, but instead spends his days drinking and taking pills at Joanne Carson’s (Molly Ringwald) house in Hollywood. In the Neil Simon-penned murder mystery parody Murder by Death, he plays a bit part, and it’s obvious he can hardly hold his composure for a single take. Sweat-soaked, hallucinating visions of his swans, dressed in vengeful red, haunt his performance. He is slowly realizing that he cannot act like the tantrum-throwing toddler he wishes he could be because his guilt is eating him alive.
Thus, he cleans out his east coast apartment of all alcohol and sets out to regain his friendships, beginning with lunch with C. Z. He tells her, “It’s just a book,” still not understanding why this is a huge deal considering he is essentially a recorder and listener. Everyone is aware of that. “That’s just bad behavior,” C. Z. responds. She questions the disappearance of decency, discretion, and reciprocity. That final statement is what makes Truman argue that an artist such as himself could never achieve the same level of success as his friends. With so much power disparity, how could there be any kind of reciprocity?
Lee arrives at the restaurant, interrupting their lunch and C. Z.’s invitation to her Palm Beach Thanksgiving. After getting Lee’s cold shoulder, Truman says sadly to C. Z., “You’re gonna be in trouble now.” Later, Slim pays C. Z. a visit and gently persuades her to decline Truman’s invitation by pleading with her to stick together and by giving her a necklace that Slim had received from Babe.
This leads us to two depictions of Thanksgiving, which is presumably Truman’s favorite holiday: one in Palm Beach, where Gus Van Sant’s honeyed camera lingers over exquisite plates of food, copious amounts of flowers, and exquisite dresses; and another in Los Angeles, where the place settings and shabby-chic decor (complete with a cameo from Phyllis Diller) declare just how far Truman has fallen. John, enraged by this alteration in schedule, is joining him. The two of them have become more violent in their relationship; during Thanksgiving at Joanne’s, John punches Truman in front of everyone present because of his cruelty, after Truman drinks himself to insanity after C.Z. cancels.
With his face still covered in blood, Truman jokes, “Vodka stings more than your fists.”
Unfortunately, his fists force Truman into the hospital, where his former flame Jack discovers him and brings him home. Jack calls Babe again in the hopes of persuading her to forgive him. She’s determined, though. She is unable to return to having two husbands and to submitting to Truman’s whims. She quickly hangs up, leaving us to wonder how much longer Truman can continue in this manner—especially since those closest to him are constantly questioning what he has given them in return for their love, kindness, and generosity.
Beauty vs. Wit
I almost forgot to mention Truman’s hazy hallucination of his deceased mother, with whom he had a tense relationship, while he was at Joanne’s. Laurence Leamer writes in Truman’s Women that “Truman thought his mother was one of the most beautiful women in the South, and it is from Lillie Mae that he developed his obsession with beautiful women, finding their loveliness a transcendent blessing.” Jessica Lange, a mainstay of the Murphyverse, plays her. She teases an inebriated Truman, encouraging him to confess that he killed Babe and his swans in retaliation for how their exclusive society detested people like Lillie Mae. This horrific mother practically pushes her son to commit suicide by using alcohol and pills; Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, would have been right at home with this kind of behavior.
Speaking of: Jessica Lange accomplishes more in this small scene with a single flick of her gloved hand than many other actors do with their whole frame. As equal parts Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, she’s a perfect fit for this bile-spouting Southern dame, so hopefully producer Lange will be back for more in the future.
“Capote residence, Petunia speaking” captures so perfectly the way in which Truman engaged in pretend play in his daily existence. I must point out that Capote loved and gave away a lot of bon mots, and Jon Robin Baitz’s ear stands out in this regard. For example, Lane’s otherwise subdued Slim delivers a great, brutal rendition of Happy Rockefeller in “The ineptly named first lady of New York,” while Truman’s attack on John—”they know that dear old daddy is just a third rate suburban faggot banker who sticks his uncircumcised penis into the glorious asshole of America’s greatest living author who he’s supposed to be managing… “—is so off-color it’s divine.
The degree to which a show like Capote vs. The Swans stays true to history determines its fate. Or, more importantly, its numerous design teams’ capacity to lavishly recreate a world from the past. And my goodness, Lou Eyrich and Leah Katznelson’s costumes are to die for. Which episode was my favorite this time around? When Babe hears Jack calling from her house, she’s wearing a pale pink outfit that’s accentuated with pearls. With this ensemble, it’s easy to understand why Capote thought so little of Jackie Kennedy; to him, the First Lady was not as stylish as his many friends, including Babe and Jackie’s sister Lee. In “La Côte Basque,” he wrote, “Very photogenic, of course, but the effect is a little… unrefined, exaggerated.”
And the soundtrack, by mother-daughter team Thomas and Julia Newman, is equally wonderful. (The opening titles are entirely the work of Newman Senior.) Together with the exquisite art direction and spotless costumes that adorn each scene, the sweepingly romantic score transports us from Hollywood to Upstate New York, Manhattan to Palm Beach.
Is there anyone else who is excited to watch Capote’s attempts at “acting” in Murder by Death (which is apparently available on Prime)?