For a man who carefully cultivated his life in the public eye, Truman Capote also managed to keep a lot to himself. So, if you come to The Capote Tapes with the attitude that you already know all, Ebs Burnough’s documentary will quickly show you that you don’t. In a somewhat surprising opening segment, Kate Harrington (identified by chyron as “adopted daughter”) explains how, as a 13-year-old, she phoned up Capote to see if he could help her find a job.
Backstory: Harrington’s father, a bank manager and secretly one of Capote’s lovers, had abandoned his family, and they were broke. To his credit, Capote took the young teenager seriously, inviting her to come to the city (with detailed instruction about how to get there via the Long Island Rail Road and a taxicab), then helping her get modeling work (you can see from early photographs that she was a knockout). He also introduced her to his friends and to the elite cultural circles of New York City, and eventually allowed her to move into his apartment.
Not everything in The Capote Tapes is as unexpected as that opening story, but there’s plenty more revelations to come, as well as some retreading of well-known episodes. The film moves, somewhat chronologically, through Capote’s adult life and work, with flashbacks to his early life in Alabama. It’s a masterful example of how to make a lively documentary using archival materials, and even the most familiar content comes alive as Burnough uses every tool in the documentarian’s arsenal to weave together interviews, film clips, and photographs. Watching it, you’ll get a sense not only of Capote’s career, but also the milieu in which he lived and worked. People were curating their lives long before the advent of social media, and Capote and his “swans” were masters at it (and while normally you couldn’t pay me enough to get me to go back to the 1960s, I have to admit their version of it looks pretty sweet).
The big “find” in this documentary is the recent discovery of a series of interviews recorded by George Plimpton (yes, the Paper Lion guy, but also co-founder of The Paris Review) after Capote’s death. Many of these interviews concerned Capote’s “society novel,” Answered Prayers, which he labored on for years, to apparently very little result (rumors of a manuscript stashed away somewhere persist). Capote intended it to be his masterpiece, establishing him as a Proustian chronicler of New York society, but not only did he never finish the novel, it came pretty close to ending him—or his social life anyway, and the two had a strong overlap. Several chapters published in Esquire contained thinly-veiled and remarkably insulting portraits of his acquaintances; the subjects were not pleased, of course, and pretty soon the guy who made a specialty of being everyone’s confidante found himself cast out of the world in which he had made his home. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Capote Tapes is available for streaming as part of QFest St. Louis 2020, which runs from June 19 through June 28. Individual film tickets are $10 ($8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students), and all-access festival passes are $75 ($60 for Cinema St. Louis members). Further information is available from the festival web site.