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FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans review: Indirect hits

FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans review: Indirect hits
Tom Hollander as Truman Capote captivates a dinner table in FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans "Pilot" (photo: FX)

The crime // In the event that you’ve missed one of the myriad “what to know about Capote’s ‘swans'” listicles of recent days, the “crime” at the center of FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans is either 1) that socialite/striver Ann Woodward murdered her husband, and Truman Capote bullied her about it so harshly that Woodward took her own life; or 2) that Capote, knowing he’d peaked with his foundational true-crime document, In Cold Blood, had nowhere to go but down, and spiraled with the maximum florid pathos.

(“Wait, but actually I did miss all those pieces! Any recs?” Absolutely! Start with Smithsonian‘s, not least for the fabulous vintage pictures; Vanity Fair‘s, written by the mag’s resident Housewives scholar Chris Murphy; and the 360 take on Babe Paley’s life and lookbook at Tatler. I also unfurled a full menu of deeper dives via books and documentaries earlier this week.)

From FEUD E02, “Ice Water in Their Veins.” Pictured: (front, l-r) Chloe Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, Diane Lane as Slim Keith, Naomi Watts as Babe Paley. (FX)

The story // Welp, I’ve seen four of the eight episodes provided, and I’ve got good news and bad news. (I don’t think I’ve got spoilers, and as noted, all of the events FEUD covers are part of the – disproportionately extensive, probably – historical record, but read with care or skip to my last graf if need be!) 

Let’s start with the good news – much like FEUD started with a shot of a vintage mid-eighties Mercedes-Benz, never the worst way to get this correspondent on your production’s side, and from a production-values standpoint, FEUD is a hall-of-famer. Hat tip to cinematographer Jason McCormick and set and costume chiefs Cherish M. Hale and Leah Katznelson: the series looks expensive, and it looks correct. The big, immobile coifs; the heavy, conspicuous jewelry; you can almost smell the old-school hairspray and feel the chalky lipstick of days gone by.

FEUD’s second season isn’t perfect, but Tom Hollander as Capote might be. (screenshot: FX)

The acting is also top-notch, even from actors obliged to tote clunky dialogue or who aren’t cast quiiiiite correctly (more on that in a sec), and especially from Tom Hollander as Capote. I’ve loved Hollander and his “…what?” approach to his characters’ occupying space in their worlds since the undersung Bedrooms & Hallways, and he’s sublime here. He’s not doing an imitation of Capote; he’s inhabiting Capote’s unique physicality, often pairing it with the more common physicality of impairment, that simultaneously ginger and broadly confident way of navigating a turn or a flight of stairs. He’s not a Tru twin every second, but nor are the scarves and bald caps doing all the work. Hollander understands the man and his tragedy.

But here we are, then, at the bad news – which isn’t that bad, because FEUD isn’t bad. It’s well acted and gorgeous to look at, and for the 98 percent of the viewing audience that has not already steeped itself in the story the way I have for whatever freakish reason, FEUD is probably a very similar immersive and compelling experience to the previous Bette-Joan iteration. (Those of us in the two percent do get a handful of Easter eggs, like Bacall and Robbins’s “moment” at the Black and White Ball.) 

I can’t un-know the material, though, and I think playwright (and Brothers & Sisters creator) Jon Robin Baitz absolutely knows the material as well and did what he thought he had to do to get it to translate to television – but for me, the anachronisms overwhelm the emotion. In the first handful of episodes, dialogue contains the occasional clanker: “maybe that’s my kink,” “don’t get it twisted,” and “dumb yourself down” are not things people said in the middle of the last century. 

Nor do “ostensibly” and “ostentatiously” mean the same thing, and someone ought to have caught any and all of those errors, but they’re symptoms of a larger problem, one that, in Baitz’s defense, I’m not sure it’s possible to solve in the scripted space, and it’s this: part of the appeal of the story is its opacity, its almost Whartonian subtlety…like, in the end, there isn’t much of a story at all! Slim Keith (played with brio by Diane Lane despite IMO not being written very accurately) probably didn’t make a concerted effort to rally the troops against Capote or behind Babe Paley; Naomi Watts gives a lovely, brittle performance as Babe, but she probably didn’t deliver a series of Chardonnay-infused and teary pronouncements about the unappreciated tensile strength of womankind. They…simply stopped knowing Capote. 

They simply stopped speaking to, and about, him, at least to anyone who documented it later. To have them angrily conspiring doesn’t really track with what we know of their response or of that time – and it misses what wounded Capote so mortally. Naturally I understand that “the social water closed over him like a stone, and he took the rest of a decade to drink himself to death” is not especially good TV. Still, that space at the heart of the story is one of the reasons it endures, and by turning the swans’ pain – and projection of other hurts onto Capote, whom they trusted in a way they couldn’t trust their partners, and whose betrayal in the Esquire story therefore loomed largest – into text, by trying to make a gap into a known space, it sort of lets the magic burn off.

Joe Mantello as Capote’s longtime partner, Jack Dunphy. (Pari Dukovic/FX)

So, should you watch it? I’ve got more than a few issues with it – as nice as it is to spend a bit more time with Treat Williams, IMO he’s miscast as Bill Paley; what FEUD does with Capote’s mother, Nina, is an interesting play, but doesn’t quite work either; there is a version of this story that is only about Joe Mantello’s Jack Dunphy that is unbelievably sad and beautiful, but this isn’t it; Calista Flockhart’s rendition of Lee Radziwill is…avant-garde, let’s say that. But I don’t think that’s on Flockhart, and more to the point, it’s not boring, so: yes, give it a look!

Every complaint I have is one of engagement with the story, and interest in the challenges of telling it for television, in the twenty-first century. In that way, FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans is likely flawed in its inception, but I enjoy unpacking the reasons it’s not successful, and talking about the things it does do well (Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, having a blast; Demi Moore owning a somewhat “off-brand” imagining of the Ann Woodward story). It’s sometimes frustrating, but it’s never dull, so let’s discuss in the comments!

(Want to take a convo about FEUD on the road? I’ll be chatting about it on Extra Extra Hot Great later this week. Want to stroll around our archive? Sign up for the newsletter verzh!)

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Happy discussing!

Jen

Monday 5th of February 2024

I am enjoying it quite a bit so far just for the indulgent travel to a far off time and place (and societal class, TBH). The sets and costumes are near perfection and I am especially in awe of the hair and makeup. I did notice some of the language SDB mentioned but was not completely thrown out of my time travel trance until Capote's mother showed up. Only then was I reminded that this is not just my fantasy come to life, but Ryan Murphy's as well, and I was grateful to live in the streaming age and be able to skip ahead. I'll keep watching and probably making a nice Manhattan for myself for each episode. I read Slim Keith's autobiography (Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life) about 20 years ago and that is what got me obsessed with this era's icons. She very affectionately and casually dethrones Hemingway as a boring drunk in her book, so I cannot imagine what she was capable of off the page. Thanks for the review and I like your new digital home!

Jackie

Saturday 3rd of February 2024

Really enjoying it so far. The costumes are top-tier and deserve an Emmy nom.

Jones

Friday 2nd of February 2024

Hi SDB! I really enjoyed the 1st ep. I love this time in NYC society and Capote and the swans are so fascinating. I guess I can't quite understand WHY Capote felt the need to scorch the earth with the Esquire article and subsequent "Answered Prayers". He had to have known this would end his world. Was it for the almighty payday or was he really that naive/clueless?? What are your thoughts?

Sarah D. Bunting

Friday 2nd of February 2024

...Jones!! Folks, please welcome an emerita member of the Virtual True-Crime Book Club from back in the day.

I don't really know the answer, or that there's just one. I don't think it was for the payday. Complicated feelings about his mother's demise, about how similar his mother and Ann Woodward really were in the end (the series explores that a bit in a later ep), about how one-sided his relationships could be with the swans and how THOSE mirrored his feelings of alienation from his mother...plus I think frank terror that he had peaked with ICB and was really going to have to blow up the world to remind it and himself that he had power. Obv I didn't know the man so I can't say for sure (people who DID know him couldn't say for sure). But I don't think it was about the money for him, with the article or any other time.

Naomi

Thursday 1st of February 2024

Really enjoying it so far... very entertaining. All the performances are great but I'm adoring Diane Lane... she is so 'catty' in this... and just perfect as Slim Keith.

Sarah D Bunting

Friday 2nd of February 2024

@Naomi, I'm loving her too. It really speaks to the excellence of the performances that the *writing* of these people and situations doesn't quite go, for me, but I'm still captivated watching the actors working.

Claire Pancerz

Thursday 1st of February 2024

Well, I wasn’t going to watch, despite my fascination with these social X-rays, as Tom Wolfe dubbed them. So much of Capote’s life was a sad, sad tale brought about by his sometimes-poisonous nature. Your review definitely put me in a different frame of mind, so I’ll be diving in!

Sarah D. Bunting

Thursday 1st of February 2024

Let us know what you think! He's quite poisonous in this iteration but I think it's well done, keeps more than one version of him in its mind at once if that makes sense.