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.)
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.
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.
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!