Truman Capote passed away 35 years ago but the silver-tongued author who’s been portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones remains a mysterious figure. The new documentary by Ebs Burnough adds to the mystique of the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” writer by exploring his downward spiral after a portion of the salacious novel “Answered Prayers” was published. Interviews with close friends, archival footage, and newly gained access to audio files, make for an interesting look at the icon when he was most vulnerable, reflecting on the aftermath caused by his remorseless behavior.

When you think of Truman Capote his childlike speech pattern comes to mind. He had however a deep bellowing manly laugh that always made you wonder, “Is he faking it?” There’s no denying his talent as a writer. Nothing bogus there. But part of the Capote intrigue is his reputation for being indiscreet. I remember seeing him on the Johnny Carson show when I was a young child — way before I was introduced to his literary classics — thinking of him as a comedian. After seeing him in Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death” I figured he was a movie star (“actor” was not in my vocabulary yet) and then of course as I get older I discovered his writing and the non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.” My perception of Capote had changed several times in such a short period.

Burnough’s documentary is not a definitive biography but there is a lot of material here that offers new insight into the author’s life thanks to author-journalist George Plimpton’s audio recordings — given to Burnough by Plimpton’s widow Sarah — which were used to write the Capote oral-biography released in 1998, a collection of intimate, fascinating, and entertaining stories gathered by Plimpton who interviewed Capote’s friends and enemies including Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley Jr. who are featured in Burnough’s film.

The audiotapes are intermixed with recent on-camera interviews including an ageless Dick Cavett who once called Capote “the darling of the beautiful people” and Vogue’s André Leon Talley who speaks about the author’s notorious 1966 Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a lavish affair in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, which Talley calls “the only important ball in the 20th century.” The success of “In Cold Blood” gave Capote the resources to host the swanky event for NYC’s socially elite.

Capote was a small openly gay man from Alabama who was viewed as a giant by the literary world and high society including the rich and powerful women, he called his “Swans,” most notably Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill, and Gloria Vanderbilt. As the documentary points out, these women told him their secrets unaware that Capote was taking notes for his next novel, the scathing “Answered Prayers” which no one assumed would see the light of day.

His life can be viewed as Marketing 101 as Capote created an image of himself that became larger than his own personality. Yet in a huge misstep, he let Esquire print the first chapter of “Answered Prayers” in 1975. Not sure the reaction Capote expected, but suddenly high society felt betrayed. The fallout included broken marriages, devasted lives, and a suicide by one of the women, Ann Woodward.

Prior to the Esquire article, Capote is seen as a guest on Dick Cavett where he’s asked about the unreleased novel stating “I refer to it now as my posthumous novel” explaining “Either I’m going to kill it or it’s going to kill me.” He wasn’t wrong. Capote descended into a life fueled by drugs and alcohol after being outcast by those he worked so hard to befriend. Yes, Capote had a playful and wicked sense of humor but by the time a prankster realizes he’s gone too far, it’s too late. Just wait until you see the archived footage of Capote on the Johnny Carson show where he makes a jaw-dropping comment about Marlon Brando.

“The Capote Tapes” is a fascinating look at the iconic author’s implosion, the sell here being Plimpton’s unheard audiotapes and a few revelations, adopted daughter? Still, after viewing Burnough’s comprehensive documentary, the viewer is left with a better comprehension of Capote’s life, although clueless when it comes to the author’s thought process. Why would one of the world’s greatest writers become a living and breathing version of TMZ?

(3 stars)

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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