If Truman Capote and I lived at the same time, I would’ve been both desperate and afraid to fall in his good graces. He showered affection on those he loved and admired, but he could cut people down with his caustic wit and observations. Just hearing his iconic voice raises goosebumps with anticipation for what he has to say. Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes chronicles the rise and tragic fall of literature’s shortest giant.
Burnough opens his film with the tease, “A journalist conducted dozens of interviews trying to get to the heart of the most writer of the day. His tapes have never been made public…until now…” Just that simple introduction would make Capote himself lean forward and ask for more details. Even though The Capote Tapes could’ve felt like a cradle to grave, by-the-numbers account, it avoids that by inviting us into the den of New York society. We crave it as much as Truman did. We sometimes feel that we aren’t worthy of the attention or that we may feel exposed. It’s thrilling.
The Capote Tapes includes audio from many famous voices (Lauren Bacall among them) and Burnough conducted on-camera interviews of those who found themselves in Truman’s inner sanctum. Kate Harrington became an adopted daughter and mentee when Truman fell in love with Kate’s father. Author and playwright Dotson Rader is a helpful queer voice as observer to Truman’s escapades. Dick Cavett had Truman on his talk show many times and now Cavett doesn’t seem to buy a lot of what Truman was selling at the time.
The central tragic element to The Capote Tapes is how Truman never felt truly loved. He may have felt like he belonged in a crowded party or at Studio 54, but Burnough’s film illuminates how lonely Truman must have felt. His mother didn’t stick around very long, and pictures of a young Truman Capote have an alluring draw to them. By the end of his life, Truman was drinking himself into a stupor and he alienated a large number of his high-society Swans (the pet name he gave women he adored in his inner circle).
There is a lot to unpack here about being a queer man when the term sissy was thrown around too casually. Truman Capote was a person you couldn’t truly mess with because he lived his life so authentically–women adored having him on their arm and men sometimes didn’t know how to handle how open Truman was. Think about the time Truman spent with Perry Smith as Truman researched his iconic nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood.
Burnough paces his doc so well that it feels like you are hearing a great story at a crowded cocktail party. Truman Capote is a man we have seen portrayed in many films and we have seen his work adapted and dissected. With every turn of a cassette recording, The Capote Tapes makes us crave more and more information about a person we always thought we knew well.