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Feud: Capote vs the Swans review – the starriest TV show in living memory forgets to be fun
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Feud: Capote vs the Swans review – the starriest TV show in living memory forgets to be fun

What. The hell. Happened? You’ve got writer, raconteur and bon vivant Truman Capote. You’ve got his Swans, the impossibly rich and glamorous socialites of 50s, 60s and 70s Manhattan he befriended – which means you’ve got 50s, 60s and 70s Manhattan to play with too – and you’ve got the fabulous feud between them that erupted when he inexplicably, publicly, irretrievably betrayed them. You’ve got a cast to die for. Tom Hollander as Capote, Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny and Calista Flockhart as the Swans (and Demi Moore as “peafowl at best” according to Capote, always as vicious as he could be charming, with Molly Ringwald and Treat Williams in the mix too). Gus Van Sant directs most of the eight episodes. And executive producing the whole thing (adapted by playwright Jon Robin Baitz from Laurence Leamer’s book Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era) is Ryan Murphy. His list of hits includes Nip/Tuck (Grey’s Anatomy on crack), Glee (Glee on crack), the American Crime Story anthology that gave us the bingeable but astute The People v OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, 12 gloriously bananas seasons of American Horror Story (Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show – need I go on?) All of which have rightly established him as the high priest of camp television.

Given so little to work with … Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in Feud: Capote vs the Swans.View image in fullscreen

His latest endeavour, Feud: Capote vs the Swans, should be the perfect companion piece to yet another Murphy hit – 2017’s Feud: Bette and Joan, which had Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange taking lumps out of each other and the scenery as they played out the lavishly baroque hatred between screen legends Davis and Crawford. And yet it is a dud. Albeit a dud that opens well, with Capote rushing to the rescue of his favourite Swan Babe Paley (Watts), who has discovered the latest of her serially unfaithful husband Bill’s (Williams) affairs via the mistress deliberately leaving menstrual bloodstains all over the marital bed and upholstery. Capote administers Valium, scotch and advice to turn her pain and Bill’s guilt into the acquisition of a Gauguin that Princess Margaret has her eye on. Soothed, she drifts off to sleep by his side.

Thereafter we are quickly introduced to the steely Slim Keith (Lane), who married up and far away from her origins in “Rustfuck, California”, the more blue-blooded CZ Guest (Sevigny) and wannabe Ann Woodward (Moore), whom Capote delights in tormenting as much as he fawns over the rest. But soon after that – and, crucially, too soon for us to have got the true measure of these relationships – we arrive at the moment in 1975 which ignites the feud that lasts until the writer’s death-by-drink a decade later.

Esquire magazine publishes an excerpt from his forthcoming “masterpiece” (never in fact finished) Answered Prayers. It is a barely fictionalised account of the Swans’ gilded lives and dirty secrets, including Paley’s sanguinary humiliation. They close ranks and freeze Capote out. And, really – that’s it. There is no major movement from then on. The timeline jumps around to try to obscure this. We flash back to Capote’s heyday, forward to an (imagined and ill-judged) meeting with James Baldwin, wherein Baldwin tells him, utterly incredibly, that his truth-telling piece about elite lives is “his slave revolt”, interspersing all with scenes between Capote and his various (frequently abusive) lovers.

Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill. CR: Pari Ducovic/FXView image in fullscreen

But if ever there was a story that would benefit from simple linear telling, it’s this one. Without a holistic sense of the group and the nuances of their bonds it becomes impossible to judge whether their 10 years of isolating Capote was admirable sorority or terrible cruelty. The women – each of whose biographies would supply a lifetime’s worth of dramas and documentaries, especially once Flockhart turns up as Jackie O’s jealousy-wracked sister Lee Radziwill – are virtually indistinguishable from each other and exist only as satellites to Capote. Hollander is wonderful in the part (as are all the women in theirs, as far as they go). But they are working with so little. Ideas are floated but never developed. Maybe Capote published his piece because that’s what writers do – Graham Greene’s “splinter of ice in the heart” at play. Maybe misogyny, jealousy or both fuelled him. Maybe it was revenge for the way society shunned his mother (played by Jessica Lange as if she had just popped across from American Horror Story, which is fun but jarring). Maybe he saw that he was an exception to their otherwise intact homophobic prejudices. Maybe it was just a huge drunken mistake by a raging alcoholic as Capote was by then. But nothing is followed through, no conclusions drawn, no coherence provided.

Above all, it simply isn’t fun. Lange aside, it isn’t even camp. It’s cautious, dry, almost worthy in parts (the Swans are much given to anachronistic sounding soundbites about men’s power and women’s suffering) with a handful of good lines scattered about. Just enough to spike your flagging interest and keep hope alive that the Murphy magic will arrive. But it never does.

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Source: theguardian.com