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The Capote Tapes: scrawl or nothing?

Stylish documentary, which probes writer’s mystery novel, has at its core something gloriously rotten

29 January, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Truman Capote

THE CAPOTE TAPES
Directed by Ebs Burnough
Certificate: 12a
☆☆☆☆

WHEN Truman Capote died aged 59 in 1984, a juicy literary mystery emerged: did Capote ever finish a novel he earned a £1m advance for and had spent two decades talking about?

And if he did – some interviewees believe he had, partly due to the scores of yellow legal pads he was seen scrawling across in his final years – where is the manuscript?

Tantalisingly, Ebs Burnough’s marvellous documentary suggests it may be waiting to be discovered in a safe deposit box, though the director believes it was more likely to have ended up in the grate of his fireplace.

The novel, called Answered Prayers, provides a narrative hook for this consideration of Capote’s life and work.

Burnough begins with the success of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, which catapulted him onto a national stage aged 23. He draws on the reams of archive film to give Truman a voice and uses terrific talking heads – too often documentary-makers draft in a recognisable face to trot out a cliché that gives the speaker an undeserved sheen of authority. Here we have people of genuine talent – Colm Toibin, Jay McInerney – speaking with passion about a topic they know thoroughly.

But the chunkiest offering is the use of previously unheard taped interviews made by writer George Plimpton. He wrote Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career in 1997. It means we have Lauren Bacall and Norman Mailer considering what Truman meant and what he was like. Mailer’s macho image appears torn between admiring Capote’s literary brilliance and a bigotry that finds his campness distasteful.

Answered Prayers caused grief for Capote. Hamstrung by writer’s block, distracted by the £1m advance and burdened with an unquenchable lust for the limelight, he repeatedly delayed the book.

Eventually, advance chapters were published in the periodical Esquire. Fans were disappointed, critics gleeful, and friends devastated: Capote was surrounded by a group of high society types and sucked up everything he had seen and heard in the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue. He then spilled the secrets of his set across the chapters, making little attempt to hide his inspirations.

Many of those featured vowed never to speak to Capote again. He didn’t help by saying anyone lucky enough to inspire him should be pleased he found them worthy of attention.

One key moment that takes down this giant isn’t his decline into addiction, a fickleness towards friendships, nor the seductiveness of a shallow upper class. The most troubling idea is that for In Cold Blood to be successful, Capote wanted his two central characters, the convicted murderers Dick and Perry, to be put to death. In Cold Blood is one of the greatest polemics ever written against the death penalty, and such a revelation is disturbing.

This intriguing, stylish and thoughtful documentary has at its core something gloriously rotten: it is a film about a not very nice person saying not very nice things about not very nice people.

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