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17 April 2024

Tom Hollander’s deliciously nasty Truman Capote

In Feud: Capote vs the Swans, the actor is unpleasant to behold: a campy, sweaty homunculus. It’s a joy to watch.

By Rachel Cooke

However starry it may be – there are enough big names here to fill a red carpet – there’s no getting away from the fact that Feud: Capote vs the Swans is niche TV. If, like me, you’re a fan of the particular poison ivy that is late-era Truman Capote, and enjoy seeing it clamber over everything, then you’ll be mightily entertained. Personally, I adore the immense nastiness coming off every character in great stinky waves, as if it were Chanel No 5 or (a better metaphor) Fracas by Robert Piguet. Here are Acid Raine hairstyles (I refer to the helmet once sported by the stepmother of Princess Diana, Raine Spencer), diamonds as big as the Ritz, and white tablecloth lunches powered by expensive Chablis, pills, nicotine and gossip so savage no one ever needs a knife for their steak.

But if you have no idea who Babe Paley was, or even Lee Radziwill – and why should you? – you’ll want to avoid this like Bergdorf Goodman at sale time. Unless I can somehow turn you… But, no, I do see that our culture’s fixation with the rich and famous-for-not-very-much-at-all is tiresome. Who are these ghastly women? And why were they so ridiculously hurt and surprised when their spiteful little friend Truman published extracts of what would be his last novel, Answered Prayers, in Esquire magazine, in which they appeared so thinly disguised entire restaurants would fall silent as they entered? (One, the former model, Ann Woodward – played here by Demi Moore – killed herself with cyanide even before the magazine hit the newsstands, having got wind of the fact that Capote had accused her of murdering her husband.)

They were, of course, Capote’s Swans: his aspirational girl gang, his inspiration and his downfall. Paley (Naomi Watts) was a Vogue journalist and the wife of the guy who ran CBS; Slim Keith (Diane Lane) was a fashion icon who’d once been married to Howard Hawks; Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) was a socialite and Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister; CZ Guest (Chloë Sevigny) was a gardener and horsewoman who was painted by Diego Rivera, among others.

I can’t think that any of them left any great legacy to the world, save for Paley, who’s the girl who taught us to tie our silk scarves to the handles of our handbags (you won’t get this kind of info elsewhere, my darlings!). But for a while, they genuinely loved Capote. To their places in Palm Beach and on Long Island they would take him in their private jets, the better to tell him all about their horrible, unfaithful husbands (his counsel: stay put, and enjoy the cash). Only then he betrayed them, love turned to hate, and they sent him to Coventry – or, to be more accurate, to Joanne Carson’s house in LA (Joanne, a model and former stewardess, was married to the chat show king Johnny Carson, and is played by Molly Ringwald).

The offending extract, “La Côte Basque”, was published in 1975, by which time Capote was a drunk (he died without completing the book). This drama, the second in Ryan Murphy’s anthology series Feud, flips between Capote’s glory years in the Sixties – when he organised his famous Black and White Ball, the preparations for which director Gus Van Sant has shot in, yes, black and white – and the bloated Seventies, when he was with his violent but boring banker boyfriend John O’Shea (Russell Tovey); by this telling, O’Shea’s déclassé failure to know that a courgette is a zucchini was almost as shocking to Capote’s pals as his tendency to fisticuffs.

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Truman is played by Tom Hollander, who follows in the footsteps of other brilliant Capote impersonators: Toby Jones, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hollander makes him very unpleasant – too unpleasant, perhaps, though I suspect this isn’t inaccurate – but he’s delicious to watch: a campy, sweaty homunculus reflexively rubbing himself up against these beautiful, stately women. Picture a particularly breathless pug peeing on the trunk of a beautiful silver birch. Everyone is excellent: the Swans, you can tell, are so happy to have been cast, which speaks volumes about both the way older women are treated in Hollywood and our culture’s current paucity of imagination, real people now being the only characters actors seem truly to want to play. But it’s Hollander who steals every scene: all-seeing, all-knowing, whining and merciless.

Feud: Capote vs the Swans

[See also: HBO’s The Regime review: what went wrong?]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran