'The Capote Tapes': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A useful but oddly constructed introduction.

Ebs Burnough's doc portrait of Truman Capote relies partly on interviews conducted by George Plimpton.

First-time filmmaker Ebs Burnough, according to his TIFF mini-bio, is a marketing professional who once worked as a deputy social secretary to Michelle Obama. It's the latter experience, of course, that might be relevant to a portrait of Truman Capote, a man whose presence in high society often overshadowed his literary career. Burnough's The Capote Tapes rather overplays the importance of its eponymous source material — interviews conducted by George Plimpton with some of Capote's onetime friends, whose recollections add color here but are neither the core of the film nor the source of memorable revelations. Instead, the doc aims to be a broader biography, and it appears to be the first such portrait not made for television — surprising, given both Capote's status in pop culture and the extent to which we feel we know him already. That familiarity doesn't necessarily deepen much with The Capote Tapes; but those looking for an introduction to the loved/hated figure should find this one useful and engaging, despite some structural issues that keep it from feeling truly comprehensive.

More important than Plimpton's archival material here are fresh interviews — especially one with Kate Harrington, introduced as Capote's adopted daughter. (Not mentioned is her career in movie costuming or marriage to disgraced filmmaker John McTiernan.) Harrington was an ordinary Long Island kid when her father became Capote's "manager"; the two men were lovers, and after their relationship turned ugly, she lived in Manhattan with the author, receiving his tutelage on the ways of advancing oneself in New York City.

Harrington was also witness to his morning rituals, in which coffee and gossip — long phone calls with columnists who'd swap intel — went hand in hand. Later in the film, Harrington admits that Capote's writing eventually suffered, overpowered by his interest in getting to know the city's fabulous class.

The movie is psychoanalyzing that downfall — tracing Capote's fascination with and resentment of the rich to his belief that high society directly caused his mother's suicide — well before it has sketched out his biography or talked about the work that opened doors to mansions and exotic vacations.

Before that, it speaks to his impossible-to-miss homosexuality, made all the more alien to the era's mainstream Americans by his distinctively pinched speech. An old Norman Mailer clip finds the macho novelist admiring Capote's bravery, recalling how he walked into the least hospitable settings without any attempt to quash his flamboyance. In a new interview with Colm Toibin (the film's other MVP), the novelist describes the courage and self-invention required in "every gay life" at the time of Capote's youth — especially in Alabama, where he grew up. The film captures the Capote we know via talk shows and film portrayals by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones (neither biopic is mentioned), but doesn't reconcile that persona with the brooding, beautiful man seen on the dust jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms and elsewhere. Does no sound footage of him from this youthful period exist?

After these sections, which have much to do with his later life, the film leaps back jarringly to the point at which Capote got the New Yorker assignment that led to In Cold Blood. Burnough follows the development and impact of that ground-breaking "nonfiction novel," then offers a long look at the famous 1966 ball he threw at the Plaza Hotel; eventually, we wind up with Capote As Celebrity, when he seemingly spent more time talking about his planned book Answered Prayers than writing it. As Jay McInerney puts it, he became more a talk-show guest than a working writer.

Having already talked a good deal about Capote's fixations on the beautiful rich women he dubbed "swans," the film now listens to how betrayed they felt when magazine excerpts of the book made them look bad. Literary abuses to the pampered and vain are hardly the most compelling part of this story. But the backlash set the stage for Capote's final years of drugs, disco and Dick Cavett.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: Hatch House Media Ltd.
Director: Ebs Burnough
Screenwriters: Ebs Burnough, Holly Whiston
Producers: Ebs Burnough, Lawrence Elman
Executive producers: Nick Fraser, Pierre Lagrange, Lex Lutzus
Director of photography: Antonio Rossi
Editors: Allen Charlton, David Charap
Composer: Mike Patto
Sales: Endeavor Content

98 minutes