‘Capote vs. The Swans’ Review: A Wistful ‘Feud,’ a Tragic Romance, and a Great Performance

Two central questions hover over “Capote vs. The Swans” — the same two questions that have driven debate in the nearly 40 years since Truman Capote’s death. The first: What happened to “Answered Prayers”? The author’s long-teased final novel was never found, and various friends, associates, and scholars have debated how much of it was even written. Capote announced its completion multiple times. Chapters were shared privately and (very) publicly. Yet a fully realized edition of the book doesn’t appear to exist. So… what happened to it? Did he destroy it? Did he never write it? Talk to a dozen different people and you’ll get a dozen different answers (much like George Plimpton did so vividly in his 1997 book).

The second question at the heart of “Feud” Season 2 is both related to the first and even harder to answer: Why did Capote write, let alone publish, “La Côte Basque”? Originally issued in Esquire magazine, his excerpt from “Answered Prayers” served as a thinly veiled fictionalization of his time in high society — and exposed the real people who welcomed him into their decadent lives. From scandalous affairs to accusations of murder, the chapter’s salacious gossip turned Capote’s East Coast friends against him for good, evicting him from the best restaurants, parties, and social circles New York City had to offer.

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So… why did he write it? Did he truly believe his so-called friends wouldn’t be bothered by his tittle-tattle? That they’d see it as art, or at least as the inevitable result of their close relationship with a writer? Did he secretly want to hurt them? Was he simply in need of a big, juicy hook for a book that he hadn’t written, at a time when he and his writing were struggling? Was it an imperfect combination of all of the above?

Written entirely by Jon Robin Baitz and officially based on “Capote’s Women,” the 2021 book by Laurence Leamer, “Capote vs. The Swans” entertains each theory without feigning knowledge no one has. In considering so many perspectives, it creates a layered, fulfilling portrait of Capote’s final decade, enhanced greatly by Tom Hollander’s casually attuned performance as the magnetic author and socialite. But when it comes to the Swans themselves, the series is far more single-minded: treating the fawned over ladies with a jaded disregard that’s only emphasized by its nuanced consideration of Capote. Capote is the star here, the swans just decor.

Save for one. Babe Paley (Naomi Watts) may not be scrutinized with the same thoroughness as her best friend (she’s purely the envied socialite and wife to TV titan Bill Paley), but she’s also the complicating factor of every would-be conclusion. Babe and Truman, Truman and Babe, theirs was a tragic romance; a platonic love affair cherished by both parties but only squandered by one. Over eight hourlong episodes, Babe becomes the answer and the rebuttal to each central question.

Either Capote thought she would understand why he wrote what he wrote, or he convinced himself their relationship wasn’t as meaningful as it turned out to be. Either he wanted to hurt her to justify his admonishment of the privileged class, or he wanted to spare her more pain by striking the blow against her husband she couldn’t afford to make herself. Maybe it’s a little of one and a lot of the other. Maybe it’s all or nothing. Maybe Capote didn’t know himself (the safest assumption, given what those who knew him have said), and the ensuing confusion, combined with her absence, kept him from every finishing his final masterpiece.

No matter what you choose to believe — and “Capote vs. The Swans” knowingly courts the inevitable influx of “what really happened” historical explainers — the two broken hearts driving the melodrama make it all the more affecting. Hollander and Watts create an instantly recognizable friendship, filled with knowing glances and assumed intimacies. Their opening scene — when Babe first tells Truman what happened between her husband, Bill (the late Treat Williams), and the governor’s wife — should set opinionated fans ablaze, as there’s a case to be made for and against each of them via the same actions depicted onscreen.

Does Capote roll his eyes behind a weeping Babe’s back because he’s constantly hiding his contempt for rich women’s tears, or was it because he’s infuriated at the way his best friend is routinely treated by her philandering formal partner? Does he counsel her to stay with Bill because he wants more horror stories for his book, or because he knows Babe couldn’t survive as “another divorcee of Manhattan, slowly going nuts up in Westchester, where you’ll end up moving to get away from him?”

Similarly divisive moments are scattered throughout (this is a Ryan Murphy joint, after all), not all of which are reserved for Babe and Capote. The rest of the swans are both characters in Truman’s story and his Greek Chorus. Slim Keith (Diane Lane) is his intellectual equal and Manhattan-based Hollywood insider. C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny) is a master gardener and devoted confidante. Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), in turn, is the devil on his shoulder and a touch more complex than the rest. Radziwill once had a relationship with Capote that rivaled Babe’s, but “Capote vs. The Swans” doesn’t delve too far into their past. Sister to Jackie Onassis and mother-in-law to “Real Housewife” Carole Radziwill, Lee isn’t exactly Babe’s foil, so much as her darkened mirror, and she shares some of the most cutting assessments of Capote throughout — at which a deliciously vicious Flockhart excels.

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans Pictured: Naomi Watts as Babe Paley
Naomi Watts in “Capote vs. The Swans”Courtesy of FX

In Episode 3, when asked whether she was upset to be “passed over” as the guest of honor at Capote’s legendary black-and-white ball, Flockhart lights a cigarette, tugs at her smile lines with an extended middle finger, and pauses just before saying Truman has… “friends.” Each gesture and inflection carries a devastating combination of indifference and menace. There’s no question what she means, nor how she feels, yet those emphatic sentiments are perfectly cloaked in the currency of her world, decorum, and Flockhart relishes every polished dagger she gets to throw.

Gus Van Sant, who directs six of the eight episodes, also seems to savor the specifics demanded by his assignment. The aforementioned third episode is built around the black-and-white ball, and Van Sant doesn’t just shoot the hour in black and white, but borrows Albert and David Maysles’ 1966 documentary, “With Love from Truman,” to tell the story. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake (as Van Sant is wont to do) but “an invention” that allows the director to draw out candid opinions and stage heightened confrontations in a way that’s rooted in history without being beholden to its rigidity. Yet for as showy and successful as that episode is, Van Sant’s visual storytelling shines in smaller situations, as well, like when he uses lighting to set a clear contrast between the Swans’ glamorous Thanksgiving and the one Capote suffers through on the West Coast. Only one dinner meets the gold standard.

“Capote vs. The Swans” runs long. Its first half is stronger than its second, and its narrowed interest in one swan, rather than the full flock, doesn’t always befit a sweeping, melancholic saga. (And if my swan analogy felt like a stretch, good luck getting through the show.) Still, no matter who you think comes across as the hero or the villain, the winner or the loser (if anyone), “Feud’s” second season interrogates each side, knows its main characters, and even widens its scope for a few anthropological assertions. “There is a subtle racism below the surface of the water they swim in,” Capote narrates in a later episode. “It’s never overt, the racism or the classicism. It’s subtle, but it’s meant to convey one thing: I am a privileged, wealthy, white woman, and I am better than you.”

“Constitutionally, by nature, [they’re just] not curious enough to cross the imaginary barriers,” he says. Thankfully, “Capote vs. The Swans” never stops asking questions.

Grade: B+

“Capote vs. The Swans” premieres Wednesday, January 31 at 9 p.m. ET on FX. New episodes will be released weekly and available to stream Thursdays on Hulu.

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