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VOD Review: The Capote Tapes

October 24, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Truman Capote was an author whose real life persona loomed as large as the characters he wrote about in his stories. Capote’s distinctive high voice, short stature, and flamboyant personality made him stand out in his day, with his irredeemable penchant for gossip and being at the centre of New York high society gaining him many friends but also enemies.

Now Capote’s literary work, and his life as an openly gay man, is explored anew in director Ebs Burnough’s engaging documentary The Capote Tapes. The main draw of the film are excerpts of reel-to-reel audio recordings of interviews with Capote’s friends and adversaries that George Plimpton conducted in 1997, which are presented here for the first time.

Burnough chronologically takes us through Capote’s published works, starting with his semi-autobiographical 1948 debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, a groundbreaking work in the canon of queer literature that was inspired by his own childhood as a small gay boy in Louisiana. Ten years later in 1958, Capote introduced the world to perhaps his most iconic character with Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who would go on to be immortalized onscreen by Audrey Hepburn in a 1961 film adaptation that greatly toned down the explicitness of Capote’s novel.

The film does a good job offering an overview of his novels and the impact they had in the literary world, including the crater left by his 1965 true crime novel In Cold Blood, detailing the farmhouse murder of a family in Kansas. Dubbed a “nonfiction novel” by the author himself, the film recounts how he spent years doing research for the book in rural Kansas (which would become the subject of the 2005 biopic Capote), including befriending one of the killers.

The final section of The Capote Tapes focuses on Capote’s unfinished final novel Answered Prayers, a salacious, gossipy account of the inner lives of Manhattan’s elites which he claimed to be working on for years, up until his death in 1984. While three chapters of the book were published and caused quite a stir, the full manuscript for Answered Prayers has never been found, leading some to question if it was ever even completed. The film doesn’t go that deep into doing detective work to explore these claims, but it does leave us with some tantalizing questions.

Burnough keeps the film moving at a good pace, mixing the unearthed audio recordings with archival footage and old photographs, as well as new talking head interviews conducted for the film. Among the subjects featured in the documentary are Vogue editor-in-chief André Leon Talley and authors Colm Tóibín and Jay McInerney, who all have juicy tidbits and stories to share about Capote. Perhaps the most revealing of the subjects though is Kate Harrington, a sort of surrogate daughter to Capote whom he took under his wing following an affair with her closeted, alcoholic father.

While The Capote Tapes very much feels like an overview of Capote’s life and career, and it does gloss over some things, Burnough does a good job of assembling all of the film’s pieces into a quick moving and often compelling package. The film scratches at the surface of how Capote’s own status as a celebrity increasingly consumed his life, as he became a permanent fixture of the talk show circuit in his later years and succumbed to addiction, including many drunken nights at Studio 54. On a lighter note, the film offers a fun account of his famous 1965 masked gala at the Plaza Hotel, the Black and White Ball, including how he excitedly greeted each of the invited guests.

For a documentary about a writer famous for saying “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,” it’s fitting that the stories themselves are the most appealing part of The Capote Tapes. It’s an enjoyable romp through mid-20th century New York high society, that also doesn’t shy away from exploring the demons that Capote battled throughout his life.

The Capote Tapes is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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