Truman Capote was one of the literary sensations of the mid-twentieth century, despite not entertaining a large body of writing to his name. But he was a character, and a part of the New York social scene, friends with those who mattered and able to pen bestsellers that shed light on areas of American life that other writers would ordinarily shy away from. He was also gay at a time when that was controversial, and for much of his existence, illegal, but by palling around with the women he called "Swans", that was the idle rich who had enough money to swan around all day and all night without fearing any repercussions, he became privy to plenty of secrets. This excited him, but it also fed into his dreams of creating his masterpiece: a thinly veiled expose of his friends...
This was to be called Answered Prayers, and was more or less the subject of this documentary which nevertheless took in the entirety of Capote's time on Earth to offer a fuller picture of the man who scrabbled his way up from nothing in the Deep South to having the world at his feet, then self-sabotaged that success to turn into something of a drug and booze-addled joke. In addition, he appeared on a load of chat shows which provided footage for director Ebs Burnough's film, handy when if you had never heard the man speak, you would think he had been invented: more than once Capote's nasal whine is described in a manner that suggests people could not quite believe anyone could have spoken in that way, as much a part of his legend as his novels and short stories.
He will be best known for two books, Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood, which is more than many writers get and both of which were adapted into hit movies. The former was an Audrey Hepburn vehicle that sanitised the lurid prose of the page into something a lot sweeter and classier, though the latter retained the grim poetry of its source in stark, black and white newsreel style. Both are revealed here to have been drawn from genuine experience: Holly Golightly was based on Capote's troubled, aspiring mother, and the murder yarn was of course a true crime that he got too close to in his attempts to write a masterpiece, a goal he was forever chasing (it is also argued, as in the two biopics made about him and killer Perry Smith, that he forced the authorities' hand to have the murderers executed because it would make a better ending for his book). But Answered Prayers was something different as it could undo all his own aspirations to high society.
That it was never finished, or at least never published, is part of that legend of Capote, given the three chapters that were printed in magazines were so scandalous that his Swans promptly deserted him with indecent haste, leaving him to dwindle as a parody of himself, showing up increasingly dishevelled in interviews and paparazzi snaps, obviously with a very serious substance abuse problem that nobody was prepared to help him with. We get a rounded view of Capote from the interviews from those who knew him, and also tapes from the collection of journalist George Plimpton who wished to write a biography of him but didn't, and arguably Burnough's position as an actual socialite himself placed him in a state of privilege better to understand his subject and how Capote got it so right and so wrong. What starts out a little dry, like any number of these archive/talking heads docs, becomes steadily more engrossing as the eccentricities and even tragedies of Truman's existence allow, so that by the end you're keen to pick up one of his books and yearn for a complete manuscript of Answered Prayers to be found in a vault.
[The Capote Tapes will be available at altitude.film - click here to watch - and on all digital platforms across the UK and Ireland from 29 January.]