‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’ Revives Truman Capote’s Rebellion Against the Upper Crust With Elegant Bite 

Part of the allure of fame is the chance to be allowed into the highest towers of society. The famous and the elite are like their own, exclusive country and you have to be invited in to attend the party. But to abuse such friendships can mean making mortal enemies. “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” is a deliciously scandalous series about how the great writer Truman Capote suddenly felt compelled to bite the velvety hands that fed him. The author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” was also a famous bon vivant, combining Southern charm with the gifts of a natural storyteller. How Capote set fire to his friendships by using them for material is only one angle of this addictive show. It speaks to us now in a time where all privacy is gone while pondering what happens when an artist becomes a court jester.

Everyone involved is a kind of dream team. Maverick producer Ryan Murphy oversees the show with Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Elephant”) directing most of the eight episodes. The cast itself is quite the ensemble. Tom Hollander plays Capote, capturing the sophisticated, nasal tone of the real man perfectly. It all opens with the writer being called in to support Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), wife of media mogul William Paley (the late Treat Williams). One of William’s affairs has become too much and Babe is distraught while for Capote, the literally bloody details are great material to file away. Babe is just one of the “swans” that form a circle of socialites who are essentially Capote’s besties. They include Slim Keith (Diane Lane) and actors like C. Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny). A perfect storm forms when in the 1970s a clearly alcoholic Capote publishes a stinging short story inspired by the farcically terrible shooting of the husband of Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), coinciding with her own suicide. The piece puts before the public eye many of the salacious and intimate details the swans have shared with the writer, in turn inspiring their wrath.

“Capote vs. the Swans,” based on the 2021 novel by Laurence Lemer, “Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era.” is the latest in the “Feud” series Murphy first launched in 2017 with “Bette and Joan,” about the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Like his “American Crime Story” and every other show produced by Murphy, there’s the feeling of a showrunner indulging in his genuine interests and obsessions. He’s fascinated by the muck beneath history. Capote is also another gay personality where the truth gets buried under myth. This is also one of the more observational shows Murphy has produced, where it is more about the social critique than plot. With Van Sant’s elegant eye, the world of New York elites becomes a sensuous hell where the snacks are delightful but Capote’s soul is sapped. He’s flamboyant and tells stories that make William Paley tell Babe, “You need to invite him to everything.” He begins an affair with a married man, John O’Shea (Russell Tovey), who becomes his manager and later, abuser. 

Capote becomes an attraction that threatens to overshadow his work, which might be the culprit behind his increased drinking. He belonged to that generation of authors like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, at a time when writers were still important public voices. “Feud” suggests he became too close to the swans. A major trigger is when he learns Ann Woodward called him a “faggot” behind his back. Per the series, it is this incident that inspires Capote to pen “La Côte Basque, 1965,” the 1975 Esquire piece about Woodward shooting her husband after mistaking him for a burglar, which Capote hints was not an accident at all. He splashes around lurid details about the other swans’ unsavory backdoor lives, like William’s lover getting revenge by smearing his master bedroom with menstrual blood. Slim Keith determines the ultimate revenge would be to cut Capote out of their circle and thus out of the jet set he covets. But why did Capote do it? Maybe he knew deep down he was becoming entertainment rather than a respected wordsmith. As the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton once wrote, “Whatever his quality, his stature, his finesse, his creative capacity, his success, the poet can only be to the bourgeoisie: Servant, Clown or Enemy.”

The series flows between the past and present, covering Capote’s years of early fame with his downfall. Van Sant and Murphy make boredom exquisitely entertaining by eavesdropping on brunch talk and dinners where the swans hate their former friend, while admitting to each other his observations were not wrong at all (just not fit for the plebs to consume). These seasoned actors who have been around the elite for a while now easily settle into the roles, as if into a second skin. The rest of the cast are a who’s who including Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper and Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill. They are all dazzled by Capote’s wit and genuine affection. He cooks when they fall ill and knows what flowers to instruct the help to order on a bad afternoon. When Babe is stricken with cancer, one senses the genuine pain in wanting to have Capote around but his betrayal of a silent social code cuts too deep. Friendship and what it entails becomes one of the show’s most powerful, subtle themes. Tom Hollander is the best Capote since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unmatched, Oscar-winning performance in 2005’s “Capote,” giving him just enough campiness and sophistication.

“Capote vs. the Swans” gradually becomes an elegy as well for a bygone era. Celebrity is an eternal phenomenon, but it shifts and changes with time. Books don’t sell like they used to or turn authors into the kind of public draw someone like Capote became. Gossip still causes a stir but doesn’t drop like an atom bomb. In one episode, the swans watch in despair as their old haunts and shops start to be replaced with new, hip names in Manhattan. By the end of the series, a physically decaying Capote rushes to finish his book “Answered Prayers,” which would be the ultimate tell-all about the swans’ inner world. It would be published after his death in 1984, and is now mostly forgotten until, maybe, this series revives interest. Ryan Murphy and team are here to make sure we remember, with the vicious delights of a production that pretends to have good manners before biting hard.

Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” premieres Jan. 31 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.