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‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’ Review: Cold Blooded

A lot of talent was assembled for “Capote vs. the Swans,” primarily to portray the society women the filmmakers chose to represent from among the many who were in Capote’s orbit. (Laurence Leamer’s book “Capote’s Women” is credited as the screenplay’s source.) Those are the show’s real bum roles, unfortunately, and the actresses in them — Naomi Watts as Paley, Diane Lane as Slim Keith, Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill and Demi Moore as Ann Woodward — are mostly reduced to quiet, clenched scenery chewing. Treat Williams as Paley’s husband — the CBS chief executive William S. Paley who, written as a good-hearted philanderer, comes off better than just about anyone else — is fun to watch. Jessica Lange is excellent in a handful of scenes as Capote’s mother, who we are to believe is the Freudian root of his troubles; her delivery of the word “juvenilia” in the final episode is a high point.

As is common these days, “Capote vs. the Swans” comes up with high-concept, fantastical sequences, or entire episodes, for variety and to stretch out the story. The historical record does not appear to include Capote’s dining on a swan caught for him in Central Park, a scene that would have been better left out of the show as well. Chris Chalk is excellent in a cameo as James Baldwin, but the imagined meeting between Baldwin and Capote seems to be there just to make the point that Capote’s society friends are racist as well as homophobic and classist. (Baldwin tells Capote that the novel he claims to be writing about them will be his “slave revolt.”)

Better is another fictional scenario, an entire episode in which the documentarians Albert and David Maysles (who made a short film about Capote for WNET) are imagined to have filmed the Black and White Ball that Capote threw at the Plaza Hotel in 1966; Van Sant appears to have been energized by the exercise of recreating the Maysles’s vérité style.

Also successful — to a greater extent than you would expect — are some sequences in which Capote writes the (as far as we know nonexistent) later chapters of “Answered Prayers,” and the women on whom his characters are based are seen playing out his fictional scenarios: Guest road-tripping through New Mexico, and Keith loudly telling off the disloyal narrator. Shedding the oddly stylized hauteur that they have been playing throughout the story, Sevigny and Lane are suddenly funny and relaxed.

For every moment that works, though, there are many more that don’t, or that the weary actors are able only to battle to a draw. “Capote vs. the Swans” has neither of the qualities — the poetic aura or the gimlet, ruthless observation — that marked the best of Capote’s work. In its flat-footed censoriousness, it’s more like the writing that got him in trouble in “La Côte Basque, 1965.”

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