During author Truman Capote’s time in New York high society, he assembled an inner circle of socialite women he dubbed his “swans” — elegant, poised, and presenting a finely curated image of perfection.
But as Feud: Capote vs. The Swans reveals, there’s more to the “swan” nickname than just coiffed white feathers and polished exteriors. The way Capote (Tom Hollander) tells it in Ryan Murphy’s Hulu series, swans may appear effortless, yet tremendous work goes into keeping up the illusion that they are gracefully afloat. The birds’ feet churn furiously below water, just as Capote’s elegant entourage tirelessly labors to maintain their good standing in society. They weather affairs, illnesses, and anxieties in relative privacy, only presenting their most dazzling face to the world.
As a season of television, Capote vs. The Swans follows in its namesakes’ footsteps, its fabulous façade hiding something deeper and more complicated. Big-name stars, promises of Real Housewives-esque drama, and an air of overall glamor lure us into what is ultimately a tragedy of friendships gone irreparably awry.
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans follows Truman Capote’s real-life fall from grace.
Tom Hollander in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.”
At the center of all these bonds is Capote, who, aside from being a celebrated author of works like In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, makes a name for himself by regaling New York City’s wealthiest and trendiest with witty stories and hot gossip. Everything from embarrassing bathroom habits to accusations of murder is on the table. Capote’s eager listeners eat it up: As one character puts it, he’s “the most fun there is.”
That tendency for frivolity has made Capote the friend, social guru, and confidant of a host of high society women. Among them are Slim Keith (Diane Lane), C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), and the closest and favorite of all his swans, Babe Paley (Naomi Watts).
These friendships come to a spectacular halt when Capote publishes an excerpt from what is meant to be his next novel, Answered Prayers. Titled “La Côte Basque, 1965,” the story features thinly disguised versions of his dear companions — and their most shameful secrets. Capote’s betrayal leads his swans to shun him completely, excising him from the high society he held so dear. A downward spiral soon follows: Capote’s alcoholism surges, and he is unable to focus on Answered Prayers. His trajectory is as bleak as the swans are beautiful. Feud: Capote vs. The Swans reckons with that duality — and why Capote wrote “La Côte Basque, 1965” in the first place — throughout.
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans is stunning yet deeply sad.
The cast of “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.”
Elegance is the name of the game in Capote vs. The Swans. Showrunner Jon Robin Baitz and episode directors Gus Van Sant, Max Winkler, and Jennifer Lynch regale us with high fashion from the ’50s all the way to the ’80s, elegantly plated meals, and exquisite parties. No wonder people crave proximity to this lifestyle.
Yet Feud wields this glamor like a double-edged sword. The swans are often miserable and insecure, trapped in gilded cages, sometimes of their own making. Babe is the prime example; her pursuit of perfection has alienated her from her children and means she stays with her cheating husband, media mogul Bill Paley (Treat Williams), in order to keep up appearances. Then, of course, there’s Capote himself, whose fall from grace prompts a string of self-destructive choices, including abusive relationships and substance use. For everyone, it’s better to be in and unhappy than out and alone.
Capote vs. The Swans uses these personal woes to elevate major set pieces. A standout is an episode focused entirely on Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White Ball, explored here in monochrome documentary-style footage. Capote dangles the coveted title of Guest of Honor in front of each of his swans, giving us a glimpse into the kind of strange, symbiotic relationship between the author and his so-called friends. He needs them to sustain his relevancy in society, and they need him to access loftier social echelons. It’s a glamorous high-wire act, lending each catty remark or gossiping whisper a surprising pathos.
Tom Hollander and Naomi Watts dazzle in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.
Naomi Watts and Tom Hollander in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.”
Holding this web of backstabbing socialites together is Hollander, who captures the tragedy of Capote along with his many flaws and quirks. Sporting the author’s trademark high-pitched voice, Hollander delivers gossip with callous verve, then turns around and explores Capote’s deep pain and remorse — sometimes in the same scene. Playing Capote could easily lead an actor into caricature territory, but in Hollander’s hands he remains a flesh-and-blood human, fun and flawed in equal measure. Even in Feud‘s more surreal scenes — such as discussions with Jessica Lange as Capote’s glamorous Force ghost of a mother (this is a Ryan Murphy production after all) — Hollander stays grounded.
The cornerstone of Capote vs. The Swans is Capote’s relationship with Babe, whom Watts initially plays with ice-cold poise. Once she cuts Capote out of her life and begins to reckon with her ailing health, Watts allows regret to disrupt Babe’s hard-won perfection. Why did her closest friend hurt her? Was she right to cut him out of her life, even as the two of them struggled while apart from each other? What is genuine here, and what is performance?
In Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, it’s impossible to truly be one’s self in the swans’ cutthroat world. Authenticity comes second to image. But Feud makes sure that all its images — as alluring as they are — serve the characters’ pain, no matter how hard they may try to hide it. You may come to Capote vs. The Swans for the promise of glamor and capital-d Drama, but you’ll stay for the devastating fallout and surprising bonds between its characters.
The first two episodes of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans premiere Jan. 31 at 10 p.m. ET on FX, with episodes available to stream on Hulu the next day.