Let Truman Capote’s legend rest

A Showtime documentary about Truman Capote looked appealing until it turned into a weak parody of "Mommie Dearest," which no one ever said needed a rewrite.

Tom Hollander looked a lot like the author, whose "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the movie starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly Go-lightly, made him nationally famous and "In Cold Blood," about a murdered Kansas family, virtually drove him loony. Capote became unhinged, it appears, while waiting for Kansas to put to death characters played on screen by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. Once that trifle was completed, Truman had an ending to his 1966 book, which he called "nonfiction."

By the time of his death in 1984, Capote had become a physical and mental wreck, depending on the kindness of strangers (one of them Joanne Carson, an ex-wife of TV host Johnny Carson). He became the butt of jokes after appearing on late-night talk shows (like Johnny's on NBC) in an advancing state of deterioration. People could not differentiate him from Tennessee Williams, one of this country's two or three greatest playwrights (Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller belong in that discussion, if not Edward Albee or David Mamet), who often showed up on network TV intoxicated or medicated. Williams, almost forgotten by the time of his death, admitted on one show that "I toured the waterfront" in search of pleasure.

So did Capote, whose homosexuality is an ongoing storyline in the cable series that (mercifully) wrapped up March 13. No one has portrayed the author better on screen than the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the 2005 Best Actor Oscar for playing the title character in "Capote."

Though "In Cold Blood," his masterpiece, was perhaps unfairly denied the Pulitzer Prize, that year going to Norman Mailer, another whose ego did not need stroking, Truman Capote remains a part of what's called the zeitgeist.

The Showtime series, based on a book by Laurence Leamer and covering ground noted in another (which I have read twice) by Melanie Benjamin, describes Capote's dalliances with the "swans" in his life, famous women of the time with whom he became a fixture, if later to be an unwanted house guest.

Told with many flashbacks, the series is set in 1975 when Capote rocks the "swans" with passages from "Answered Prayers," his first serious writing since "In Cold Blood." Excerpts reprinted in Esquire lift the masks off Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley, wife of William S. Paley, the CBS executive, and Lee Radziwill, whose more famous sister (Jackie) buried a U.S. president whose murder in Dallas she witnessed. Naomi Watts and Calista Flockhart (TV's former Ally McBeal), respectively, tackle those roles from different vantage points.

Babe Paley, rich beyond her means but unfulfilled in marriage, gravitates toward Capote, who all but wears a signboard announcing his alternative lifestyle. The heartbreak that she feels from the author's betrayal of a friendship, in which Capote (whom she calls True-Man) lays bare the private life of a character in thin disguise, evokes the finest acting in the series.

Babe Paley is one of the few "swans" who wishes to keep a friendship with Capote after "Le Cote Basque," named after the swank New York restaurant in which all dined, appeared in Esquire.

If Watts' character is conciliatory, then Flockhart's is decidedly confrontational. Diane Lane plays "Slim" Keith, whose husbands included movie director Howard Hawks and producer Leland Hayward, and Chloë Sevigny is cast as C.Z. Guest, a socialite much into gardening and horses and who we learn, once posed in the nude for Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Molly Ringwald has little to do as Joanne Carson, Demi Moore not much more as the infamous Ann Woodward (whose suicide Capote is said to have caused),

The final episode revolves around a silly plot involving Capote's efforts to finish "Answered Prayers" while reconciling with certain "swans." Two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange plays Capote's mother, who appears from beyond the grave to tell her son that his own passing is near. She must have really been a hoot. The series does not touch on Capote's childhood friendship in Alabama with Nelle Harper Lee, whose first novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," won the Pulitzer Prize and was converted into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Despite Hollywood A-lister Gus Van Sant directing some of the episodes, "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans" did not produce must-see TV. They should have named it "Mad Women."

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