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Review: ‘The Capote Tapes’ chronicles the downfall of the celebrated author

Truman Capote greets elegantly dressed party guests.
Truman Capote greeting guests at his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, New York City in 1966, from the documentary “The Capote Tapes.”
(©Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos)

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Those familiar with Truman Capote may not learn much terribly new about the legendary writer, truth twister and talk show regular in the documentary “The Capote Tapes.” But this well-constructed film effectively highlights the key points of the Southern-born icon’s singular, often troubled life and proves a vivid, enjoyable portrait of a one-of-a-kind provocateur.

The movie is structured around a series of audio interviews that late writer-journalist George Plimpton recorded while working on a 1990’s-era biography of the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” author. Director Ebs Burnough uses choice snippets from Plimpton’s reportedly lengthy tapes, in which he spoke with an array of Capote’s friends and colleagues to, among other things, shed light on the writer’s infamous, presumably unfinished tome, “Answered Prayers.” (A completed manuscript of the book has never been found.)

Capote’s long-in-the-works roman à clef, which included characters who were thinly veiled — and hardly flattering — versions of his wealthy and glamorous female friends, his “swans,” created a ruckus when several salacious chapters were released in Esquire magazine in 1975 and ‘76. He was ostracized by many of those whose secrets he laid bare but, by then, he was becoming known more as a celebrity and inveterate gossip than as a writer. Alcoholism and drug addiction also factored into Capote’s literary downfall. (He died in 1984 at age 59.)

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Plimpton’s never-before-heard interviews include pointed quotes from such notables as Lauren Bacall, Lee Radziwill, Norman Mailer, Candice Bergen and Capote’s life partner, Jack Dunphy.

Burnough supplements these candid sound bites with on-camera chats with such Capote observers as author Jay McInerny, friend and writer Dotson Rader, journalist Sally Quinn, former talk show host Dick Cavett and, perhaps most intriguingly, Capote’s adopted daughter, Kate Harrington (OK, that was news), whose father was once the scribe’s lover and manager.

Archival footage of Capote’s storied, star-studded masked ball, which he held at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel in 1966, clips from his days as an often zonked-out fixture at famed disco Studio 54; bits from several TV talk show appearances, plus a jazzy, period-perfect soundtrack, round out this absorbing, fast-paced bio-doc.

'The Capote Tapes'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 10 in limited release, including Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino


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