Nearly a decade before Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) threw a gossip grenade that would permanently annihilate his social calendar, he hosted the event of the year. Rather than take a standard glam and glitz retelling of the Black and White Ball, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans creator Jon Robin Baitz and director Gus Van Sant give Truman the documentary treatment. And just because it is shot in black-and-white doesn’t mean the third episode lacks color.
Offering up this fictional framing via future Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens documentarians Albert (Pawel Szajda) and David Maysles (Yuval David) at the helm adds to Truman’s myth-making and penchant for mining everything in front of him for a story. In charting his downfall, Feud showcases how the women he calls his swans shared their secrets and vied to be his favorite. Using the backdrop of the exclusive bash at the Plaza, “Masquerade 1966” sheds light on the motives and deep-rooted insecurities that would eventually lead to his exile from high society.
The elite have always reveled in lavish costume parties, whether in the European places of Marie Antoinette or the new money New York mansions of the Vanderbilts. The latter inspired Bertha Russell’s (Carrie Coon) masterful climb up the social ladder in HBO’s The Gilded Age, and Truman references this particular 19th-century period during a one-on-one with the camera. After all, he is looking to disrupt the elite playing field as much as the robber barons of the 1880s. “The dance of the old monies commingling with the new. All the rules that they have,” Truman explains. “That’s what this is, that’s what we’re documenting: an American royalty and the rituals enshrined therein.” He says this story has never been told before; while far from true, it has never had the Capote spin.
Considering Truman encourages the Maysles brothers to film painful and private moments when his swans are in crisis, it isn’t a leap for him to share their secrets in Esquire. While Capote didn’t hire the Maysles brothers in real life to shoot events leading to the Black and White Ball, he did invite them into his beachfront Long Island home in 1966. Like much of Feud, there is enough truth in the portrayal, and when it comes to Truman’s favorite anecdotes, it is impossible to separate the embellishments from facts. Dramatic license is an expectation in any TV or film portrayal, but it is a given that Capote liberally sprinkled entertaining exaggerations in his prose — fact or fiction — and Feud doesn’t pretend otherwise.
Hosting a masked ball to celebrate his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood’s success in 1966 — Truman claims it outsold the Bible — highlights Truman’s love of theatrics and his growing celebrity. Discussing the guest list is also incredibly revealing in the role Truman’s dead mother plays in everything he does: “When you look at who’s important in the world, there is a hierarchy not as vulgar as one of wealth. It is a meritocracy of those of us who have done things. The people my mother dreamed of back in Alabama that drove her to New York, which she hoped to be intimate with. She would have been in awe.” So what better reason to ask the rich and beautiful to don their finest and lean into a theme that lets Truman do a delicious dance with metaphors — and later the ghost of his mother?
The only moment the episode breaks from the documentary format is when it turns to color in the final scene, and Nina Capote (Jessica Lange) appears by his side. During the original black-and-white sequence, we have seen him chatting away and dancing with no one, but he is far from alone. This shift in tone plays into this season of Feud’s fondness for altering the narrative form (see the Ann Woodward noir flashbacks in the premiere), reflecting Capote’s ability to tell a great yarn no matter the genre. If the documentary format adds authenticity, the closing conversation in color purposefully blows that up, tapping into the larger-than-life personality of its lead.
To whoever is listening, Truman waxes lyrical about how “life is a masquerade ball.” He speaks directly to the camera about this notion in the lead-up to the party, and the series is preoccupied with perception and storytelling. Here, he repeatedly positions himself as a savior of a coterie of women. Truman also wants the audience to know their perfect lives are a facade: “They also have great pain, these women. It’s all a masquerade, you see, because underneath the glamor, pain; ballerina pain, gnarled feet. Because it is a dance requiring stamina and endurance.”
Each of the titular swans is equally adept at playing the part they have cast themselves. With the observational documentary eye, we are invited to watch how Truman gasses them up and contributes to manufactured perfection. Take Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), who quips at one point that she needs to fix her hair and lipstick, even though it is clear she does not. Babe’s marriage to CBS boss Bill Paley (Treat Williams) is central to “La Côte Basque, 1965”, the chapter from Truman’s unfinished novel Answered Prayers. We already know Babe’s marriage is on shaky ground thanks to Bill’s tryst in the premiere episode, providing Truman with a salacious centerpiece for his story. However, the “direct cinema” documentary approach (in which the filmmakers don’t plan what they will capture) favored by the Maysles Brothers starkly juxtaposes the glamorous Paleys dancing together at the ball with shouting in the background while Truman works on his invitations.
In what probably resembles a Real Housewives confessional interview for a contemporary audience, Babe talks warmly about her deep bond with Truman. When she tries to apply similar comments about being the center of the world to Bill, the slight flicker of her fingers reveals how far from the truth this is. A run-in with one of Bill’s latest conquests — who happens to be Truman’s party planner — gives Truman the chance to offer some not-so-sage advice while the film crew surreptitiously captures the conversation. Suggesting a woman like Babe should “dispense with the emotion, play the strong wife” is certainly a choice, but it fits the perception versus reality theme of the series. Similarly, he tells C.Z. Guest (Chlöe Sevigny) to pretend she is in a movie when the IRS comes knocking.
Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) and Slim Keith (Diane Lane) round out the swans, both more prone to offering a harsh word even before Truman’s betrayal. Within the preparing for the party framework, Truman dangles a guest of honor title in front of his BFFs eyes. At one point or another, they each think it will be them, thanks to Truman’s unsubtle hints. In the end, he chooses non-swan and Washington Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Marin Ireland). Each swan waves off this snub as if it is nothing, but earlier footage of them running down their credentials reveals otherwise.
“I taught him how to dress for this life: how to stand in it. The difference between fashion and style. I read all the drafts of Cold Blood,” Slim exclaims. Each of the swans has spent time on the annual International Best Dressed list, and style isn’t just about having access to wealth. If quiet luxury is a buzzword now, the likes of Babe and Slim’s tasteful tailored garb were the originators of this simple elegance. Here, everything is reduced to black and white and shades of gray, which cranks up the understated chic aesthetic. Well, Truman’s natty hats and comfy knits offer whimsy. But for the ball, he plays it safe, wearing a traditional tuxedo paired with a black domino mask. While others commissioned the like of Halston to make their mask, Capote splashed out 39 cents at FAO Schwarz for his. Frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator Lou Eyrich costume designed the series with Rudy Mance and Leah Katznelson, with fashion designer Zac Posen taking on the swans' ball gowns.
The first Monday in May is now reserved for the Met Gala, but the rainy Monday in November 1966 rivals the attention and glamor of the now-annual New York museum fundraiser. You couldn’t buy your way into the Black and White Ball. As with the series itself, Posen’s designs are not mere copies of what the real women wore that night. Whereas his take on Kay’s white bejeweled Balmain gown is pretty faithful, Posen gets to dial up the fantasy with two guests who weren’t there, dressing ghostly Nina in black sequins and feathers. Wannabe swan and party crasher Ann Woodward’s (Demi Moore) bird-like white chiffon gown takes on an eerie quality, knowing what her future holds. Ann’s death by suicide in the first episode comes after “La Côte Basque, 1965” landed on newsstands.
A mask is meant to give its wearer free reign to be exactly who they are, but everyone in this ballroom is playing make-believe or under some delusion. Ann thinks if she draws Truman’s attention to how he previously compared her to his mother, then somehow, he will stop spinning the yarn about how she murdered her husband.
Be careful about what you wish for, because Truman does compare Ann to his mother (who also died by suicide), calling them both “miserable and cruel.” In fact, Truman exhibits these attributes, reveling in the camera capturing an exchange that includes Ann quoting a line from Truman’s story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” — which wasn’t published until the following year, and reality is bent once more. Later, when he watches this sequence in a screening room, he asks to see it again (along with Lee’s home truths about being friends with Truman), and it plants seeds in his mind, causing Truman to nix the documentary as he needs to put words to this tale for it to have an impact and oh boy, will it have an impact. Fact or fiction, this is a helluva story.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.