Ice Water in Their Veins
The feud between Truman Capote and his many swans, those socialite women whose friendships he treasured and later pilfered for what became an always soon-to-be-published (and then never finished) novel, was ultimately a disagreement over decorum. Over what one is allowed to do and discuss in public, over what’s to remain private. For the author, his work was about depicting the private reality of a moneyed world that many only dare aspire to; for the swans, it was a line crossed, an airing out of things that were never to be offered for public consumption.
When Capote published “La Côte Basque 1965,” he could not have known his friend Babe Paley was dying. As we see in the first scene of “Ice Water in Their Veins,” cancer wasn’t about to derail Babe’s day-to-day life; she remains, even while getting treatment, committed to wearing exquisite outfits and playing hostess as if nothing were the matter. The appearance of normalcy, of a beautiful life still being lived despite ugly obstacles, was part of the artistry that made her fit to be one of Capote’s swans.
As we see Babe gracefully weather treatment — begrudgingly seeing it as a chance to reconcile with her husband, who continues to shower her with gifts and affection — we also get to see how those other swans are weathering the death of Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) following the publication of an excerpt from Answered Prayers in Esquire. After attending Ann’s funeral where her son openly places her suicide in Truman’s hands, Slim, CZ, Lee, and Babe gather for lunch to discuss next steps. Attired in funeral blacks and talking about how best to vanquish the merciless snake that is Truman, the four look like a coven gearing up for battle. “He’s insidious,” Lee tells her friends, agreeing with Slim that they must close ranks and watch Truman’s social life (the only life he cared about lately) wither and die.
The lunch is an opportunity for writer Jon Robin Baitz to stage a debate about why Truman’s writing hit such a nerve. There’s a string of misogyny running through how he depicted those women dining at La Côte Basque, his writing brimming with revulsion, or so say Slim and Lee. CZ is a bit more lenient, perhaps because she came out mostly unscathed. She even disagrees with the social icing Slim suggests, contending, “It’s cruel. And deliberately small.”
In the published version of Answered Prayersa novel Capote never truly finished (although there have long been whispers of completed manuscripts being burned or stowed away or perhaps read aloud but never committed to print), Capote stages a conversation between his ersatz autobiographical narrator and a fellow character who asks him point blank whether that novel he’s working on is indeed based on his socialite friends:
“I wouldn’t say it’s about them—though they’re in it.”
“Then what is it about?”
“Truth as illusion.”
“And illusion as truth?”
“The first. The second is another proposition.”
“Ice Water in Their Veins” picks up that snippet of a written admission (or evasion) and places it squarely at the heart of the rift between Truman and his swans. The writer had worked hard to get at the truth beneath the gilded superficiality of Babe and her ilk (all the episodes he wrote about were true, were they not?), but that world so obviously traffics not in truth but in appearance that such observations would always be not only unwelcome but openly gauche.
As the swans stress to each other, the betrayal comes not just from the hurt caused but from the love such a betrayal was rooted in. “He misjudged just how much we loved him,” Babe says. “Only real love can wound you the way he did.”
Indeed, Truman is clearly unraveling, having so miscalculated the degree to which his artistry could trump the salacious private details he aired about his dear friends. Babe won’t return his calls, won’t accept his flowers, let alone his apology notes. He spends his days in Hollywood at the home of Joanne Carson (Molly Ringwald), drinking and popping pills while ostensibly trying his hand at acting. He’s got a bit part in the Neil Simon-scripted murder-mystery spoof Murder by Death, and it’s clear he can barely keep it together for any one take. Hallucinatory visions of his swans (decked out in vengeful red) haunt his sweat-addled performance. His guilt is eating him alive and only slowly does he realize that he can’t play the tantrum-throwing toddler he wishes he could be.
And so he flushes all the alcohol from his apartment back east and proceeds to try and win back his friendships, starting with a lunch with CZ “It’s just a book,” he tells her, still not understanding why it’s such a big deal; he’s a listener, a recorder, even. Everyone knows that. “It’s asshole behavior,” CZ retorts. She wonders what’s happened to civility, to discretion—to reciprocity! It’s that last word that has Truman contend that there’s no way an artist like him could be at the same level as his friends… what kind of reciprocity could there be amid such a power imbalance?
Their lunch, and with it CZ’s invite to her Palm Beach Thanksgiving, is cut short by the arrival of Lee at the restaurant. “You’re gonna be in trouble now,” Truman remarks ruefully to CZ after receiving Lee’s ice-cold shoulder. Later, Slim visits CZ and nudges her towards disinviting Truman, artfully cajoling her with pleas for sticking together and gifting her a necklace Babe had given Slim.
Which brings us to two portraits of Thanksgiving, apparently Truman’s favorite holiday: an elegant affair in Palm Beach, where Gus Van Sant’s honeyed camera roves across gorgeous plates of food, abundant flowers, and beautiful dresses, and one in Los Angeles, where the shabby -chic decor and place settings (and a cameo from Phyllis Diller) asserts just how far Truman has fallen. Joining him is John, who is aggrieved by this change of plans. Their relationship has grown more violent; John beats him once when Truman drinks himself into oblivion after CZ cancels, and then again during Thanksgiving at Joanne’s, where Truman’s cruelty drives John to punch him in front of everyone gathered.
“Vodka stings more than your fists,” Truman quips while nursing his bloodied face.
Alas, his fists end up sending Truman to the hospital where his old lover Jack finds him and brings him home. Jack rings up Babe once more, hoping to convince her to grant him absolution. But she’s resolute. She can’t go back to having two husbands, to catering once more to Truman’s whims. She promptly hangs up, leaving us to wonder how much longer Truman can keep at it like this—especially when those he’s closest to keep reevaluating what it is he offered them in exchange for their kindness, their generosity, their love.
• I almost forgot to mention the hazy hallucination Truman experiences while at Joanne’s of his dead mother, with whom he had a vexed relationship. “Truman thought his mother was one of the most beautiful women in the South,” Laurence Leamer writes in Capote’s Women, “and it is from Lillie Mae that he developed his obsession with beautiful women, finding their loveliness and transcendent blessing.” Played by Murphyverse standby Jessica Lange, she taunts a drunken Truman, egging him on to admit he destroyed Babe and his swans as retribution for how their rarified world despised the likes of Lillie Mae. This is a monstrous mother who all but encourages her son to kill himself with pills and booze—something that would be very much at home in Capote’s first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
• Speaking of: Jessica Lange does more with one flick of her gloved hand at the end of her brief scene here than many other actors do with their entire body. She’s perfectly suited for this bile-spouting Southern dame, equal parts Capote and Tennessee Williams, and so here’s hoping Lange (a producer on the show) makes more appearances in the future.
• “Capote residence, Petunia speaking” is such a perfect encapsulation of the way Truman played make-believe in his everyday life. In this I have to single out Jon Robin Baitz’s ear for the kind of bon mots Capote so enjoyed and doled out. “The ineptly named first lady of New York,” for instance, is a great, brutal read of Happy Rockefeller delivered with gusto by Lane’s otherwise sedate Slim, while Truman’s tirade against John—“they know that dear old daddy is just a third rate suburban fagot banker who sticks his uncircumcised penis into the glorious asshole of America’s greatest living author who he’s supposed to be managing…”—is so off-color it’s divine).
• A show like Capote vs. The Swans lives or dies on the strength of its historical accuracy. Or, more to the point, the ability of its many design teams to lavishly recreate a bygone world. And my god are its costumes (by Lou Eyrich and Leah Katznelson) to die for. My favorite this episode? Babe’s pale pink number accentuated with pearls that she wears as she hears out Jack in her home. In such an ensemble you can see why Capote had such a low opinion of Jackie Kennedy; in his eyes, his many friends (including Babe, and Jackie’s own sister, Lee) had a rather more celebrated style than the famous First Lady. (“Very photogenic, of course,” he wrote in “La Côte Basque,” “but the effect is a little… unrefined, exaggerated.”)
• Ditto the music, courtesy of father/daughter duo Thomas and Julia Newman. (Newman senior gets sole credit for the opening titles.) The sweepingly romantic score that helps us glide from Hollywood to Upstate New York, Manhattan to Palm Beach, feels of a piece with the elegant art direction and pristine costumes that adorn every scene.
• Anyone else now eager to rent Murder by Death (available on Prime, it seems!) just to witness Capote’s attempts at “acting”?