At first, the concept behind the second installment of Ryan Murphy and FX’s “Feud” feels a bit too simple to maintain eight episodes of drama. How could one mine enough intrigue from the story of a writer bickering with his socialite friends? It turns out there’s both more and less to this story than meets the eye. Less in that it’s a more grounded and relatable tale than it first appears, a character study about insecurity and friendship. More in that it’s a lavishly made drama that contains some of the best costume and production design in years, most of it well-calibrated by the great director Gus Van Sant—he helms 3/4s of the 8-episode series, handing off duties to Max Winkler and Jennifer Lynch for a pair. Anchored by a phenomenal ensemble, this is a new part of the (mostly) serious wing of the Murphy empire, more comparable to “American Crime Story” or the first “Feud” than his disappointing Netflix outings. It’s the best thing with his name on it in years.
It’s been seven years since “Feud: Bette and Joan” campily unpacked the drama between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in the early ‘60s. The second installment was almost immediately approved and was first planned to be called “Charles and Diana” and then “Buckingham Palace,” starring Matthew Goode and Rosamund Pike in the roles of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. That was scrapped relatively early, and the anthology series went dead for a few years, before production began on “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” based on the book “Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era” by Laurence Leamer.
After the massive success of “In Cold Blood” in 1966, Truman Capote (Tom Hollander) became not only one of the most coveted writers in the world but one of the most prized party and dinner guests. His wit and vibrant personality allowed him access to the highest tiers of New York society, creating friendships with some of the most important socialites of the era. He was a confidante, an advisor, and a friend, learning all of their deepest secrets. He even dubbed them his “Swans,” some of the most beautiful creatures of the world. But he would betray their trust.
In 1975, Capote gave Esquire some chapters of an unfinished book—one that would be published as “Answered Prayers” after his death—and the characters bore an awful resemblance to actual people like Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Happy Rockefeller, and Ann Woodward. To say that Capote burned bridges would be an understatement. It’s hard to affirm its accuracy, but the Capote of “Feud” seems to barely understand what the fallout would be, underestimating both his own viciousness and his Swans’ willingness to put up with it. At one point he says, “The only unforgivable sin is deliberate cruelty,” and Capote can’t understand doing what he does best as a writer was an act of cruelty.
With the number of notable performances by Capote in film history, including the Oscar-winning one by Philip Seymour Hoffman, along with how often the writer himself was in the public eye, this has to be the most daunting role of Hollander’s career. He’s better in the quiet moments, the beats in which he allows the façade to fall and reveal Capote’s heartbreak. At times, it feels like he leans into the camp potential here a bit too much, but the rest of the cast and production design that rivals “Mad Men” makes for a grounding backdrop. It’s OK that Hollander’s Capote comes off as a bit extreme because he’s supposed to be something of an outlier in this world, a black swan in New York society.
“We stand united, and we destroy him,” says Slim Keith (Diane Lane), the leader of the push to destroy Capote’s social standing after his betrayal of one of their best friends, Babe Paley (series standout Naomi Watts, giving her best performance in ages). Paley’s husband Bill (Treat Williams, giving one of his final performances) was a philanderer, and Capote embeds one of his most embarrassing stories in his new work, infuriating Babe, who happens to be dying of cancer. Paley, Keith, C.Z. Guest (Chloe Sevigny), and Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) become power brokers against Capote, keeping him from the best parties, and forcing him further into his own demons, including alcoholism and an abusive relationship with a man named John O’Shea (Russell Tovey). This excellent ensemble is filled out with appearances by Demi Moore, Molly Ringwald, Joe Mantello, Chris Chalk, and a memorable appearance by Jessica Lange as the ghost of Truman’s mother.
Everyone here is good, and many of them are great. Watts finds a perfect emotional register as a woman who has been hurt, but also sees the greater pain of her mortality on the horizon. Lane is passionate and engaging, playing Keith as the de facto leader of the Swan Rebellion. And the writers smartly reveal the weaknesses of these women, often portraying them as petty, vindictive, hypocritical, and hateful, even if the roots of their feud against Capote is understandable. It adds to the complexity and balance between camp and realism that Baitz strikes so well. If a weak link must be picked, Sevigny seems a bit miscast, but there are so many great little performances throughout “Feud” that its flaws are always easily overlooked, including grounding work by stage legend Mantello and a nice turn by Chalk as James Baldwin.
“Capote vs. the Swans” gets even richer in its final episodes as it uses its story as a turning point for the end of an era. The Swans begin to notice that the fancy stores of Manhattan are closing. You can’t even buy gloves at the department store any more. The kids don’t want them. Even Andy Warhol appeared on “The Love Boat.” The social glitz and glamour that Truman Capote valued so highly is disappearing and there’s no more stage for a personality like him. One of the saddest lines late in the series is when Capote says, “It’s finally happened – I’ve gone out of style.” There’s nothing worse than that for a man like Truman Capote. For a man like Capote, the only awful thing that could happen is to be ignored.
“Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” captures the shallow fragility of fame and society in a way that’s captivating. Even though it never hides from his awful side, Truman would have loved it. [B+]
“Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” debuts on FX on January 31.