BY Eric Rezsnyak
Episode 3 brought sorely needed focus to this season of “Feud.” While it was a quieter episode than the two-part premiere — really more of a character study of the primary players and their relationships with/to Truman, captured at a specific moment in time — I found it more gripping than the preceding two episodes. In addition to giving us crucial context into who these women were, and how they perceived their relationships with Truman before it all went wrong, I think it was most successful in establishing Capote himself more firmly in this high-society world at the peak of his influence, exposing the ways he flourished in it, but also the ways in which he was in over his head.
Instead of jumping through numerous time periods and geographic locations, this episode was set specifically around the 1966 Black and White Ball that Capote threw at New York’s Plaza Hotel Ballroom. Director Gus Van Sant effectively deploys a documentarian lens here, as filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles — who really did work with Capote, but ultimately not on the project shown in this episode — do a series of interviews with Capote and his Swans leading up to the Black and White Ball, as well as capture many candid and intimate moments unfit for public consumption by 1960s polite society. Each segment of the episode — except for the final one — is essentially a different reel from the film they’re working on, focusing on a different setting or character.
There are several interesting subplots explored in this manner. The big question that drives most of the episode is which of the women will ultimately be named Truman’s guest of honor at the ball, and each of the core ladies takes a turn pretending that it’s not something they’re concerned about, while subsequently reveling in the honor when Truman drops a hint that it might be them. That ultimately leads to the more interesting theme of the episode, the slightly different ways Truman ingratiates himself to each of these women, tailoring his demeanor to best please them — with Slim Keith he is the power-wielding bitch-fest partner; with CZ Guest he is the calming influence; with Babe Paley he’s all of the above. Most importantly, the episode shows that some of the women, especially Lee Radziwell (Calista Flockhart), are at least somewhat aware of what he’s trying to pull. These women were not stupid. They understood the game being played by all parties, but they went along and played it regardless, even knowing they couldn’t win.
The other element of the episode that I found most interesting was the way the writers subtly show us that while Capote relished being enshrined in this high-society world, he truly didn’t know what he was doing in it. Babe has to instruct him on the proper way to send out invitations, Slim walks him through who to invite and not to invite, and we are shown the disdain his high-falutin’ guests had for his gala’s dinner selection, which was limited to just one: chicken hash.
Each of the Swans also got some additional character-building moments. Babe Paley is unwittingly faced with another of her husband’s mistresses — Truman’s party planner! — and has to keep it together. Slim is furious when Truman invites her ex-husband’s new wife to the ball, and takes the opportunity to dig in the claws as soon as they’re both at the chaffing dishes. CZ’s world is rocked when the IRS come and raid the belongings in her mansion, apparently selling them off to pay off tax debt. (We also learned that prior to her gilded life, CZ was a bohemian in love with Mexican painter Diego Rivera.) We also got another fiery scene with Demi Moore’s Ann Woodward, and a brief moment with Molly Ringwald, whose JoAnn Carson IS Johnny Carson’s second wife. (It’s also suggested that Johnny was also a prolific adulterer.)
One more quick observation: the moment at the party where Joe Mantello’s Jack Dunphy steals away each of the Swans for a moment, and Truman immediately spirals, was a nice touch. You could see the panic in Capote as another gay man encroached upon his territory, and as someone who has seen that exact behavior with gays and gals in his own life, I thought it was astute and important for us to see.
The acting in this episode was excellent all around. Watts continues to give one of her best performances here. By default she’s so buttoned up as Babe Paley but unravels so quickly and believably — it’s wonderful work. GOD, do I love Diane Lane in this. Her Slim Keith burns white hot and this episode we got to see her at full temper several times, but also get the contemplative moment with the camera crew sharing how, as an intelligent and strong-willed woman, she had come to accept that she would never truly have a partner in that world. Flockhart still isn’t given as much screen time as the rest of the Swans — and I maintain viewers have never gotten a proper introduction to her character — but watching her fawning over both Truman and her documentarian friends, to souring into bitterness over Truman’s fecklessness, and then her careful studying of Truman at the ball itself — great stuff from Flockhart. It’s also a real pleasure to see Demi Moore again, and although the scenes with Woodward are getting a bit repetitive, she at least extracts the maximum juice from them.
This episode also cleared up the concerns I had with Tom Hollander’s broad impersonation of Capote in the premiere. He was much more restrained here, which makes me think the the maudlin, campier moments in the first two episodes were deliberate performance choices reflecting Capote’s sad later years. I thought Hollander was great in this episode, and he has fully disappeared into the role for me at this point. One specific area where I find him especially convincing is the giddiness he brings every time he recalls some horror that has befallen one of these women. This episode really underscored just how much Capote reveled in the misery of these women he would collect, and then dine out — literally and figuratively — on their pain to further his own ambitions. It’s really pretty grotesque.
The last scene of the episode is the only one not shot as though part of the documentary, although it runs parallel to footage shown in the Lee Radziwell segment. In color, not in black and white, we see Truman surveying his ball, when he is again visited by the phantom of his mother, played by Jessica Lange. They have an exchange and then take to the floor, which lines up with Lee watching Truman waltzing by himself in the earlier scene. I’m of two minds on the mother phantom. On the one hand, it’s always wonderful to see Jessica Lange, and these fantasy sequences help the viewer to understand the incredible weight Capote’s mother bore onto him, and how his fraught relationship with her ultimately informs how he interacts with all the Swans. So they are successful, no doubt. On the other, it’s a tonal shift from literally everything else in the show, and arguably tips over into indulgence. But it’s more time with Jessica Lange, so what the fuck do I know?