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What You Need to Know Before You Watch ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’

The gossipy miniseries boasts a boatload of A-list actors over 50 and a gripping (mostly) true story

spinner image Tom Hollander sitting in a chair nearby a fireplace as his character Truman Capote in "Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans."
Tom Hollander stars as Truman Capote in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
Pari Dukovic/FX

Ryan Murphy’s limited series Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, with most episodes directed by Good Will Hunting's Gus Van Sant, 71, tells the scandalous story of writer Truman Capote’s betrayal of the high-society ladies he called his “swans.” The cast is stellar: Naomi Watts, 55, Diane Lane, 59, Molly Ringwald, 55, Calista Flockhart, 59, Demi Moore, 61, Chloë Sevigny, 49, and in his last role, the late Treat Williams.

Here’s what you need to know to enjoy one of the most star-studded, bitchy epics on TV in years, with some inside insights from its executive producer, Jon Robin Baitz, 62, who used to see Capote’s friends around New York in the ’80s and hung out with a couple of them:

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spinner image Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."

It’s about a great writer’s calamitous fall

As Capote, Tom Hollander, 56, fresh off the triumphant miniseries The White Lotus: Sicily, equals Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in 2005’s Capote. His 1965 true-crime hit In Cold Blood made Capote the toast of Manhattan and Hollywood, and everyone who was anyone attended his famous 1966 Black and White Ball (recreated in the show). But after he shocked his swans by spilling their most embarrassing secrets in Esquire magazine in 1975, most of them cut him off, and he spiraled fatally into drugs and drink.

Baitz says Hollander captured each stage of the writer’s decline with precision. “Between takes Tom was on his phone watching footage of Truman from the particular period he was working on,” Baitz says. “He knew where Truman was at each particular moment, how drunk he was in each scene.”

spinner image Naomi Watts as Babe Paley in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
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The top swan was Babe Paley

Naomi Watts plays Capote’s favorite swan, Babe Paley, the imperially slim, infinitely stylish wife of CBS chief Bill Paley (Treat Williams). As Feud tells it, Bill humiliated Babe by bedding Nelson Rockefeller’s wife Happy (“The governor’s wildebeest wife, that fat-ankled harridan!” as Feud’s Capote calls her, to comfort Babe). Watts captures Babe’s insecurity and beautiful hauteur, her bond with Capote, and the poignancy of losing him as she faced terminal cancer. “She was one of the most-photographed women in America,” Baitz says. “He made her glitter and she made him shine. They were two wounded children together. They ameliorated each other’s loneliness.”

spinner image Diane Lane as Slim Keith in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
Pari Dukovic/FX

Capote had a slim chance for Slim Keith's forgiveness

Diane Lane plays Slim Keith, the only swan who may have been angrier with Capote than Babe Paley was, because his Esquire article depicted her as a nasty gossip named Lady Coolbirth, ripping up her friends behind their backs. Courted by Ernest Hemingway and Clark Gable, she married and divorced director Howard Hawks and producer Leland Hayward and discovered Lauren Bacall, whose character Slim in To Have and Have Not was modeled on Keith. “Truman called her ‘Big Mama,’” says Baitz. But like his real mama, she rejected him. Jessica Lange, 74, plays Capote’s neglectful, failed New York social climber mom, who influenced his need for swans, and perhaps his need to betray them.

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spinner image Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
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Calista Flockhart plays Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ resentful sister, Princess Lee Radziwill

Capote fawned over Lee (while disparaging Jackie), and Lee’s total lack of acting talent thwarted Capote’s attempts to make her a stage star. “But she’s a great character,” says Baitz, “filled with pain, very funny, bearing the great weight of being in the shadow of Jackie Kennedy. She never quite fully measures up. There’s a lot of rage in her.” Especially after Jackie married Lee’s five-year lover Onassis. “I find her kind of delicious. Calista has a really good time with it. It’s a very funny, sly performance — she doesn’t shy away from the wickedness.”

Feud is a reunion for Baitz: Ally McBeal's Flockhart starred in his 2006-11 TV series Brothers and Sisters. “I wrote myself into Feud as a thinly disguised version of Lee’s husband, director Herb Ross. We laughed more than we acted.”

spinner image Molly Ringwald as Joanne Carson in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
Pari Dukovic/FX

Johnny Carson’s ex-wife found a more lasting love with Capote

Pretty in Pink star Molly Ringwald makes a welcome return as Joanne Carson, Capote’s onetime neighbor and fast friend for life. Even though he viciously described the talk show host’s philandering in Esquire and wasn’t that nice to Joanne in print, she took him in when the others shut him out. “She was his last good friend,” Baitz says. “He came out to California to get healthy but couldn’t. He quietly drank himself to death in her guest room in 1984.”

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spinner image Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
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Chloe Sevigny plays C.Z. Guest, cool as ice cream

Capote himself summed up Sevigny’s character Guest, one of the few swans who didn’t dump him. “Who could have imagined that lurking inside this cool vanilla lady was a madcap, laughing tomboy?” he wrote. “A trimly, tautly brought up Boston girl, the daughter of a Brahmin, she left society for stage, films and, finding no satisfaction there, went adventuring in Mexico.” Diego Rivera painted her nude, and she was a muse to Warhol and Dali. “C.Z. is a little bit masked,” says Baitz. “She has a little bit of Martha Stewart in her — she’s very invested in creating tableaux that are beautiful.”

spinner image Demi Moore as Ann Woodward in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."
Pari Dukovic/FX

Ann Woodward’s downfall presaged Capote’s

Played by Demi Moore, Woodward was an outsider among the swans, and to Capote an ugly duckling. “She was pathologically ambitious for society, not a particularly kind or warm person,” Baitz says. “Truman despised her and he got revenge on her. He disliked murderers.” Woodward was scandalous because in 1955 she shot and killed her wealthy husband. Though a court declared it an accident, Capote wrote a story essentially declaring her guilty of homicide. Just before Esquire published it, she took cyanide and died. He may have booted her out of his Black and White Ball, but society soon gave him the boot too.

​​Some of the best scenes in 'Feud' never actually happened

Baitz’s favorite episode (directed not by Van Sant but Max Winkler) is about Capote’s visit with fellow literary luminary James Baldwin (brilliant Perry Mason star Chris Chalk). “Truman is squandering his God-given gifts; Jimmy Baldwin is the guardian of his own. His advice to Truman would be: Take care of yourself and get out before your life swallows you whole. And Truman cannot fully absorb anything remotely like good advice anymore.”

​“Baldwin managed to be both an outsider and yet have a very rigorous steel trap mind, and be a poet and have a political fervor. Truman went from being a serious person to being a court jester. And Baldwin remained intensely, very much a serious figure in American cultural and intellectual life. So you’re seeing mirror images,” Baitz says.

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