‘The Capote Tapes’ Review: New Narratives and Unanswered Prayers

There’s some fascinating and provocative material in “The Capote Tapes” that is diluted by the director Ebs Burnough’s insistence on teasing a question that, arguably, has a self-evident answer.

The movie opens with onscreen texts referring to “a journalist’s” archive on interviews about Capote and rumors of an “unfinished scandalous manuscript.” The journalist turns out to be George Plimpton, who published an oral history on Capote in 1997, over a decade after Capote’s 1984 death at age 59. The manuscript would be “Answered Prayers,” excerpts from which caused much disaffection among Capote’s high-society associates when they ran in Esquire magazine in the mid-70s.

Capote’s story is one of fierce talent, personal bravery, poor professional ethics, eccentric celebrity, and eventual addiction and dissolution. It’s been dramatized in two notable fiction films. And the man himself features in scores of documentaries. Burnough’s movie very much wants to add something new to the narrative, and it does, introducing Kate Harrington, whom Capote quietly adopted in the ’60s. (It’s a complicated and odd story.)

After this, the movie flips and flops from a linear approach and one that implies “Hold on, we’ll get to that manuscript in a bit.” Over a shot of the steel reels of an analog tape recorder rolling, we hear Norman Mailer say “nobody wrote better sentences” — one of the few observations here on Capote’s work. Onscreen, the writer Jay McInerney is unfortunately assigned to deliver a lot of “I want to be a part of it, New York, New York” boilerplate.

As for that manuscript, anyone paying attention knows the answer early on. By the end of his life, Capote was such a human wreck that the idea of some kind of posthumous literary time bomb is ridiculous on the face of it.

The Capote Tapes
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.

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