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‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’ Director on Dramatic Liberties Taken for Black and White Ball Episode

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[This story contains spoilers from the third episode of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, “Masquerade 1966.”]

The catalyst for Feud: Capote vs. the Swans‘ third episode is absolutely true.

On Nov. 28, 1966, Truman Capote held the Black and White Ball at New York City’s Plaza Hotel — an event so lavish, boasting a guest list so carefully edited, that The New York Times dubbed it “the best party ever” on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. As for the rest of what was seen during Wednesday night’s “Masquerade 1966,” well… liberties were taken.

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A stylistic departure from the rest of the series, the Gus Van Sant-helmed hour is largely presented as a black-and-white documentary of the party and Capote’s (Tom Hollander) weeks of preparations for his big night. At its heart, it’s a flashback episode, with the Swans seen in various states of anxious planning — most of them under the impression that they would be the event’s “guest of honor.” Respective enthusiasms cool, foreshadowing the series’ central conflict, when Capote picks newly minted Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham over them all. (That, by the way, really happened.)

The documentarians catching this all, though rarely glimpsed, are depicted as real-life filmmakers Albert and David Maysles. But no such Maysles documentary was ever shot, let alone released. “It was an invention of Ryan [Murphy’s] to pretend like Truman hired somebody to shoot the ball, and then decide to not to go through with it at the end,” Van Sant says of one of the six Feud episodes he directed this season. “So that was our concept, and our footage that we shot was supposedly their unused footage.”

This dramatic device could ring misleading for some viewers of the historical drama — especially those who noticed the tag at the beginning of the episode which read, “In 1966, Truman worked with the Maysles brothers on a documentary chronicling his literary and social ascendancy.” But, there is a seed of truth there. The Maysles did spend time with Capote in 1966, filming documentary short With Love From Truman. It just had nothing to do with the ball.

“No, they didn’t shoot anything,” notes Van Sant. “But they shot this little documentary around the period of In Cold Blood, mostly at his house on Long Island. We also had lots of different black-and-white footage of him to go off of — Truman doing different things, book signings and stuff.”

The Black and White Ball, as depicted in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans episode three, “Masquarade 1966.” FX

By the end of the episode, Capote has had a fictional fight with the ill-fated Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), who’d take her own life within the decade; another hallucination of his mother (played by Feud alum and Murphy repertory all-star Jessica Lange); and a moment of regret with the Maysles — during which he gently discourages the future Grey Gardens directors from moving forward with him as a subject. “We actually filmed a line where Truman said something like, “I know of a better subject, to get them off his trail,” says Van Sant. “None of that happened. A lot of this is fictionalized.”

Capote may not have been responsible for tipping the Maysles off to their most famous subjects. That honor goes to another Feud fixture.

It was Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) who really would approach the Maysles in 1972 about making a documentary about her and sister Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ East Hampton childhood. During the process, Albert and David met Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale at Grey Gardens, the tony seaside home reduced to squalor by hard times and mental illness. Radziwill initially backed that venture, but like the Capote of Feud, later pulled the plug.

What the real-life Maysles would film at Grey Gardens in 1974 happened without Radziwill’s involvement. The fruits of their shoot premiered at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1975, just weeks before Esquire published Capote’s La Côte Basque, 1965 — igniting his war with the Swans.

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans releases new episodes on FX Wednesdays at 10 p.m., streaming the following day on Hulu.

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