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  • Alexis Soloski

Birds of a Feather

Famous women play the famous women in Ryan Murphy’s new period drama, “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans”. Here, they discuss the series and the burdens of public life. By Alexis Soloski. Photographs by Thea Traff.

From left: Diane Lane, Demi Moore, Naomi Watts, Calista Flockhart and Chloë Sevigny, who star in “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans”, photographed in New York in January.

The first season of Ryan Murphy’s “Feud” aired in 2017. A juicy survey of the bitter rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the co-stars of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, the show earned 18 Emmy nominations, winning two. A second season, based on Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s troubled marriage, was developed then scrapped, mostly because Murphy felt that he could never outdo “The Crown”. Another iteration, centered on William F Buckley and Gore Vidal, also fell apart. Murphy and his producers toyed with a half-dozen other ideas, though never for very long.

“It’s very easy to do a show where people are just nasty to each other,” Murphy says. “But feuds are never about hate. They’re about love.”

Then Murphy read “Capote’s Women”, by Laurence Leamer, a gossipy, trenchant study of novelist Truman Capote and the society women he befriended and later betrayed. Murphy had long been fascinated by Capote. He was equally entranced by the women Capote referred to as his Swans, self-created creatures whom he admired for their style, wealth and savoir faire. Their gift, as Capote wrote in his late collection “Portraits and Observations”, was to offer “the imaginary portrait precisely projected”.

Leamer’s tale had luxury, treachery, artistry and spite. It had love, too, “the very fragile, wonderful relationships that exist many times between gay men and straight women”, Murphy says. With a script by Jon Robin Baitz and direction by Gus Van Sant, the story became “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans”, an eight-episode series streaming now on Binge, Foxtel and Apple TV.)

Watts plays Babe Paley, who was said to go to bed in full makeup and with painful false teeth in order to maintain her appearance while she slept.

Tom Hollander (“The White Lotus”, Season 2) was cast to play Capote at the height of his “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” fame and then long past it, stumbling over deadlines in a fog of vodka, cocaine and tranquillisers. When it came to casting the show’s bevy of Swans — Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C Z Guest, Lee Radziwill, Ann Woodward (a wannabe Swan) — Murphy had one thought: “I wanted icons to play icons,” he says.

“Women who were iconic and had some degree of fame and success would understand what it was like to be Swans. I thought they would know the gravity and also the stress of being a star.”

He and Baitz made a list of their first choices for the roles, and perhaps because Murphy has almost single-handedly enlarged the possibilities for actresses over 40, all of those first choices agreed. (“He’s masterful at casting the stars or the fallen stars or the forgotten stars,” Van Sant, who directed six of the episodes, says of Murphy.) Which explains why, on a recent afternoon, my laptop screen was filled with a supergroup of film and television stars of the 1990s and beyond: Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Calista Flockhart and Demi Moore.

“It feels like a sisterhood for actresses,” Lane, who plays Keith, said, beaming at her co-stars.

There is some irony, of course, in asking women who have done so much — made countless movies and shows, produced others, won a shelf of awards — to play women who did so little. Indifferent wives and dubious mothers, Paley, Guest and their ilk were famous for making best-dressed lists and hosting dinners that someone else had cooked. Women who were born into money or married it, they were celebrated for the elan with which they spent it.

Baitz found this poignant. “They were enslaved to their own mythology,” he says in a separate interview. “They devoted themselves to something absurd. They devoted themselves to imagery and beauty and posing and being seen and society culture. That’s a dead end. And that’s why I care about them, because they’re running into a dead end.”

But the actresses don’t see these characters as frivolous. “They all worked really hard to achieve this kind of status,” Watts, who plays Paley, said. “There were sacrifices made. There was huge discipline involved.”

Demi Moore, who plays wannabe Swan Ann Woodward in the series.

Anytime these women appeared in public, they had to be perfectly dressed, perfectly coifed, perfectly made up and manicured. “It was a full-time job,” Moore, who plays Woodward, said. “There were no casual sweatpants.” Watts noted that Paley even went to bed in full makeup and with painful false teeth because she didn’t want her husband to see her without them. Recreating Babe’s look took several hours each day in the hair and makeup chairs.

And there was arguably more to them than beauty. They had, the actresses playing them insist, a genius for life and a talent for self-creation. “There is an art to life,” Lane said. “And they understood that. There is an art to the dance of grace.”

Murphy knew that the actresses he cast would be familiar with the pressure these women faced and that they could offer some of that same grace.

“We had a group of women starring on our show who came up in the ’90s,” Murphy says. “I don’t think people remember the scrutiny of the press and how people would write about literally how much women weighed. It was very moving to see this group of women who had survived that. Survived and thrived.” (In this regard, “Feud” is like a more glamorous “Yellowjackets”, another drama that benefits from the history and aura of its cast.)

Wisely, the women didn’t want to talk too much about survival. (A video call with a stranger is no place to unpack trauma.) But they did acknowledge a familiarity with the burden of having to maintain a public face. “It’s very brave to go out in the world knowing that you’re going to be judged and scrutinised and picked at,” Flockhart, who plays Radziwill, said.

Still, Lane insisted that this was a burden that could be worn lightly. “Once you’re experienced, you know how much you’re supposed to be on duty or off duty or what’s being asked of you,” she said.

Capote was attractive to the Swans because he could appreciate them both on duty and off. He delighted in their public performances — his persona was also largely self-created — while also recognising the women underneath the Hermès scarves and Mainbocher gowns.

“It worked for a period of time so beautifully,” Watts said. “They got to perform. They had this constant, wonderful audience member who let them be seen. And they shared more with him than they did with each other.”

But in November 1975, Capote betrayed that trust when Esquire published his short story “La Côte Basque, 1965”. A dishy, bitchy, wholly mediocre excerpt from his long delayed (and ultimately unfinished) novel “Answered Prayers”, the story contained unflattering portraits of many of the Swans, disguised with only the loosest veils. At the time, Gerald Clarke, eventually Capote’s biographer, had asked him if the Swans would recognise themselves.

Flockhart plays Lee Radziwill, the sister of US First Lady Jackie Kennedy.

“Nah,” Capote replied, according to Leamer’s biography. “They’re too dumb.” They were not too dumb.

Most of the Swans never forgave Capote. The women playing them were more sympathetic. They blamed it on Capote’s alcoholism, his writer’s block, even his literary gifts.

“Truman was attracted to power and privilege and glamour, and who isn’t, honestly?” Sevigny, who plays Guest, said. “He also knew the great lineage of literature exposing society — Proust, James, Wharton. I think he enjoyed our company, but he also wanted to capitalise on that.”

Sevigny was not the only one to use a pronoun like “our” when discussing the Swans, suggesting a particular identification. The actresses felt a duty to portray these women responsibly, not only because they related to much of what the women had experienced but also because the women have children and grandchildren who are still alive.

“It’s always tricky when you play somebody who really lived,” Lane said. “I was trying to be very gentle.”

Some of the actresses have wondered what the Swans might make of contemporary culture, in which celebrities have largely replaced society women and social media has encouraged a new openness. “Babe would be turning in her grave if she knew I was talking about menopause,” Watts said.

Have standards for public-facing women relaxed since the 1960s? Yes and no, Moore argued. “On one hand there seems to be room to be a little bit more human,” she said. “And then on the other hand, there’s even harsher judgment because we have so many outlets now where everybody has an opinion.” But that doesn’t matter, she added. “What matters is how we relate to ourselves.”

And how they relate to each other. “It was really amazing to be working with fantastic, talented actresses who are all age-mates, more or less,” Flockhart said. Even better, she said, these women weren’t playing wives and mothers. (Technically the Swans were wives and mothers, but the series, like the women themselves, often seems to neglect that.)

It is welcome, if still unusual, to see a prestige series centred on glamorous middle-aged women who occasionally snipe at but mostly support one another. This has come to be a specialty of “Feud”, and the actresses appreciate it. And in campaigning for the industry to continue to make more series like these, they are perhaps less polite than the Swans.

“It’s ridiculous, that notion that we should be all dried up and off to pasture by the time we’re 40,” Watts said. “Let’s bend and break and bulldoze those rules altogether, please.”


© The New York Times

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 62 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Birds of a Feather”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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