‘Feud’ Season 2 Review: Tom Hollander’s Stellar Performance Keeps FX’s ‘Capote vs. The Swans’ Afloat

Some of us recall the great Truman Capote cinematic bake off from roughly two decades ago as if it were yesterday.

The films “Capote” and “Infamous” both went behind the scenes of Capote’s 1965 nonfiction masterpiece “In Cold Blood.” Released first, “Capote” grabbed most of the glory and scored Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. But “Infamous” star Toby Jones was just as good at capturing Capote’s opportunism, deep loneliness and sharp yet languidly imparted wit.

But neither actor was required to maintain his performance as Capote over eight hours of television, as English actor Tom Hollander does, superbly, in FX’s “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” the glamorous and well-acted but dramatically inert second installment in executive producer Ryan Murphy’s anthology series. The first, focused on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s Hollywood rivalry, aired in 2017.

Tom Hollander in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.” (FX)

As he did in Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” Hollander plays a treacherous gay man seemingly friend-attracted to wealthy, middle-aged women. The real-life Capote broke no laws but shattered the sanctity of friendship when he published a thinly veiled exposé of his rich friends in Esquire magazine.

The piece was billed as a chapter from his forthcoming novel, which was to be his crowning glory. He never finished it. Instead, according to this screen adaptation by playwright Jon Robin Baitz of Laurence Leamer’s 2021 book “Capote’s Women,” Capote ran headlong into alcoholism, bad romances and self-pity. Banished by the New York society women he had called his “swans,” and beset by regret, he simply could not buckle down to finish the book.

But he had already procrastinated for years, avoiding his publisher’s calls about deadlines. Where “Capote” and “Infamous” centered on a writer’s research, and “Feud’s” first season followed the making of the 1962 film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” “Capote vs. The Swans” tells the story of a creative not creating — a premise exactly as interesting as it sounds.

Were it not for its captivating lead performance, the show might have been pure tedium.

Hollander creates the most fully dimensional screen Capote yet. Where Hoffman and Jones seemed to start with the author’s showy public persona and work inward, Hollander plays Truman — or “Tru,” as friends call him — as more genuinely playful and charming, and less calculated, than commonly perceived.

Although sexually bold with men, Truman is less secure in romantic relationships, and in his quasi-romantic friendship with lead swan Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), the immaculately put-together wife of media magnate Bill Paley (the late Treat Williams, who completed filming before a fatal motorcycle accident last year).

Hollander has a very specific way of showing Truman’s vulnerability with people he either admires, lusts after, or both. It starts with a pithy remark to reel them in before graduating to an extended moment of Truman seriously regarding his subject, as if weighing whether it’s a good idea to ask the provocative question on the tip of his tongue. He invariably asks the question. Yet Hollander’s mannerisms seem fresh every time.

Chloe Sevigny, Diane Lane and Naomi Watts and Diane Lane in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.” (FX)

Before publishing the magazine piece, Truman is the chief source of entertainment at La Côte Basque, a fancy-fusty French restaurant where he lunches with Babe and fellow Vanity Fair magazine regulars Slim Keith (Diane Lane) and C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny).

He is closest to Babe, cuddling with her on a daybed after she catches Bill cheating again. The Paleys occupy a grand apartment decorated with expensive art and timeless furniture — passing trends rarely intrude on the lives of the very rich. The only indicators this story starts in the about-to-swing mid-1960s are Babe’s teased helmet of hair and the buttery, slightly grainy, New Hollywood-evoking cinematography employed by Gus Van Sant, director of six of the eight episodes.

An actor of rare emotional accessibility, Watts was cast against type as a character often described by others, including her children, as icy. Watts lends Babe enough humanity for us to feel her character’s embarrassment at being famously betrayed, first by Bill, then Truman, as well as her wariness after battling cancer for years.

Diane Lane in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.” (FX)

Lane similarly subdues her natural warmth as Slim, a tough-talking transplanted Californian once married to the great director Howard Hawks. Often simmering with anger, Slim might have come off as harsh if the innately likable Lane were not playing her. Also, Slim’s clothes are fantastic.

Let’s not pretend anyone will watch this show for its literary insights — FX has advertised its titular swans as “the original housewives.” Looks matter here, and Lane looks amazing in Slim’s designer silk shirts and natural hair style. Runner-up for most stylish swan is Jacqueline Kennedy’s turtleneck-chic sister Lee Radziwill, played with a sibling- and world-resenting flintiness by Calista Flockhart.

Post-scandal, the swans still talk mostly of Truman, their remarks sometimes fond, often vicious but rarely clever. Even Truman’s put-downs of the people in his orbit (including an abusive lout played by a one-note Russell Tovey) lack a certain sting. But this could be our 2024 perspective talking.

The makers of “Capote vs. The Swans” seriously underestimated the degree to which bitchery has supplanted civility in today’s world. When reputations are ruined on the regular online and an ex-U.S. president feels comfortable insulting a political rival’s dress, Capote’s roman à clef seems like kids’ stuff.

Naomi Watts in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.” (FX)

In the pecking order Truman ascribes to his swans, C.Z. ranks below Babe, but she is the kindest and most forgiving. Stoic but never stony, Sevigny’s performance reminds us that before she was a perennial scenester, she grew up in Connecticut and starred in prepster Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco.”

Demi Moore plays a lower-rung socialite as an emotional raw nerve whose lack of artifice draws Truman’s contempt. He also treats Johnny Carson’s ex-wife Joanne (a likable Molly Ringwald), his most loyal friend, as an also-ran.

Truman can be a real pill, but unlike most people around him, he’s at least smart and engaging. Yet an episode centered on Truman’s relationship to brilliant fellow writer James Baldwin (a magnetic Chris Chalk, from HBO’s “Perry Mason”) frustrates as much as it delights.

Concerned for his friend’s health and muse, Baldwin coaxes Truman out to lunch. Chalk and Hollander share an easy chemistry, and this episode’s dialogue truly crackles as we glimpse how Truman behaves in the presence of an intellectual equal or superior.

But it’s also beyond disappointing that the only character of color to receive significant screen time in this show appears almost entirely to be of service to the white lead.

“Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” premieres with two episodes at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31, on FX (next day on Hulu). Episodes continue on Wednesday through March 13.

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