Truman Capote may have gone out on a sorry note, but there is less luminance without him in the world, isn't there? Just a little, surely.
They certainly don't make talk show guests like him anymore -- a minor point, perhaps, but one well made by "Unanswered Prayers: The Life and Times of Truman Capote," tonight's season premiere of the superlative and valuable "American Masters" series on PBS.
The film, at 9 on Channel 26, is filled with footage of the author in full cavort, unloading to Barbara Walters, who guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" in a previous life, to Johnny Carson himself (Capote died, in 1984, in the home of Joanne Carson, one of Johnny's ex-wives -- one of his ex-homes, too) and to New Yorker Stanley Siegel.
Greeting him on the air in one festive clip, Walters says, "Truman! Sit right down and insult a few people."
"He was such fun to be with," recalls C.Z. Guest, a Capote friend, and that quality comes through in the talk show appearances. Capote was a gossip and a brat and a tattletale, and that made for scintillating visitations. The sad thing is, of course, that as his creative powers waned, and as he fell under the spell of various dissipations, celebrity became Capote's career.
Many of those for whom celebrity is a career are too small even for that, however. At least Capote remained too large for the role, perhaps even until the end. In one of the Siegel appearances, though, he seems completely strung out and lost.
Others consulted for reminiscence on the program are Capote's lawyer, Capote's editor, Capote's aunt (a disagreeable old scold), George Plimpton, the ex-Mrs. Carson, Carol Matthau and Jack Dunphy, a writer and Capote's longtime companion, who seems awfully fidgety before the camera.
Liz Smith, the definitive columnist, remembers the reaction of the idle rich, Truman's pals and playthings, when Capote turned on them and, in a literary form of blabbing, told their secrets on the printed page. This was considered just too-too impudent. "It was," says Smith, "as if he had slapped the queen."
Capote and his work are evoked with clips from the film versions of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "In Cold Blood," and from the TV movie "A Christmas Memory," which starred the late Geraldine Page and which Capote narrated. It may sound like a bad idea, but the producers' decision to dramatize a conversation or two supposedly overheard at La Cote Basque and printed by Capote in "Music for Chameleons" actually works rather well.
So does adding visuals to Capote's recorded description of Garden City, Kan., the site of the Clutter murders recounted in "In Cold Blood." But whatever possessed producer-director Andy Harris to lay a track of cheap rock music over various parts of his film? Does he think a viewing audience will become restless if it doesn't hear cheap rock every now and then?
Capote never tired of praising "Cold Blood" for the breakthrough that it, indeed, was: a crossbreeding of journalism with the novel form. Surely every TV docudrama owes it a debt, though Capote would likely not be thrilled by that fact. In his own, unmistakable voice, we hear it called a "masterpiece." Perhaps we should grant him that, at least.
Timed to coincide with the publication of "Answered Prayers," Capote's notorious unfinished novel, Harris' film is straightforward and unsentimental. It even shares a little of its subject's irreverence.
At one point there are shots of a younger, jollier Capote sauntering mischievously down Fifth Avenue. New York was his oyster then, and what an oyster it was. "Unanswered Prayers" has no trouble convincing us this was a time, and a man, worth remembering.
'Valerie's Family' Can "Valerie" carry on without Valerie? Well, it isn't exactly like "King Lear" without King Lear. When contract disputes resulted in a parting of the ways, during the summer, of Valerie Harper and Lorimar productions, which makes the "Valerie" show for NBC, commercial considerations dictated that the show go on.
So Sandy Duncan was hired, in a twinkling (appropriately enough), to be the new female lead for the sitcom, and Harper was written out. The result, "Valerie's Family -- The Hogans," bows tonight at 8:30 on Channel 4. "Valerie" wasn't much of a show with Harper, but it is no less of one without her.
"Well, Dad, it's been six months since Mom died," announces Jason Bateman as David, oldest of the three Hogan sons, in the early exposition. Later, Dad makes a reference to "Val's automobile accident." When they drop you in television, they really drop you. "Val" couldn't have died in a plane crash, probably, because the husband is supposed to be a pilot.
Bateman continues to be the star of the show -- one of the facts of its life that reportedly displeased Harper and led to her exit. It's strange, because he's such a charmless, uninteresting, smug-looking kid. A real dolt from doltsville. Whereas the two little boys who play the twin sons -- Danny Ponce and Jeremy Licht -- make much funnier contributions.
Duncan seems a little mystified by the whole experience tonight, but then part of the story is her initial disorientation. As the boys' aunt Sandy, she's agreed to come from Minneapolis (I wonder if she knew Rhoda Morgenstern?) and raise them, and has taken a job as a guidance counselor at the local high school, where there seem to be two guidance counselors per student.
"I didn't make the decision to move here overnight," Duncan says at one point. "I thought long and hard about it." Right. Long and hard, overnight.
In addition to the two boys, the show's strength is in its supporting cast. Edie McClurg has been like a good-luck charm and ironclad guarantee for many a film and TV show; she's up to her usual rollicking standards here as busybody homemaker and neighbor Mrs. Poole. Willard Scott, no less, will be an addition to the cast this year (though not in tonight's episode), and that can't hurt.
The highest accolade that can reasonably be lavished on "Valerie's Family" is that it's pleasant, but in television, that can be a true accomplishment. In that pursuit, Sandy Duncan is an asset. "Valerie's Family" looks oddly intact