by Bill Gallagher
Truman Capote never wrote a decent book after his classic “non-fiction novel,” “In Cold
Blood.” The movie “Capote” makes the case that the psychic trauma he suffered in
writing that book blocked all future significant literary efforts.
“Be careful what you do to get what you want,” his longtime partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce
Greenwood) warns Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) at one point. By now he’s thrown
everything into getting the full story of the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in
November 1959. He’ll use any trick in the book—from bribing the warden to sweet-
talking the sheriff’s wife to eliciting the sympathy of a teenaged friend of the Clutter
daughter—to get access. This is what some journalists do. But Capote pushed the limit in
getting close to killer Perry Smith. The movie’s dramatic tension is built on the idea that
after getting so close to Smith and establishing trust, Capote sold him out as the price of
success and suffered a massive case of writer’s block as a result.
I’m not sure I buy it.
It’s a compelling premise. But at that point in his career Capote’s best work other than
“In Cold Blood” may have already been behind him. He wouldn’t be the first writer
whose creative output was spent after a few good books. His childhood friend and
research assistant for “In Cold Blood” was Harper Lee. She published “To Kill a
Mockingbird” shortly after working on the Clutter family murder, won the Pulitzer Prize
for it, and never published another book. I suspect that booze and pills and a sybaritic
lifestyle with the so-called “jet set” were what crippled Capote’s literary output, not the
way he used Perry Smith and others to build a great book.
The makers of the movie “Capote” must have realized that merely giving us the back-
story behind the writing of “In Cold Blood,” without plumbing the depths of the author’s
emotional involvement, would have meant making a documentary. Capote knew that
without going deeper into the killers’ motivations to do what they did to the Clutter
family he’d have a good true crime article for The New Yorker, but not what he described
as “the non-fiction book of the decade.”
whatever the cost, Capote succeeded. “In Cold Blood” stands as one of the greatest true
crime books ever written. And to a great extent, the makers of “Capote” have succeeded
as well. Bennett Miller has directed and Dan Futterman has written a spare, riveting,
visually arresting film with Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote its absolute heart
and soul (if not conscience).
“Capote” deals economically with the facts of the Clutter murder—seeing four caskets
lined up in a funeral parlor viewing room made me gasp—and generously with what a
gifted but conflicted man Truman Capote was. He is seen as the center of attention at the
kind of New York cocktail parties of the early ’60s that Blake Edwards captured on film in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The men wore suits. The women wore dresses and jewelry.
But the vibe was madcap and Capote commands center stage with his wit and fey charm.
To move us from that environment to Kansas as he begins to research the murders is done
deftly in one scene. Capote meets the bemused local cops and tells them his full-length
cashmere overcoat and scarf are “Bergdorf’s.” Nonplussed, one local detective puts on
his hat and says, “Sears Roebuck.” That’s creative restraint at its best. Hoffman plays the
scene subtly and the director Miller has the good sense not to overplay it for laughs. This
is Miller’s first feature film. Since directing a well-reviewed documentary called “Cruise”
seven years ago, he passed on several scripts that didn’t do much for him. Instead he
directed TV commercials. Says he’d rather make a good commercial than a bad movie.
Good for him. Good for us.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been waiting for Hoffman to get his breakthrough role. This is
it. He becomes Capote, who became a caricature on late night shows as his career went
into free fall and he became the first gay man many Americans ever saw on television.
But Hoffman captures him before the decline as a driven writer who won’t be satisfied
until he finds out why Perry Smith and Richard Hickock killed the Clutter family. When
it suited his needs, he would use his status as an outsider to elicit empathy and a
murdered girl’s diary. Then he would act as an insider with roots in New Orleans to
wrangle an invitation to dinner from the wife of the lead investigator with the Kansas
Bureau of Investigation, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper). Hoffman does some of his best
work in “Capote” not when he’s speaking, but when he’s looking out a car window or an
airplane window. This is a man who as a child probably spent a lot of time not speaking
because of a voice that invited ridicule. This is a man who also probably spent a lot of
time looking out windows to see what better life was out there.
With “Capote,” Hoffman has surpassed some of his best work to date in “State and
Main,” “Cold Mountain,” “Almost Famous,” and “Magnolia.” His performance makes it
hard to imagine any other actor pulling off as convincing a portrayal of Truman Capote.
Ethics are situational as Capote works his way into the confidence of the killers,
especially Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), an uneducated man with a propensity for
using big words like “effectuated” and “mendacious.” But his partner in crime writing,
Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), tries to keep him honest. She sees what’s going on, that
he’s willing to mislead and manipulate and mess with the emotions of a murderer to nail
down the elusive details that will elevate his reporting to creative writing. When Harper
Lee detaches from the man upon whom she based the character Dill in “Mockingbird,”
you know at that point his best work is behind him. Keener is another one of those actors
deserving of a breakthrough opportunity. She was sexy and mysterious with John Cusack
in “Being John Malkovich,” a savvy cop with Sean Penn in “The Interpreter,” and the
love interest of Steve Carell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Quite a range.
Some of the power of “Capote” can be credited to cinematographer Adam Kimmel. He
fills the frame with snowy, barren landscapes or crowded, smoky apartments, and at one
key moment, a darkened warehouse used by the authorities in Kansas to hang Perry Smith. That he’s driven to the warehouse in a black Chevrolet (it looks like an Impala),
which is then parked alongside the gallows, is a strangely moving detail.
“Capote” is sure to spur sales of “In Cold Blood.” I dug out the paperback copy I’d read
when I was a freshman in high school and found that it has lost none of its power. The
New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) predicted when he saw the initial drafts
that the full-length book would “change people’s lives.” Pre-publication hyperbole? Only
if you take questions of life and death lightly. “In Cold Blood” stands as a stunning
achievement. “Capote” stands as a moving inquiry into the price its author paid to write
it. As Capote tells longtime companion Dunphy, “When I think how good my book can
be I can hardly breathe.”
Bill Gallagher is the news Director of KPAM-AM 860 and reviews movies each month in
BrainstormNW - November 2005