2005Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper
rtists don’t have to be nice people, but if at all possible they should avoid speaking in fluttery lisps—and strike Nancy Reagan from the list of guests for tomorrow’s luncheon engagement. Truman Capote could have shunned the latter without damage to his reputation for courting hoity-toity scions of bourgeois culture, but he wielded the former as surely as Hemingway did a fishing pole, and Oscar Wilde his purple cravat, and for the same end: the unexpected prop will woo the curious.
Within two minutes of Bennett Miller’s Capote, it’s not a question of whether Philip Seymour Hoffman can sustain his flawless surface mimicry of the author of In Cold Blood, but whether Miller’s film and Dan Futterman’s screenplay will give Hoffman the chance to deepen his acting beyond the yuk-yuks of one of Peter Sellers’ expert, bloodless impersonations. Happily, Capote is not one of those films in which the writer, bent in noble furrowed-brow thoughtfulness over a blank page, composes his masterpiece. We are instead shown something altogether trickier: the kind of talent (Capote’s reportorial skills enriching a narrative of nauseating violence) that is directly proportional to the level of silken mendacity without which this talent would never be exploited. And, boy, did Capote ever exploit.
The film opens with the author, at the height of his cocktail party glamour, clipping a New York Times article buried in the middle of the front page: four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas were murdered with unspeakable brutality. Porcine nostrils sniffing the possibilities, Capote pitches the idea of writing an article to his editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn (Bob Balaban, in a performance as cold and flavorless as imitation crab meat). Capote, accompanied by longtime friend Harper Lee of eventual To Kill A Mockingbird fame (Catherine Keener), arrives at Holcomb and is treated like the oddity he is.
What’s most interesting is both the unfailing courtesy with which Capote treats these rubes (to give you an idea: the murdered Herbert Clutter was a stalwart Republican contemptuous of alcohol and a personality as unsparing as western Kansas winters) and how he manages to make the townspeople feel like they’ve basked in the warm nimbus of his charm while somehow getting what he wants, most especially from Kansas Bureau of Investigation Officer Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), who provides the most helpful information: the identities of the suspects, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr., as startling as Robert Blake in Richard Brooks’ 1967 film version of In Cold Blood)) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino).
Let me be honest: I am no fan of In Cold Blood. I note its minimal impact (who else but Tom Wolfe and the Norman Mailer of The Executioner’s Song has imitated it?) and admire the terse snap of its prose (Perry Smith’s mother “fell from the window of a hotel room. Falling, she struck a theater marquee, bounced off it, and rolled under the wheels of a taxi.”). But it’s a real snooze of a read. Capote’s meticulous accumulation of biographical data never quite coheres into a Balzac-esque human comedy, although the opening chapters come close; the details bounce off each other without the potentially devastating ironies that even his realist forefathers would have wrung. Capote’s attempt at humility—he would let the story “speak for itself”—flattens the narrative.
The book’s strained affectlessness bleeds the life out of its “characters,” but it’s a tribute to how good Capote is that Perry Smith, Alvin Dewey, and the other residents of Holcomb are much more lifelike than the presences he entombs in his “nonfiction novel.” The heart of Capote is in the intense colloquies between Smith and the man who he thinks is getting first a good lawyer and then finally, helplessly, a hold on his eventual death sentence. The fascinating Smith, with his pretty dark eyes and full lips struggling to communicate with a lexicon of Reader’s Digest-gleaned polysyllabic words, is like no other murderer we’ve seen on film; it’s his paradoxes that make his monstrous deeds seem more absurd, and thus more human. Miller doesn’t recoil from the relationship’s subtleties. Capote is obviously in love with Smith even when he needs him to die in order to finish In Cold Blood; Smith, needing a friend, is touched by the concern and maybe even a bit attracted to the handsomely attired fag who is his most determined visitor.
Modest but merciless, Miller’s acumen includes casting an actress whose own virtues include understated, unassertive intelligence. Commenting from the periphery in which Capote’s celebrity exiled her, Harper Lee is the best friend of our nightmares: observant, empathetic, cursed with a mordant wit (in one of the movie’s best and quietest scenes, after Lee and Capote talk at the same time when the latter pompously boasts that he’s got a “94 percent” memory recall, Lee laughs and throws her friend a quick glare that could freeze a gas flame). Although Hoffman deserves most of the acclaim, it’s Keener who, as she did in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, fills an unwritten role to the bursting point, leaving the audience in a most uncomfortable position: how much more interesting would a movie about Keener’s Harper Lee have been? At least Miller and Hoffman register Lee’s corrective influence. “The fact is, you didn’t do enough,” Lee observes after Capote’s last jag of self-pity. The long slow fade of Capote’s career—Nancy Reagan awaited him in the ninth circle—proved that he understood his friend’s condemnation, and still ignored her. She had nothing to offer him anyway.