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Capote (2005)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 30 September 2005

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Film Rating:
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“Capote” deals with Truman Capote and his writing of his greatest work, “In Cold Blood.” Twice filmed, the book has been immensely influential on the writing of nonfiction in the United States and probably worldwide. With one blow, it changed nonfiction from, basically, largely dry reportage to compelling, novel-like narratives. The effect was permanent; it is now the principal style in nonfiction writing, at least that intended for reading by the general public.

But at the same time, it had an even more powerful effect on Capote himself. The book was such a smash best-seller that it changed him from a writer known for a few books and movies (“Beat the Devil,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Innocents”) to the most famous living American writer, a position he held for several years—even though he never wrote another book. A few collections were published, but he produced no other book-length manuscript—and this was largely because of the success of “In Cold Blood.”

Toward the end of his life, he became a high camp joke; he was openly gay very early in his writing career, and his odd, high-pitched voice and soft Southern accent, plus his pale blonde hair, pudgy frame and small stature made him a walking parody of himself. For years, he was one of the most prominent figures in New York society—a leading glint of the glitterati—but when a chapter of what he promised was a longer work was published, his horrified friends found themselves thinly disguised with their darkest secrets trotted out in the anecdotal work. His name vanished from party lists, and some of his prominent friends never spoke to him again.

“Capote” doesn’t get into this darkness; at the end of the film, the book has not yet been published, though sections have.

Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is seen at celebrity-studded parties, spinning anecdotes in a high-pitched, nasal voice, immediately recognizable; he’s a man in his element, comfortable with fame and success. But he’s looking for his next project, and finds it in a report of a horrible crime out in Kansas, near the small town of Holcomb. All four members of the Clutter family were found in their home, bound and killed—three by gunshot, one, the father, from a slashed throat.

Capote feels he can turn this into an interesting article, focusing on how this tragedy has affected the small town not far from the Clutter farm. Accompanied by his lifelong friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), he heads west. She’s amused by his impish egotism—he’s hired their railway porter to pretend to be a big fan of his writing. She’s known him since childhood; her own book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is due to be published soon, and Truman is represented in the book (and movie) by a little boy named Dill.

Capote at first assumes his fame will waft him safely through Kansas, but he looks like a creature that fell from a cloud into a barnyard. At first, he wears an ankle-length tawny topcoat, probably vicuña, and an elaborate, expensive scarf. But the down-to-earth Kansans, though impressed by his literary and movie credentials, disdain his stylized behavior. Harper, who’s called Nell, comes in handy here; she’s a small-town inhabitant herself, and can talk to the people, including Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) and his family. Soon, Truman is getting along famously with everyone; yes, he’s regarded as an eccentric, but he’s a great listener and actually warm-hearted and friendly.

And with Dewey’s help, he’s able to arrange interviews with the two killers, who were captured relatively soon after the murders. Truman convinces Dewey to give him the same privileges accorded all the other press—and ultimately, special favors as well. Capote and Nell are there when the two men are taken to jail in Garden City by Dewey. Truman boasts that he has 94% recall of conversations—he tested himself, he says—so he doesn’t need notebooks or recorders when he talks to the killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Dick Hickcok (Mark Pellegrino).

Capote begins to think there’s more here than will fit in a mere article, and, getting the go-ahead from New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban), embarks on his book. It will take him five and a half years to write, and consume his life.

Hickcock remains aloof from Capote; he’s friendly and forthcoming, but he’s just an ordinary guy. Perry is something else, half-Indian and widely read; he thinks more than Hickcock, and Truman becomes fascinated. He brings Perry aspirin, and when Smith goes on a hunger strike, Capote feeds him baby food by hand. He even begins to identify with Perry; at one point, he says it’s as if they grew up in the same house, “only he stood up and went out the back door, and I went out the front.” Smith gives Truman some notes, including an acceptance speech for some imagined moment of fame, and Capote realizes that this hunger for fame is another way they are alike. Perry grows to trust Capote, even when he shouldn’t, and Truman’s awareness that he is to a certain degree using Perry begins to eat away at him.

Capote vacations in Spain with his longtime companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), also a writer. He works hard on the manuscript, but knows he cannot finish it until there’s a final resolution to the case, and until Perry tells him what happened in the Clutter home that night.

Bennett Miller, the director, and writer Dan Futterman are longtime friends of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they convinced him to take on the very challenging role of Truman Capote. One step wrong, one line reading a bit broader than it should be, and the role would turn into a comical camp take on Capote. Instead, Hoffman becomes Truman Capote, and does so from the first moment we see him. The odd voice is part and parcel of the man we see before us. Capote was oddly inexpressive, facially, which was something of an affectation—almost everything about Capote was something of an affectation—but something of a defense, a shield. Hoffman is just as inexpressive, though, like Capote, his voice, both despite and because of its unusual nature, is intensely expressive. He even adopts Capote’s characteristic laugh—he actually goes “ha ha ha” like a cartoon character. When he drinks, his pinky automatically elevates.

Miller seems to have adopted a visual style that’s similar, in a way; everything is extremely low-key and cool; scenes are deliberately paced, with the only intensity arising in the late-in-the-film recreations of the Clutter murders. (In this aspect, the film imitates the book and movies of “In Cold Blood.”) The movie was shot in Manitoba, but looks utterly like Kansas, which really is flatter than a pancake. An endless horizon stretches from one side of the screen to the other; the screen is bisected by a highway with small cars and even smaller people. Miller uses this same composition several times, largely to suggest just how out of place Truman Capote is.

The focus is, as the title suggests, always on Capote, not on the murder case. He finds himself growing callous toward Perry, who begins to mistrust him—which only upsets Truman more. He becomes indifferent to Jack, and at the New York premiere of the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he’s even disdainful to Harper Lee. (They eventually had a falling out; she evidently never saw him again in the last fifteen years of his life.) But he summons up the courage at the end to visit Smith and Hickcock in their cells, and he’s a witness at their executions. But he’s no longer the man he was. The book makes him immensely famous, but the success destroys him.

“Capote” is leisurely paced and largely is made in that very American mode that announces “This Is An Important Movie.” It’s extremely controlled, extremely precise in every detail; there’s scarcely a moment that allows the audience to relax—it constantly insists on our attention. But it rewards this attention, too. Catherine Keener is, as usual (see “40 Year Old Virgin”), excellent, completely inhabiting the warm-hearted, ironic Nelle Harper Lee, but she never takes over the film. Neither does the equally reliable, equally honest Chris Cooper as the KBI agent.

But the reason you should see “Capote” is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s given many fascinating, eccentric performances over the years, always seeming to be on the verge of crossing from supporting character actor to leading character actor. He was outstanding in “Magnolia,” “The Talented Mister Ripley,” “Flawless,” “Boogie Nights” and many others. But when he played the lead in “Love Liza,” he came up short. This time he does not. He owns the screen in “Capote,” and his performance will be more talked about than any other in movies released so far this year. An Oscar nomination is likely.

Footnote: As unlikely as Truman Capote writing “In Cold Blood” seems as a topic of a movie, how about TWO movies? Next year will bring the already-completed “Have You Heard?” which deals with exactly the same material.







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