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Infamous (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 13 October 2006
Last year’s “Capote” dealt with Truman Capote and his writing of his great true crime book “In Cold Blood.” “Infamous” deals with Truman Capote and his writing of his great true crime book “In Cold Blood.”

The production notes explain that “Infamous” was already well into pre-production when the makers learned that the other movie was already being filmed. This movie was ready for showing around the time “Capote” was released, but Warner Independent Pictures wisely chose to temporarily shelve it.

At first glance, it seems peculiar that even ONE movie would deal with Capote and what “In Cold Blood” did to him, but Capote himself was such an unusual, fascinating celebrity, the novel (and subsequent movie and later TV miniseries) so prominent, and the tale overall both puzzling and poignant that it’s actually surprising no one’s filmed it before.

One problem, of course, is finding someone who can play Capote. More than in most movies based on real life, the central character is vividly distinctive, even unique, so casting the role took great care on the part of both teams of filmmakers. The director of “Capote” is a long-time friend of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so was able to persuade him to tackle the difficult role—for which he won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. Toby Jones, who plays Capote in “Infamous,” is less well-known than Hoffman, but looks much more like Truman Capote, so much so that it’s a little creepy at times. His performance is much more of an impersonation than was Hoffman’s, but that’s probably a good thing in context—it gives this one a distinction it needed.

“Infamous” may not be quite as good as “Capote,” but it’s a fascinating, involving drama itself, and features the best performance of Sandra Bullock’s career. She so thoroughly disappears into the role of “To Kill a Mockingbird” writer Nelle Harper Lee that it’s uncanny; there isn’t a trace of familiar Sandra to be found. Lee was very important in Capote’s life (and vice versa; the character “Dill” in Lee’s novel was based on him), one of his closest friends since childhood. She was amused by his bizarre mannerisms, loved his dishing of New York entertainment/society gossip, and supported him when he felt beleaguered. But as “Capote” showed (and “Infamous” doesn’t), even she was eventually repelled by him.
“Infamous” is much more direct, much more of a “regular movie” than “Capote” is, and it’s simpler in its suggestion that the reason Capote’s life fell apart after “In Cold Blood” was published was that he fell in love with murderer Perry Smith (here Daniel Craig, the new 007). “Capote” didn’t attempt an explanation for Capote’s decline, instead simply presenting it straightforwardly.

“Infamous” writer-director Douglas McGrath employs a peculiar and questionable technique: actors play some of the key figures in Capote’s busy New York life as if being interviewed for a documentary. Among them are Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Gore Vidal (Michael Panes), Slim Keith (Hope Davis), Capote’s long-time lover John Benjamin Hickey (Jack Dunphy) and Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), who at the end accompanies Truman to the executions of Perry Smith and Dick Hickok (Lee Pace). “Capote” showed us the writer; “Infamous” explains him to us in what may be the words of his friends (and may not be, too).

This movie opens like a comedy, with Capote meeting Babe Paley at a plush New York night club where a singer who may be intended to be Peggy Lee (Gwyneth Paltrow, her only scene in the movie; that’s her voice) croons “What Is This Thing Called Love,” presumably the question the movie will deal with. There’s an odd moment when the singer breaks off in the middle of the song—what’s that about?—but then recovers and carries on.

Capote is stalled on his magnum opus, “Answered Prayers,” so his attention is ready to be caught by a newspaper article about the murders of an entire family in Kansas. He persuades his editor to allow him to investigate it, and wafts off to the Midwest accompanied by Nelle Lee.

As in real life and the previous film, to the Midwesterners, Capote is a rara avis indeed, in his long vicuna coat, lavish scarf, peculiar hats, small stature and soft, effeminate voice. (Gore Vidal described Capote’s voice as what a Brussels sprout would sound like if it could talk.) Many people, especially on the phone, assume he’s a woman; McGrath overdoes this a bit. Capote can make little headway in persuading anyone in Kansas to talk to him, but whatever else Capote was, he was a brave man, a good writer and very persistent.

He finally persuades Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) to give him access to the case. Dewey is initially put off by Capote’s bizarre, unfamiliar mannerisms, but eventually, with the help of Nelle, he so wins Dewey over that he’s invited to the lawman’s home for a holiday meal. He fascinates the entire family with his tales of the famous—“then Ava said,” “and Marilyn said”—including that on the set of John Huston’s “Beat the Devil,” which Capote scripted, he beat tough guy Humphrey Bogart at arm wrestling. Eventually, the Dewey family adores him. “No one forgets about you,” Nelle says. And she means for better and for worse.

In writing “In Cold Blood,” Capote applied fictional techniques—scenes described, more depth of characters—to non-fiction material, and in so doing permanently and decisively altered the style of American non fiction, particular true crime stories. There are true crime books before “In Cold Blood,” of course, but very few written in America since it was published have been immune to its powerful influence.

The two killers are soon arrested, and Capote gets permission to interview them at length—without any recording device, as he has a near-perfect memory for conversations. (This of course made him one of the great gossips of New York society.) Capote himself is repelled by the brutish Hickcock but fascinated by the lower-class but sensitive Perry Smith, who reads a lot, thinks deeply, and has a background not unlike Capote’s own. He even reads some of Capote’s books, and is critical of them—“I thought the work lacked kindness,” says the murderer. Capote hasn’t been around people of the working class since his childhood, and he’s rarely had to deal with such primary and intense emotions. He’s transfixed by Smith, and they even kiss. (Good thing this was released before “Casino Royale.”)

It finally is unclear even to Capote whether he’s using Smith (and Hickock) to literary ends—their executions “would be better for the book,” he callously says—or whether he’s drawn to all this by his affection for Smith. The trouble is that this is an obvious explanation for Capote’s post-“In Cold Blood” decline (he never wrote another full-length book), and probably not that true to life. Capote was a complex man; whatever the reasons for his gradually turning into a parody of himself and a pariah to the society types (he called the women his “swans”) who’d previously lionized him, they were undoubtedly complex and not because he betrayed a man he loved.

The movie is extremely well made; I was especially drawn to the music score, which emulates but does not duplicate the pop music of the period. “Capote” had a cool, stylized look; “Infamous” is much warmer, more accessible. It also features more prominent actors—Weaver, Paltrow, Bogdanovich, Davis, Bullock—and is more “Hollywood” in its overall approach.

Toby Jones captures Capote very well; as mentioned earlier, it’s a little disconcerting how much he looks and sounds like the real man. But it’s a shade more of a trick, an impersonation, than was Hoffman’s earlier performance. Jones is admirable and thorough, but we observe him from a distance; he never draws us into himself as Hoffman did.

On the other hand, Sandra Bullock is nothing less than perfect as Harper Lee. Catherine Keener was also excellent as Lee in “Capote,” but Bullock goes the extra mile here. She usually appears in comedies centered on her, and her dramatic roles prior to this have rarely worked as well as they could have. But here, she’s on the money from beginning to end; her accent seems natural and unforced, and she reacts to Jones as though there were no cameras around. This could be a major turning point for the always likeable Bullock, giving her access to roles that she wouldn’t have been offered before.

“Infamous” will suffer somewhat simply by being the second movie about Truman Capote and “In Cold Blood,” but it’s really not a lesser film. Even though it’s not quite as good as “Capote,” it’s an honest, well-made movie, very much worth seeing, and not just to compare it to the earlier film.

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