Friday Film Focus: Capote

On Nov. 16, 1959, novelist Truman Capote (played by the incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman) noticed a news story about four members of a Kansas farm family who were murdered to death in their own home. He telephoned William Shawn, the then-editor of The New Yorker, wondering if he would be interested in an article about the murders. At first Capote thought the story would be about how a rural community was dealing with such a tragedy. Two drifters, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested and charged with the crime. As Capote gets to know the family and the two murderers, he becomes consumed by a story that would make him rich and famous. His non-fiction novel entitled In Cold Blood became an immediate best-selling classic. However, Capote was so emotionally devastated by the experience that it ultimately led to his demise.

Bennett Miller’s Capote is, principally, the story of a writer’s vexed all-consuming relationship with his work — and therefore himself. At the time, he is very well known for having finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, being a popular guest on talk shows, and holding the persona of a man whose large ego and affections of speech make him an outsider wherever he goes. Capote’s human connections are, for the most part, secondary and instrumental. This facet makes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance all the more amazing. He must connect with the audience without piercing the membrane of his character’s narcissism. Hoffman’s precise, uncanny performance as Capote doesn’t imitate the author so much as it channels him. Capote is a man whose peculiarities mask great intelligence and deep emotional wounds.

Not only does he achieve an impressive physical and vocal transformation — mimicking Capote’s high pitched tone and appearing to shrink in stature — but he also conveys, with clarity and subtlety, the complexities of Capote’s temperament. As he talks to Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), to law enforcement, and to the neighbors of the murdered Clutter family, Capote’s object takes on both depth and shape as a story of conflicted fates. He wins the trust of the killers and essentially falls in love with Perry Smith. All the same, he needs both of them to die to supply the ending for his novel. On his trips to Kansas, he takes along a southern childhood friend named Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) to be his research assistant and personal body guard.

They interview friends of the Clutters and befriend the lead investigator on the case. All of these characters — as well as Jack Dunphy (Capote’s long time lover) — are supporting characters in the Truman show. They are tasked with enduring his egotism and exhausting good humor. His relationships are overshadowed by his fascination of Smith. Capote believes that Smith’s individual story will be the key to the book. Duly, Smith’s sensitive, sociopathic temperament is the dark mirror image of his own. Smith never quite achieves full human gravity; he is caught between whoever he was before he met Capote, and the literary figure into which Capote has made him. “Jack thinks I’m using Perry,” Truman tells Harper. “He also thinks I fell in love with him in Kansas.”

As time goes on, he is able to persuade Smith and Hickock to tell him what happened on the night of the murders. He also convinces the local funeral director into letting him view the mutilated bodies of the Clutters. Later, Perry Smith will tell him he liked the father, Herb Clutter: “I thought he was a very nice, gentle man. I thought so right up until I slit his throat.” Capote tells them he will support their appeals and help them find another lawyer. He eventually betrays them. In that respect, the film is also about the tricky ethics of journalism. It also illustrates the way in which Capote the innovative writer was eventually swallowed up by Capote the professional celebrity.

The film, written by Dan Futterman and based on the book Capote by Gerald Clarke, focuses on the way a writer works on a story…and how the story works on him. Capote ultimately spent six years working on In Cold Blood. He slides into alcoholism and a depression that eventually led to his death at the age of 59. If the film had simply flipped and told the story of the Clutter murders from Capote’s point of view, it might have been a good movie. What makes this film so incredibly powerful is that it looks with merciless perception at Capote’s moral disintegration. Through the process of creating one of the greatest true crime novels of all time, Capote ultimately lost touch of his subject’s humanity as well as his own.

Image Source: Indiewire