Saturday, November 12, 2005


Last night I went with P-Doug to see Capote. It's not really a plot-driven movie, so it's not like I can give away the ending in discussing it... but if you're one of those people who has to walk into a movie utterly blind, better skip this posting.

This is an amazing movie. I figured it would be, but it didn't disappoint. The movie captures the period in Truman Capote's life during the writing of In Cold Blood, one of the most important journalistic works of the 20th century. It spares time for nothing else. Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is cutting the clippling out of the New York Times within minutes of the start of the movie; it ends with him still reeling from watching Perry Smith being hanged.

I don't know that much about Truman Capote as an historical figure, so I'm in no position to judge how accurate Hoffman's portrayal actually is. But all the same, the persona into which he slips so seamlessly is so strange, so unlike any other character I've seen him portray, that he would deserve the Oscar just for the ability to summon up a character so different from himself and make him believable, even if the mark he hit were miles away from Truman Capote's real character. I have no reason to doubt, though, that his portrayal is a reasonably accurate approximation of what Capote must have been like at that point in his life.

The movie depicts Capote as a bon vivant verging on 40, living a quiet life during the day but moving in bright, noisy circles at night. Alcohol, though a constant companion, is at this point still a gentle one. Inexplicably fascinated with the report of the slaying of an entire family of four at a remote farmhouse in Kansas, Capote sets out with lifelong friend Nelle Harper Lee (of To Kill a Mockingbird fame) to write what he is firmly convinced from the outset is the book he was born to write. As history turns out, he was entirely correct.

In fairly short order the murderers are apprehended, and Capote bribes his way into their presence. He is portrayed as being particularly taken with Perry Smith. The movie believably implies, overtly but without grinding it into the dirt, that Truman identified with Perry because they both led childhoods where they were essentially abandoned. In one scene, Truman muses to Nelle that he feels as though he lived in the same house with Perry, only that Perry went out the back door and he went out the front. The unstated implication is that Truman felt a "there, but for the grace of God, go I" shiver in dealing with Perry.

Plenty of cold blood to go around

The murders were committed in 1959, and it took Capote till 1965 to finish his book. In the course of it, he finally settled on a title: In Cold Blood. There's plenty of that in this movie. Aside from the brutality of the murders of the Clutter family themselves, there are the dark forces that trail afterwards, even in good people. Capote essentially bribes a prison warden who has his eye on taking a seat in Congress. He manipulates Perry Smith into parting with his diaries, and in a scene of masterful ambiguity, reads a passage from them over the phone to Nelle. The passage deals with Smith's craving for recognition — again, a touchstone with Truman — and Truman's intentions in sharing it with Nelle are unclear. Nelle's reaction is anything but; when her dreadful silence prompts Truman to ask if she's still there, she acidly suggests he is wallowing in ridiculing this man. Whether her reaction is right or wrong, her disgust with his behaviour is powerful. When, later, Perry Smith eventually learns of the title Capote has chosen for his work in progress and confronts Truman with it, he unblushingly lies to Smith, instantly and convincingly telling him it was the publisher's choice to draw the hoi poloi, implying it will be changed before publication. The audience is left in jaw-dropping horror at the duplicity — or at least I was.

Capote took it upon himself to find representation for Smith and Hickock, beginning a long, drawn-out series of legal procedures. At one point, investigating officer Alvin Dewey, rising from breakfast with Capote at the local diner, promises that if Capote's counsel springs the murders, that he himself intends to go to New York and kill Truman. The promise is delivered with such froideur, resignation, and matter-of-factness that it is impossible to disbelieve it.

But the coldest blood of all may be Truman's. In an unforgetable scene four years after the murder, he devastatingly belittles Smith's attempts at erudition (which, frankly, verge on insulting as he explains 'big' words to Truman), admits to Smith that all he's interested in is hearing about the details of the murder, which have not been forthcoming, and suggests that he wants nothing more to do with the men until they are. (That the relationship can, and does, recover from this sub-zero free-out is astonishing.) But most remarkable of all is Truman's attitude towards the men. Regardless of his feelings towards them, they are first and foremost his tools — resources in his writing. Initially a "gold mine", they later become a liability as he finds himself unable to finish the book until the closure of their executions is a fait accompli. In a horrific comedy of errors, Truman's own legal efforts on their behalf take on a life of their own, lumbering on in appeal after appeal and stay after stay, until the audience is treated to the macabre spectacle of Truman whining on the phone that he is being "tortured", seeming to utterly fail to realize that what he is talking about is the continued existence of two human beings, however monstrous. Eventually, he withdraws his support, his aid, and his friendship, and waits for them to serve his purpose by dying, which finally they do, but not before shaming him in an eleventh-hour confrontation in which the vicious killers forgive and absolve their so-called friend, whose penance is to stand by and watch them take the drop. In the final scene, Truman is again on the phone to Nelle, again inwardly focused, speaking his own ordeal, and trying to convince both her and himself that he did all his could to save Smith and Hickock. Nelle is having none of it, and condemns his efforts as cynical. Anyone vaguely familiar with the tatty details of the last two decades of Capote's life (like me) sees in this the seeds of what followed: alcoholism, drug abuse, alienation, and the inability to ever complete another book. In Cold Blood used up so much of Capote's emotional resources that he too became a willing victim of the Clutter killers.

I don't ordinarily invest myself emotionally in the Academy Awards, but I really will be cheering for this one next spring. The movie, the writer, Hoffman, and Clifton Collins Jr. (Perry Smith), at least, all deserve the nomination nod, if not the golden statue itself. Don't miss this one. This is as human as it gets.


L-girl said...

I can't wait til it comes out on DVD. It sounds truly great.

As a fan of independent films, I've been watching Philip Seymour Hoffman through his whole career. We used to call him "the ubiquitous PSH" because he showed up everywhere! Now he's really come into his own as a great actor - along with people like Paul Giamatti, who mainstream audiences discovered in Sideways.

Thanks for the thoughts on Capote. I'll see it as soon as I can do so at home (the way I see everything).

Lone Primate said...

As a fan of independent films, I've been watching Philip Seymour Hoffman through his whole career. We used to call him "the ubiquitous PSH" because he showed up everywhere!

I remember him primarily as Dusty from Twister and the paliative care guy from Magnolia. I've never seen Love, Liza (is that the right name?), but I've always meant to. So I didn't have a clear sense of his range before. But wow, I mean, the conceptual distance between Twister's Dusty and Truman Capote is a moonshot. This guy's got some first rate chops.

L-girl said...

He was great in Magnolia. He had tons of smaller roles in at least a dozen US indie films. Even tiny parts, like the boyfriend who breaks up with Hope Davis in Next Stop, Wonderland.

Yes, that movie is Love, Liza.

Look for him in Almost Famous, State and Main (terrific movie), Talented Mr Ripley, Happiness and Boogie Nights.