Translating to the big screen a non-fiction book about the creator of the non-fiction novel during his greatest moral and emotional quandary was always going to be an immense challenge, all the more so when the subject was a complex, effete, openly gay (at a time when that was acceptable only within the arts) egomaniac and self-publicist in the form of Truman Capote, aided and abetted in turn by his lifelong friend and fellow-novelist Harper Lee.

The film covers the period during which Capote researched the Kansas murders in which wealthy farmer Herbert Clutter and his family were killed by shotgun, which eventually became In Cold Blood, arguably Capote’s most enduring and celebrated major work (even allowing for the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and in due course became trapped between his desire for a full exposé of the truth to produce an ending to his novel, and his fixation with one of the murderers, Perry Smith.

His personal eyewitness involvement made Capote part of the story, effectively making In Cold Blood gonzo journalism of the kind associated with Hunter S Thompson, his dilemma being similar to that of the photographer in a war zone, caught between his desire to capture the action and human tragedy on film and helping those suffering – and the flattery and bribes he lavished to gain access to the key players.

In short, the context was rich and the time was ready for a fresh view of the facts, but to that mix add Capote’s bold claim that every word in the novel was true, in spite of a great deal of evidence suggested both mistakes and a degree of embroidering in the translation to novel (see here.)  But then art imitates life: the cinema is renowned for creating fiction and distorting facts in biopics, and has further distorted the story of Capote’s relating the story, perhaps the result of trying to cram the story into two hour format (see here.)

And for further spice, allow for the rival film adaptation, Infamous, in which the great man was played by Toby Jones and which came out just a year after Capote:

In The Village Voice, Robert Wilonsky stated the film “never comes close to approaching the quiet, devastating brilliance of Capote . . . Which is not to say Infamous . . . is a far inferior version . . . it’s just a lesser version, light in weight and absent the ache . . . It’s good, especially during its first half, just not good enough.”

To deliver in that context required exceptional talent in director and actors alike.  Bennett Miller may not have been the most obvious or high-profile of directors, though in his relatively minor oeuvre all his films have been been fêted.  Bennett would need to be on his mark to cope with and guide a star every bit as complex and talented as the subject: I’ve written before about the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, though this was my first viewing of the movie that won him the Best Actor Oscar.  It comes highly commended too, these being the words of one renowned critic:

Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect 4/4 star rating, stating: “Capote is a film of uncommon strength and insight, about a man whose great achievement requires the surrender of his self-respect.”

Portraying a real life character presents many difficulties for the actor, the first being that impersonation is merely the surface layer of a performance, yet the one most critics and viewers will judge by.   Getting to the heart of the man brings with it exactly the same difficulties Capote found researching In Cold Blood, since by the Method School the actor has to invest a great deal of his own personality and life into assuming the mantle of his subject, in order that the emotions he displays in the course of the performance are genuine and not merely assumed.

The results are there for all to see: Hoffman’s capture of the Capote mannerisms and curiously high-pitched voice is spellbinding (compare this with this), if not miraculous, but there is much, much more to this compelling portrayal – and a good starting point would be the parallels between the two.  For one thing, Hoffman had the same charm and easy charisma as Capote, such that both could be the centre of attention and gleefully savour each moment, but both built a mystique and had their private, if not self-destructive moments.  In Capote’s case he bit the hand that fed him in the form of thinly-disguised character assassinations of the figures in American society who doted upon his wit and wisdom; for Hoffman his inner demons turned upon himself and an increasing drug habit, one that eventually killed him.

Maybe one was drawn with a sense of magnetic inevitability to play the other, but there is no doubt that Hoffman’s performance is utterly staggering, conveying all the nuances of personality and peeling back the onion layers.

Near the start of the movie, Capote and Lee travel from New York to Kansas and are met with a whimsically amusing culture shock, particularly his dismissal by the sparse and understated words of Alvin Dewey (the excellent Chris Cooper), Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s lead detective on the case.  In truth, Lee helps Capote earn respect within the community, not least with Dewey’s wife, but loses respect with the good people of Holcomb, Kansas, by virtue of his relationship with Smith. Upon Smith’s execution he re-evaluates (thanks to Wikipedia):

Capote talks to Lee about the horrifying experience and laments that he could not have done anything to stop it. She poignantly replies, “Maybe not. The fact is you didn’t want to.” The final scenes show Capote looking through photos from the case and at the writings and drawings given to him by Smith.

The story is captured in taut, spare style by Miller’s camera, neatly contrasting New York society with the wide open spaces of agricultural Kansas, further emphasised by the grave musical undertones.  Floundering like a fish out of water, Capote seems totally out of place in the wheat fields of America’s heartland, almost agoraphobic when out of the society cocktail parties, yet with the finesse of a chameleon he adapts to his new environment by the simple expedient of winning over people before trashing them – they are merely pawns in his game.  Capote is gradually revealed to be a devious manipulator and cold-hearted liar, one who gains the trust of protagonists in the saga while not caring a bean for any one of them.

On this evidence, Capote’s soul is beyond redemption but his main weapon as a writer is exposing truths, including those about himself.  It is the writer’s quest for answers that leads him to feed emotionally from the coquettish behaviour of Smith, for whom Capote funded a lawyer for the appeal.  In the movie, Capote’s internal morals are patiently exposed, and the consequences, for better and worse, laid out, as TS Eliot put it, “like a patient etherised upon a table” – yet to trade the faith by naming the book In Cold Blood before Smith had been hanged.

Whatever the reality, the encounter had a profound effect on Capote, who withdrew totally from life and would not listen to the requests for help from the prisoners – until the very last moment. Barely in control of his emotions, he saw the men immediately before they were hanged, and attended the execution, which in turn had a profound effect on him.

“Dancing with the devil” was one description in the PR blurb, for Capote ultimately confirmed his reputation as a great novelist, but in the process lost a chunk of his soul, and, maybe more importantly to a man who, like Peter Sellers, had a block of ice for a heart, grew distant from Harper Lee – maybe the one person other than himself and his long-term partner Jack Dunphy whom he truly cared about.  Even more to the point, he never finished another full-length novel for the rest of his life, such that the reputation acquired so painstakingly through the construction of In Cold Blood came back repeatedly to haunt him.

This is a very fine movie, one that repays careful attention and repeat viewings.  Like its subject, it is very possible to come out from the movie simultaneously holding conflicting views and to gain a different interpretation on each viewing, which to my way of thinking is always the sign of a really excellent script and superior performances.  Riveting cinema, the type of intelligent movie that makes you glad of the medium, and perhaps most of all glad of the star that burned bright.  RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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