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Capote

Directed by Bennett Miller, staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, Clifton Collins, Jr. and Bob Balaban, rated R, 115 minutes, 2005

By John D. Delmar

He was known as "The Tiny Terror."

In the 70's and 80's, one of America's greatest writers, Truman Capote, had become a sort of side-show freak, exhibited on late night talk shows like some strange, exotic creature. Capote, who could craft sentences and descriptions better than just about any living mortal, had become an alcoholic mess, splotched and puffy like some species of South American spotted toad. What had happened?

Among other things, a literary masterpiece, "In Cold Blood," had happened. The film "Capote" brilliantly depicts one writer's Faustian bargain - create a masterpiece, but destroy your soul. What compromises, what lies, what betrayals, must one make to create a work of art?

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote gives the performance of the year, inhabiting Capote's tortured mind and body. We are shown five years in Capote's life, during which he pursues the minutiae of a tawdry multiple murder in Kansas. In the bucolic heartland, Capote confronts Satanic evil, attempts to understand it, barters his integrity, and tries to turn the blood and gore into literature.

This entails Capote gaining the confidence of a complex but ultimately evil man, Perry Smith. Capote bares his own soul in order to transform this living, breathing man into a character in his non-fiction "novel." But living people, as Capote soon realizes, are messy; life is messy; reality is messy. And Hoffman as Capote horrifyingly is sucked into the abyss, feeling compassion, love, revulsion and pain as he tries to force this man he realizes is his dark alter ego, his what-might-have-been, into the pages of a manuscript.

Capote, the fey, twee, Porky Piggy Manhattan sophisticate, would appear to have nothing in common with the tatooed, macho, half-Indian, low-life, small-town criminal.

Capote is shown in his natural habitat, the Manhattan cocktail party, name-dropping, making witty bon-mots, hobnobbing with celebrities and socialites. Low-life Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) has no life, no future, only pain and rejection in his past. But in the claustrophobic confines of death row at Leavenworth State Prison, Capote and Smith confront their mutual pain and rejection. Both were unloved and neglected as children. Capote transforms that pain into literature. Smith turns his pain into murder and rage. As Capote notes, they grew up in the same house, but exited by different doors.

There is something of an erotic attraction between the two.They need each other and spend hours confessing their most intimate thoughts to one another, like two lovers whispering pillow talk secrets. (Capote is far more intimate with Smith than he is with his own lover/partner, whom he has abandoned in Brooklyn.)

Capote must confront this dark shadow of his own soul, this black mirror which reflects his own pain and hollow heart. He also realizes that fame, art and creation are more important than the flesh and blood concerns of a flawed human - and thus he betrays Smith, and himself. And the realization that he has betrayed Smith (and ultimately wishes Smith's death) weighs heavily upon him. He writes no other book after "In Cold Blood."

This is Philip Seymour Hoffman's film. He doesn't just imitate, or parody, Capote's high-pitched lisping and out-of-the-closet demeanor. He becomes Capote, each swaying movement and mincing step - not easy, considering Hoffman ordinarily looks like Grizzly Adams, husky, brawny and tall, whereas Capote resembled a Renaissance putti, tiny, delicate and soft. The characters around Hoffman are credible and authentic, from Chris Cooper's small-town Kansas detective, to Bob Balaban's tweedy, literate William Shawn, to Catherine Keener's reserved but frank Harper Lee. Clifton Collins, Jr. does a particularly fine job as the confused and disturbed Perry Smith, who is conning Capote while being conned in turn by him.

Screenwriter Dan Futterman, perhaps better known as the struggling writer on the "Judging Amy" television program, does a fine job depicting the ethical dilemma faced by Capote, and yet ironically he is not as precise or accurate as Capote had been. Futterman changes a number of facts for dramatic purposes - including having William Shawn accompany Capote to the execution, changing Smith's last words, and transforming the very mood and atmosphere at the execution itself (witnesses apparently made jokes and nervous small talk; the film depicts a solemn and silent hanging). But Futterman is not bound by the facts as Capote felt bound by the facts. Facts clutter things up. Unlike Capote, he is free to invent whatever he likes - and no one's life is at stake, either.

The writer, director and star of this film have apparently known each other since they were teens in theater camp. The director, Bennett Miller, had a rather skimpy resume, having previously directed a quirky documentary on a New York City tour guide. Futterman wasn't much of a writer, even though he played one on TV. They teamed up with Hoffman to create one of the most provocative and thoughtful films of the year. Sometimes cronyism works - if you know talented cronies.

 

Copyright John D. Delmar 2006

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