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
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
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.