Vanity Fare

At which various friends and enemies recall better movies: 'Capote'

At which various friends and enemies recall better movies: 'Capote'

"At dinner at the Bennett Cerfs' I came up to [Capote] and said, 'Truman, I've read the first installment of In Cold Blood in The New Yorker. I missed the second, but I can't wait to read the whole book.' He said, 'That's the most insulting thing anyone has ever said to me!' I said, 'But Truman, you don't understand, I was in La Camargue in the South of France riding horses; there was no way of getting The New Yorker.' 'You should have had it sent!'

--John Knowles, as quoted by George Plimpton in Truman Capote


As the above anecdote testifies, Truman Capote wasn't just vain; he was ridiculously vain. His heroically, insufferably extravagant persona was both a burlesque of egomania and egomania itself. Like Muhammad Ali, he generally got away with it. Familiar since childhood with agonies greater than insufficiently sycophantic dinner-party compliments, Capote compensated for much of his naked vanity with naked vulnerability--and with very fine writing. His pique over Knowles's tempered anticipation of In Cold Blood was only mostly out of line. When, in 1965, The New Yorker serialized Capote's long-hyped account of four grisly murders in Holcomb, Kansas, a great many readers were justifiably buttonholed by it. Some people in far-off places--such as Holcomb, Kansas, and nearby Garden City (both traditionally infertile markets for The New Yorker)--did in fact make special arrangements to secure both the magazine's next issue and some time to read Capote's piece in one sitting. In Cold Blood, published as a book in January of '66, inspired lots of "instant masterpiece" ballyhoo and lots of public discourse about the death penalty, the nature of evil, the roots of psychopathology, the need for kindness, the darkness at the edge of town, and journalistic responsibility. What's more, some smart people--Truman Capote, for one, if not many literary historians--said it was the start of an important new genre, the "nonfiction novel."

Capote, director Bennett Miller and actor-turned-screenwriter Dan Futterman's new study of the author, is not an instant masterpiece. Nor is it a good movie. It is likely to garner Phillip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor nomination, largely because that seems to have been its prime motivation. Like Pollock, another tiresomely conventional biopic starring an acclaimed character actor, Capote doesn't lack for potential clips on Oscar night; everything in the film is designed to advertise Hoffman's depth, which is different from actually using it. Hoffman's performance will be celebrated for operating on many levels, for containing contradictions and ambivalence. And, yes, the film's hero, like its star, is no one-trick pony: Hoffman, besides delivering a very crafty impression--the girlish whisper, the raised pinky, the vacillation between strut and slouch--has made his Capote empathetic and narcissistic, kind and cruel, supremely confident and deeply needy. So Capote does operate on many levels. The problem is that it operates on all of them superficially. And clumsily.

Too bad, since Capote, conceptually at least, is on the right track. Rather than attempt the standard cradle-to-grave saga--always troublesome since actual lives are prone to resist pleasurable narrative arcs--Futterman focuses on the fraught, drawn-out making of In Cold Blood. In late '59, Capote, on assignment from The New Yorker, set out for western Kansas to write a long story on the murders of four members of the Clutter family, pious and thoroughly decent agricultural aristocrats. He brought along Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), on the verge of a breakthrough with To Kill a Mockingbird, to assist him, and to mitigate the natives' distrust and homophobia with her down-to-earth charm. Capote intuited that the story could serve his ambition to write a factual, journalistic study that would be structured and composed like a novel. The project got richer when the killers were captured and the author discovered a doppelgänger in one of the perpetrators, Percy Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.): also a diminutive, artistically inclined, frequently self-pitying man who had endured a brutal childhood. "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house," Capote says in the film, "and he went out the back door while I went out the front." In the movie's depiction, Capote and Smith's relationship was part platonic love affair, part antagonistic symbiosis. Capote acts as a sympathetic friend to Smith, and also exploits, deceives, and mistreats him. Smith seeks favors from Capote and strings him along, teasingly withholding his account of the night of the murder. (The tension there is a cinematic device: Smith issued a confession upon capture, slightly altered his statement shortly thereafter, but never otherwise disavowed its truthfulness; Capote got the most useful version of the story when he bought the transcript of the court proceedings.)

The film follows Capote from vainglorious elation as the project comes together to a state of depressed "suspended animation" (as characterized by biographer Gerald Clarke, whose own Capote inspired Futterman's script) while he waited for Smith and Hickock to be hanged: After all, he needed a "final act." The film suggests that the traumatic endeavor ruined the never-again productive Capote as an artist. (See, not our fault!, exclaim the makers of J&B scotch.) Obviously, there's a bounty of dramatic material here--and obviously is the key word. The moment the film fears that Capote's mercenary tendencies, for instance, haven't been clearly spelled out, it spells them out again with a skywriter. Early in the movie, Capote announces to a Midwestern cop, who didn't ask, that the dramatically long scarf in which he arrived came from Bergdorf Goodman. (Oh, no, we're supposed to chuckle, that boy is just a fish out of water.) When Lee presses Capote as to whether he in fact holds Smith "in esteem," Capote pauses, and then says, "Well, he's a gold mine!" (Why, his motivations are impure!) At the premiere of the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote neglects to congratulate Lee, but does give her a drunken, self-pitying speech. (That lil' fellow is narcissistic!) Some of that stuff is true, though Bennett, whose only previous feature credit is 1998's charming documentary The Cruise, has little interest in following Capote's model of reshaping fact into subtle fiction.

The movie descends from irritating to embarrassing with its pretentious dramatization of the murders, in which images of the bloodied victims are juxtaposed with a portrait of Jesus hanging on the Clutters' wall. (There's a reference in there to a charcoal drawing of Jesus that Smith made during an earlier stint in jail, though nothing is made of it.) Part of In Cold Blood's success was the mystery it aroused about what was verifiably true and what was essentially true. Here, the shocking truth and artistic invention enter a banality showdown and it all sounds like lies. In the end, the best Capote can offer are its plaintive shots of Kansas's high plains. Which, it turns out, were filmed in Canada.