We see the first of the film’s beautiful shots of the Kansas prairies1. A teenaged girl enters the rural home of her best friend, early in the morning, after receiving no response from her knocking. She finds the entire family murdered.

In New York City, Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany's holds court at a trendy party. He’s in his element, surrounding by the literary and the liberal, drinking cocktails and tossing bons mots. He affects a strange style of dress, at once traditional and flamboyant. He speaks with a lisp and laughs at his own most outrageous jokes.

He finds a small article in the New York Times on the Midwestern slayings, and clinically clips the piece with kitchen shears. The story will draw him in, obsess him, define him, and help destroy him. His research into the case will result in the groundbreaking non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood-- the last book the celebrated author would complete.

The film Capote, released in 2005, tells the tale of the years he spent researching his most famous work. Accompanied by Harper Lee, Capote makes his way to Holcomb, Kansas, where he could not appear more out of place. Gradually, he adjusts his manner, just enough, trades on his reputation, takes advice and help from Lee, and lies. Soon, he gets to know those close to the case, a dinner guest of Midwestern families and friend of the sheriff's wife. Most surprising, he develops a relationship with the killers, much to the chagrin of the investigators who had befriended and helped him.

In real life, Capote clearly fell in love with Perry Smith, one of the two career criminals whose blundering, ill-conceived plot led to the death of Holcomb’s Clutter family. Capote focuses on this relationship. Initially, we see a man genuinely fascinated and attracted by a fellow outsider. Later, he merely uses their friendship, lying and manipulating Smith to get closer to the truth. His efforts work, and Smith explains what the killing was like. At that point, after roughly two-thirds of the film have passed, we finally see a recreation of the killing. Director Bennett Miller understands that moments of violence, properly contextualized, prove far more disturbing than horror movie excess. Those brief scenes jar us, and the reality shatters Capote.

The film boasts several fine performances. Catherine Keener as Harper Lee exhibits strength and understanding. She shows an amused tolerance for Capote's excesses and her various male friend’s lack of serious interest in her novel-in-progress, To Kill a Mockingbird. The supporting actors all do very well, even when they’re given little to do. Few characters receive much development. The film focuses, to a fault, on the titular character.

I remember the public Capote, the one who appeared regularly on television in the 1970s, in the years following In Cold Blood, during which he literally drank himself to death. He was such an affected character that any actor playing him risks becoming a bad parody. Philp Seymour Hoffman, incredibly, captures all of the author’s superficial eccentricities without turning him into a joke. Actor and script also create a strong sense of what the man might have been beneath the famous exterior. He is, of course, horribly narcissistic and ultimately self-destructive. He worries about whether Smith and Hickock’s appeals will deprive him of an effective ending to his work. He whines about his creative crises when close friend Harper Lee seeks feedback on the film adaptation of her novel. He drinks cocktails and mixes alcohol with pureed baby food. He lies willfully, even to those who love him. Yet we feel a strange affection for him. The film leaves us with the feeling that we’ve met Capote, and he’s like the troubled childhood friend we wish would pull together.

The film might have given a broader perspective of its subject; we only see the years he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, and receive only hints about the dark childhood the shaped him. It might have balanced its portrayal of Capote with a more developed depiction of Smith, and perhaps given us more of Hickock, who is almost entirely erased from the story. Still, if Capote works principally as a character sketch, it has chosen a fascinating character.

Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Dan Futterman, Gerald Clarke

Cast
Philip Seymour Hoffman...Truman Capote
Catherine Keener...Nell Harper Lee
Clifton Collins Jr....Perry Smith
Chris Cooper...Alvin Dewey
Amy Ryan...Marie Dewey
Bruce Greenwood...Jack Dunphy
Bob Balaban...William Shawn
Mark Pellegrino...Richard Hickock
Rob McLaughlin...Harold Nye

Capote received five major Oscar nominations in 2006. Philip Seymour Hoffman won for actor in a leading role.


1. The Kansas scenes were filmed, in fact, in Manitoba, Canada.

This movie went well beyond Capote’s own personal eccentricities, speaking instead to the destructive impact modern, tabloid-style journalism would ultimately have on the soul of the man who created it. I won’t go into a discussion here about Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote himself. Let’s just say it was phenomenal. But what I do want to talk about is the lesson the movie teaches us about the trap for the unwary. The soul-wrenching trip into the Inferno that a man who feels – who ultimately cares, despite himself -- must take when he ventures into the world of the bleak.

The movie could almost have been titled The Making of In Cold Blood. It skips over Capote’s early career, although Breakfast at Tiffany’s does get mentioned, and introduces Capote as a flighty, New York socialite interested mostly in witty cocktail party banter. The film shifts abruptly, however, when Capote learns of the Clutter killings in Kansas. From that point on, the film focuses almost exclusively on the process Capote followed in pursuit of his masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

And what was that process? Well, Capote first makes his way to Kansas with Harper Lee, the soon-to-be author of To Kill a Mockingbird, in search of a story. He uses Lee, who appears much more normal, much less flamboyant, to shield himself from the suspicious eyes of the townsfolk who have lived through the murders. Capote then uses his status as an author to curry favor with the detective’s wife, thereby gaining access to inside information about the investigation. Once the killers are captured, Capote flirts unabashedly with the sheriff’s wife to gain access to Perry Smith, the "sensitive" one of the two killers.

Capote continues to prostitute himself with Perry, mercilessly using any hook he can find to work his way into Perry’s confidence. He lets the sheriff’s wife give Perry his first novel to read. He brings Perry aspirin for the pain in his legs. He tells Perry about how his (Capote’s) mother abandoned him, just like Perry’s own mother abandoned him. All of this in pursuit of the story, the “novel of the decade,” as Capote tells his publisher at the New Yorker.

And Capote is ultimately successful. He gets the story. But when push comes to shove, and it comes down to the time to see the killers actually die, Capote shrinks from the task. He can’t do it. It’s as though in his unbridled ambition to get the story, he forgot what it would feel like to watch someone he befriended die. His conscience is further battered by Perry’s chilling eleventh-hour confession to Capote in a dingy jail cell.

So Capote hides. And who is there to make him see what he has done? Harper Lee, the “manly” woman, who went on to write one of the greatest American novels, is there to tell Capote that deep down, he knew what he was doing. Deep down, he wanted these men to die. So he could get the story.

And this is what breaks Capote in the end. He has used sentiment, feelings, emotions, and friendship to get the story that he wanted, only to find out at the end that he is being crucified on the cross of those very same emotions as he watches Perry Smith hanging in the gallows. Capote succeeded in creating tabloid journalism. He was one of the few authors with enough feeling and depth to really bring it off. But in the end, it was that same feeling and depth that wouldn’t let him look away from what he had done. Wouldn’t let him shrug it off as just another story.

And it’s what ultimately killed him.

Ca*pote" (?), n. [Sp. capote (cf. F. capote.), fr. LL. capa cape, cloak. See Cap.]

A long cloak or overcoat, especially one with a hood.

 

© Webster 1913.

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