Truman Capote was a hugely successful writer, and one of the first literary superstars. He spent his time composing and relishing a pervasive cult of celebrity, and was a keystone of New York’s high-class social scene in the late 50s. Raised by his elderly female cousins, he initially struggled to achieve a high school diploma, but his short stories, published in Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar, became highly popular. After working on various musicals, screenplays and several novels, he completed Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958, which helped to cement his worldwide fame, a process facilitated in part by Blake Edward’s classic film adaptation. His fey mannerisms and extraversion made him a popular party guest and raconteur, and this public adoration permitted him the rare luxury of ignoring America’s homosexual taboos.
Capote centres on the writer’s composition of In Cold Blood, an innovative ‘non-fiction novel’ which took him on a complex journey through the lives of murderers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who killed a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Whilst screenwriter Dan Futterman apparently viewed the narrative as a juxtaposition of Capote’s life as a literary socialite, and his later intense emotional and moral involvement with Perry Smith in particular, director Bennett Miller tried to contribute a sense of inevitable tragedy to the proceedings, blurring the intersections of Capote’s charismatic, flamboyant persona, and his dubiously amoral motivations.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance has, according to biographer Gerald Clarke, “resurrected” Capote. It’s wonderfully coherent and individualistic: his high, lilting voice is never allowed to drift into generic camp, and his gait is startlingly mince-free. Balanced at all times on the edge of the audience’s sympathies, he is in some ways portraying the ultimate solipsist: a man who unthinkingly regards people as utilities for the generation of his own happiness, and who strives to deny any guilt about this fact with the utmost efficiency.
Futterman has not set out to create a biopic. He is examining the unseen figure in In Cold Blood, and investigating the unspoken motivations for Capote’s work, asking questions about personal morality and self-regard. This is a very challenging approach, and one which rests on the highly unconventional quality of subtlety. A few scenes between Capote and his frequent companion Harper Lee (Keener) rest on her challenging him for his abuse of the two murderers, desperate men who we see him endlessly manipulating to get more and more information about the killings. But only at one point do we see a genuine glimmer of guilt from the protagonist, everything remains unsaid.
So too, we are given no advance details about Truman himself. His sexuality and relationship with Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) are all left relatively implicit, his background as a writer and his fame makes its way out to the audience through the way other characters treat him, not through endless clanging exposition. The whole movie shares Capote’s breeziness and obliquity; he comments at one point to a young girl involved with the murders about the difficulty that others have in understanding him, and the difficult reaction of the Kansan farmers to the twirling, lisping figure of the writer is played for a delicate and effective brand of comedy.
Capote’s self-conscious uniqueness encapsulated by Hoffman’s brilliant acting is the lynch-pin of the movie, but there is scarcely a flaw in the cast throughout. Clifton Collins Jr.’s complex and unusual role as the killer Perry Smith is played with a great deal of thought, only occasionally sliding ever-so-slightly into brooding, Kubrick-staring clich’, while Keener’s Harper Lee is gentle and effective. Chris Cooper’s portrayal of Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator of the Holcomb murders, who frequently despairs of Capote’s involvement, has a gravity and compassion which makes him stand out as more than a hard-bitten cop.
Shot with a strong sparseness, and a certain bleak tinge to the cinematography, Miller’s work with the camera creates, on the whole, an effectively modern and thoughtful viewpoint. Occasional gimmicky moments, and the incorporation of some sudden violence which verges on melodrama aren’t needed, but these are minor points: the few cheap shots are largely forgivable.
This movie has done more for homosexuality on screen than a thousand Brokeback Mountains, because its protagonist is depicted as simply being a gay man without any comment whatsoever. His attraction to Smith and the tension this creates with his lover Dunphy is so underplayed as to be hardly present: it is one element of the story, but by no means its focus.
I expect Capote to win Oscars tonight: Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay should be no-brainers. Its protagonist is a kind of gay, famous Rain Man: a highly mannered character which allows an actor an exciting playground in which to thrive, and Hoffman takes full advantage. If he defeats Ledger’s bluff, mumbling idiot cowboy, I will be delighted. Capote is also a big step forward for popular screenwriting, and will hopefully create the right kind of wake: Futterman can hardly be praised enough.
Unfortunately, there are two flaws which prevent the movie achieving its laudably high ambitions. The first could easily have been avoided. Mychael Danna’s score is drab, lazy and utterly derivative. It is not simply enough to recycle Thomas Newman’s piano motif from American Beauty over and over again: even Thomas Newman himself has surely done that enough by now. This kind of uninspired composition has no place in a movie of this stature, and should have been thrown out completely and reworked.
The second is more complicated. I have held up Capote’s subtle obliquity as its strong suit, but little is done to rise to some of the challenges which this approach creates. There is a certain sense of worthiness to the movie which makes it difficult to like: we are often shown lives and actions which are held up to us as being significant, and the flatness of the presentation allows, unusually, for a conflicting view. However, if the audience begins to stop caring about Capote and his feelings, rather than simply reacting positively or negatively too him, then the movie’s thread can be lost. Luckily, the performances do a great deal to combat this, but if only there had been some exploitation of this potential reaction by the direction and writing, which are too concerned by striking a balance between the coldness of an objective observer, and Capote’s violent dedication to his aims.
The reaction of an alienated audience and it’s absence of interest in a protagonist are important territories for artists seeking perfection to manipulate fully. Capote goes some way towards this, but ultimately falls at the final hurdle. It has managed to take a colourful man and show him as a human being’potentially boring’but it has not controlled the outcome of this. Perhaps such control was impossible, given the nature of the film Futterman and Miller were making, but it is still a stumbling block. Nevertheless, Capote remains an essential film of the moment; definitely award-worthy, but unfortunately just shy of a classic.