Of course actors love them. Not only does the biopic put the character
ahead of the story, but it gives them a chance to indulge in the
showiest of actorly skills: vocal mimicry. Which brings us to Capote.
In addition to being a fine writer, Truman Capote
possessed one of the most distinctly obnoxious voices ever to be
heard. And sure enough Phillip Seymour Hoffman
as Capote manages to capture that effeminate, high-pitched, nasally
drawl. That should be more than enough to ensure him an Oscar nomination.
I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical. I believe that a
great biopic can be made, and that Capote is almost great.
And I also believe that Philip Seymour Hoffman, armed with Dan
Futterman’s insightful script, gives a performance
that goes beyond mere impersonation, and captures something about
this fascinating character.
One of the things the film gets right is scope. It’s admirably
small-scaled for a biopic—in fact one could debate whether
it really is one—focusing on the period when Capote was writing
and researching his famous “non-fiction novel” In
Cold Blood. The story, is that of two small-time criminals,
Dick Hickock and Perry Smith,
who break into the home of a farmer Herb Clutter
and kill his whole family in the process of stealing a mere forty
dollars. Capote originally traveled to Holcomb, Kansas to investigate
the effects of the crime on the small, close-knit community, but
became deeply involved in the case of the two killers.
Of course Capote cuts a strange figure in the small midwestern
town, but it’s a tribute to Capote’s conversational
genius that he’s able to insinuate himself among conservative
Kansans and convicted murderers almost as easily as he holds court
as chief raconteur among the New York jet set. As an interviewer,
he had a technique for gaining confidence: divulging something about
himself, about his unhappy childhood in the Old South for instance.
This would create pressure on his subjects to respond in kind to
his openness. The film does a splendid job illustrating how shameless
and manipulative Capote could be.
It’s well known that Capote became emotionally involved
with the case, and there has been a lot of speculation about his
feelings for Perry Smith. This is hit upon, though never really
explored. The filmmakers seem more concerned with the ethics of
Capote as a journalist. He lies, cajoles, and ultimately bullies
his already abused subject into admission. The filmmakers seem implicitly
to accept the idea that Smith should not have been executed, and
through the character of Capote’s childhood friend Harper
Lee explicitly scold Capote for not doing more on Smith’s
behalf. (Catherine Keener as Harper Lee is disappointment,;
as a Truman’s conscience, she comes off as dull and a bit
Yet I’m not sure there was really anything Capote could
have done to save Smith. He was condemned by deed and law. That
Capote was openly guilt-ridden over his feelings for Smith and his
desire for ending to his book is seen as a most grievous sin, but
whatever his motives, it’s hard to see how Capote actually
did any harm to Smith. Of course we’re all familiar with biopics
that are overly generous to their subjects, for instance George
Clooney’s new picture about Edward R. Murrow,
but distortion can go both ways.
What inevitably colors the film is Capote’s life afterward.
Fame fed his worst impulses. He became a pathetic drunk, and never
wrote anything worthwhile ever again. His associations with the
rich and famous made him seem frivolous; his subsequent betrayal
of many of them in print made him seem villainous, and tarnished
his reputation forever. In Capote we get a preview of the
Truman to come, but it seems unduly harsh to punish him for the
wretched ending of his life.