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CAPOTE (R) (2005)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Bennett Miller

Producers: Caroline Baron, Michael Ohoven, William Vince

Written by: Dan Futterman; book by Gerald Clarke

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Mark Pellegrino, Amy Ryan


The biopic is certainly a dubious genre. It has become the industry’s equivalent of the coffee table artbook, portentous and leaden. David Edelstein of Slate recently summarized the case against biopics.

Biopics hit their prescribed beats with metronomic predictability and often tin-eared dialogue; they use artistic license to the point of distorting the meaning of the lives they purport to interpret (see Beautiful Mind, A); and they’re generally too choppy, too spread out, or too fatuously tied-up in neat little Freudian packages to have any sustained dramatic impact.

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 prissy.)

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.

—Edward Rholes

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