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Friday, Sept. 29, 2006
WITTY, CLEVER AND COLD
Insight into a complicated man
"Capote," the new bio-pic on author Truman Capote, looks at the period 1959-1966 when he wrote his masterpiece, the nonfiction novel "In Cold Blood." On the one hand, this is a very "indie" subject for a film: Capote's book was controversial for its time (in its use of real-life murder as a subject), as was the author himself, who made no secret of his homosexuality.
But on the other hand, "Capote" is so Hollywood, based on a name with proven marketability, and a literary pedigree that's absolutely irresistible to the art-house subcontractors of the major studios these days. ("Capote" is released through Sony Pictures Classics.) Moreover, it features a name actor -- Philip Seymour Hoffman -- doing a compelling impersonation of a well-know celebrity. As judged by the success of "Ray" and "Walk The Line," Hollywood -- and the Academy -- love nothing so much as star impersonation, except maybe interpretations of gays and those with disabilities. "Capote" almost combines all three, as Truman was famous, short and as queer as the proverbial three-dollar bill, and Hoffman predictably got his Oscar.
Still, for director Bennett Miller, the subject presents something of a challenge. Albeit a celebrity in his day, Capote's fame shelf-life has long since expired, to the point most under-30s will have never heard of him, unless they major in American literature. Since the inherent appeal of celebrity isn't something Miller can necessarily bank on, he's got to find another angle, and here he only partially succeeds.
The film opens with Capote (Hoffman) perusing a small article in the New York Times about a family of four murdered in their Kansas home. Capote senses a story in there -- something about how such a tragedy would affect the very heart of mom-and-apple-pie America -- and heads off to Kansas, with his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), author of "To Kill A Mockingbird," in tow. There, they begin to interview the locals to gain some insight into the crime.
The film makes much of the contrast between Capote's New York attitude and flamboyant queeniness and the staid, serious manner of the locals. Then again, it is a case of murder, and Capote's ironic detachment is more than a little jarring, especially when he casually informs Agent Dewey (Chris Cooper, the face of rock-solid American values) that "I don't care one way or another whether you catch who did this."
The felons are indeed caught, and Capote goes about wheedling his way into the prison, then pampering the murderers and convincing them he's their "friend." All this just to get a story. The film also seems to imply that Capote was attracted to one of the criminals, Perry Smith, played here magnificently by Clifton Collins Jr. with the brooding, dangerous-looking beauty of James Dean, veering from a pitiful pout to a voidlike blankness. When Perry stops eating for several weeks, Capote actually sits by his cot, spoon-feeding him back to health. Is it an act of kindness -- and what is an act of kindness to a murderer, anyway? Or is it a cynical manipulation to keep his source alive, to get the confession he needs to finish his book?
"Capote" suggests the author was capable of both, a complicated man who thought he was able to stay morally detached from his subject, but found, in the end, that it was impossible. The film suggests, somewhat disingenuously, that Capote was so traumatized by the experience that he never wrote another book. That's true enough, but he did enjoy a long career as a writer of magazine pieces, a New York socialite, and TV tarento -- hardly the lifestyle of a traumatized man. The "moral of the story" somewhat falls apart here.
Despite its dubious conclusion and often dour mood, "Capote" remains a fascinating character study, a sharp look at the ethics of journalism (or lack thereof), and an illustration of how our good intentions can often be a cover for self-interest. Hoffman's performance is a winner, as this longtime character actor ("Boogie Nights," "The Big Lebowski," "Almost Famous" ) finally gets to shine in the lead. He gets all Capote's mannerisms, the prissiness and high-pitched laugh, exactly right, but he also expertly handles a dangerous balancing act: He makes us like the author as a witty, clever guy, but also shocks us with his cold, manipulating side. Recommended to Hoffman fans -- and there are many -- even if you haven't a clue as to what Capote was all about.