Life imitating art imitating life: Capote

Originally published at the America’s Future Foundation online magazine Doublethink.

If it accomplishes little else, the current film Capote captures the awesomely bleak austerity of winter afternoons.

The matchless cinematography of Adam Kimmel treats us to imposing outdoor vistas in the movie’s early scenes. Blue skies darken above forlorn, brown cornfields on the West Kansas plains; there’s a close-in shot of unharvested wheat against dark, gray clouds; and, no less impressively, a lingering visual refrain of an isolated, white clapboard farmhouse—the house where Herbert and Bonnie Clutter, along with their teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, were murdered in mid-November 1959. Rows of bare trees flank either side; the stark black branches rising into the muted sky suggest thin, scraping fingers.

Visually, the stages are set. Jess Gonchor’s production design and Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes recreate period detail of the late ’50s and early ’60s irresistibly. Director Bennett Miller’s compositions and Kimmel’s lighting often astound. They find eye-catching angles even in the smallness of beige hotel rooms, of cramped New York apartments packed with martini-swilling revelers. The actors, mostly the ones in minor roles or walk-ons, aptly convey a sense of the era, and of place, whether they’re cast as the chic, smart set of Manhattan or the taciturn conservatives of Holcomb, Kansas.

The movie covers six years in the life of author Truman Capote, during the period when he researched and wrote his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. Dan Futterman based his screenplay on Gerald Clarke’s biography of Capote, which I haven’t read. I have, however, read Too Brief a Treat, Capote’s collected letters as edited by Clarke. The epistles that date from Capote’s years of fact-finding about the Clutter family and their two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, reveal a seeker haunted by what he found. Amid his frequent requests for information from Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey and his wife Marie (both of whom became close friends of the author, and are well portrayed here—to the extent that they are utilized at all—by Chris Cooper and Amy Ryan), Capote spoke of frequent nightmares, of waking and being physically ill.

In reading those passages, I assumed that reliving the details of the brutal crime, day in and day out, were what affected Capote. Futterman has other notions. While he and Miller show us Capote’s boozing (in one shot, Capote, curled up on his sofa in a near-fetal position, mixes Jim Beam with pureed bananas in a baby food jar) they leave out all references to unquiet sleep and morning sickness. Futterman’s script narrows the focus of the story to Capote’s obsession with Perry Smith—to the point of downplaying Hickock and the Deweys and distorting the film’s central figure.

Futterman conceives of Capote’s death row conversations with Smith as a surrogate homosexual relationship, which may well have been the case in real life, but cinematically, Futterman’s choice trades complexity for an interpretation that seals off other possibilities. As he has written and as Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the title character, the movie builds to a climax—Capote’s last-minute visit with Hickock and Smith before the criminals were executed by hanging—that makes no emotional sense. Hoffman, at this farewell, weeps copiously. But over what or for whom? In this exchange, do Capote’s tears indicate his remorse over using these men (in life, as much victims as victimizers) as the subjects of his book, for lying to them about his intentions for the manuscript? (Smith had entertained the belief that In Cold Blood’s publication would exonerate the killers, and Capote, biding time until the execution, allowed him this fantasy.) Or does Capote weep from the sense of a burden about to be lifted? Near endless appeals and stays of execution delayed justice until 1965. Or—the possibility the filmmakers seem to intend—do the author’s tears flow for Perry Smith, the man he—in a sense—has seduced? (In their prison cell tête-à-têtes, Hoffman mincingly approaches his prey like a lover deliberately withholding sex.)

The flimsiness of Futterman’s writing is only one problem. In the leading role, the highly praised Hoffman comes through as a caricature. A friend of mine who loved the movie told me that it brought back fond memories of watching Capote as a guest on the Johnny Carson show, and even happier times of listening to her older sister imitate the writer’s trademark timbre. That’s about the level on which Hoffman works, except that his natural baritone voice hampers his attempts to recreate Capote’s lighter-than-air wispiness. Hoffman’s vocal huskiness, combined with an excess mimicry of those famous fey mannerisms, renders a performance that might have passed muster on a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch, but not for a feature film, where a little bit of Elmer Fudd imitating Carol Channing goes an awfully long way.

Miller and Futterman do raise a couple of interesting parallels. Prior to launching his investigation in Kansas, Capote basked in accolades for his recently published novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a work banned, he discovers when dining with the Deweys, by the Holcomb public library. The movie conveys palpable instances of an artist’s need to stretch, to avoid repeating himself. Visually in character at least, Hoffman lets us see how Capote, who could have delighted fans, no doubt, with the further adventures of Holly Golightly, wanted to write something that broke completely with expectation. And we see how the projected work, initially intended only as an article, grew in size and scope to where stretching extended to snapping. One gets the point that Capote may have longed to retreat into the sophisticated Manhattan milieu that he knew, but by that time he was too deeply into Blood.

Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith in Capote. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics.)

There’s also a contrast between Capote’s longtime companion, the novelist and playwright Jack Dunphy, and Perry Smith. In a few cutaways to New York as Capote researches in Kansas, we see Dunphy as a man independent-minded enough to go his own way. Capote, then, can be manipulating and domineering with the imprisoned Smith in a manner that seems unlikely to fly with Dunphy, an accomplished, if now forgotten, artist in his own right.

As Smith, Clifton Collins Jr. isn’t bad, but he and Mark Pellegrino (as Hickock, whom we barely see) are misdirected to come across less as murderers than as disgruntled fashion models, a cue reinforced by the recreation of Richard Avedon’s photo shoot with the prisoners. Standard shots yield to the baring of tattoos on the men’s chests and upper arms. They love to pose, and Capote, unable to resist, steps into the frame with Smith.

What, ultimately, is the aim of Capote?

The movie houses a collection of mildly intriguing bits, little oases in the overall ponderousness. For example, when the famous author first arrives in Holcomb, clad in a long brown scarf and ankle-length camel-hair coat, he lets Alvin Dewey and the other officers know his scarf came from Bergdorf, as if that would mean anything for these policemen.

Or there’s this: “That picture is undignified,” Smith informs Truman of the author’s come hither pose on the Other Voices, Other Rooms dust jacket. The murderer makes a cryptic remark about first impressions being difficult to erase. Truman asks, “What impression?” The filmmakers and the actors appear to be on to something, though it’s hard to say what; the scene, nonetheless, abruptly cuts away—a cheat.

Most beautifully, there’s Harper Lee’s success with To Kill a Mockingbird, and the December 1962 premiere of the film version that comes with it. In a dazzling non-verbal sequence that is supposed to be Ms. Lee’s moment in the spotlight, Truman stands on the plush red carpet, facing the camera—drunk—amid paparazzi flash. The soundtrack swells to bursting with John Coltrane’s ripe interpretation of Irving Berlin’s “It’s Easy to Remember” (from the Ballads recording) as Capote passively stands there, basking in the glorious fusion of bulbs flashing and the sublime muscularity of Coltrane, whose soprano saxophone speaks with more eloquence than the scenarist’s trite dialogue.

Catherine Keener, however, on the heels of her most engaging work to date, in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, scarcely registers at all as Harper Lee. It’s a cramped, colorless conception of Capote’s childhood friend and adult confidante, his muse in gaining entrée to the Clutters’ circle of acquaintances; Keener’s Southern accent wanders in the beginning, then she drops it entirely. Stranded on-screen, she appears caught in a dress rehearsal—for playing dress-up.

October 2005