CAPOTE is not a conventional biopic in that it doesn't attempt to tell the subject's
entire life from cradle to grave. Although adapted from a well-received published biography
by Gerold Clarke, the screenplay by Dan Futterman (an actor best known for his roles in
the film THE BIRDCAGE and the TV series "JUDGING AMY") focuses on the pivotal years
during which the writer was involved with the creation of what is generally considered to be
his masterwork, IN COLD BLOOD. The time frame spans from around 1959 up to the
CAPOTE marks the feature film directorial debut of documentarian Bennett Miller, and
he may be the perfect choice to turn this tale of the meeting of fiction and journalism into a
movie. Miller brings a sober, somber approach to the material.
In 1959, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) read an article about the brutal
murder of the Clutter family on their farm in Kansas. For whatever reason, the gruesomeness
of the murders, the fact the killers had not been apprehended, the idea that a crime of that
nature could occur in the seemingly placid landscape of Middle America, Capote seized on the
story. As a writer, he had been toying with journalistic techniques and he approached William
Shawn (Bob Balaban), the editor of The New Yorker, with the idea for a piece or even
a series of pieces on how the murders had affected the residents.
Capote leaves his lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) who is also a writer, and
heads to Kansas with his confidante and childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener)
in tow. She has agreed to go along and serve as another pair of eyes and ears (and perhaps
to smooth the rough edges of an openly queer man). When they first approach the lawman in
charge, Albin Dewey (Chris Cooper), at his office they are politely rebuffed. But they eventually
make in-roads, particularly when Mrs. Cooper (Amy Ryan) realizes that there's a famous
writer in their midst. (This occurs just before Lee's work, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,
Gradually, Capote and Lee inveigle their way into the lives of the residents and make
attempts to ferret out hidden secrets. There's one particularly affecting scene where Capote
reaches out to a teenage girl who had been friendly with the Clutter daughter. He acknowledges
the difficulties she must be facing and convinces her to speak to him by disclosing his own
feelings of being an outsider. It's a seduction scene -- at least that's how Hoffman plays it
and that's one of the reasons I had problems with his portrayal. In that moment, the Capote
of the effeminate manner and lisping vocals seems to disappear and another predatory being
appears. Watching that particular scene I was captivated, until I stopped to realize that this
is a gay man speaking to a teenager. Yes, he's trying to find common ground, but there was
such a sexual frisson to the way the material was played that it negated the characterization
for me. It became Capote as Casanova. It was all wrong. Especially, when that scene is
contrasted with the one in which Capote meets and attempts to impress the accused killer Perry
Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). There was absolutely no chemistry between the actors, they may
just as easily have been discussing the latest sports news or the weather.
I am aware that virtually every critic in America if not on the planet has lauded Hoffman's
portrayal of the author and that I am in the minority. Watching Hoffman I felt something
primal was missing from his interpretation of the character. I'm old enough to remember
"the Tiny Terror" as he was dubbed from his talk show appearances with Dick Cavett and
Johnny Carson. Hell, I even remember Capote from the movie MURDER BY DEATH.
To my mind, Hoffman's work is technical but soulless. He may have captured the vocal
inflections and the petulance of the man, but something inner is missing. And without
a believable central figure, for me, the entire film fell apart.
That is not to discount Futterman's screenplay which shows promise. Nor should
it dismiss Miller's direction, although at this point in his career he's too much of the
documentary filmmaker and not enough of the feature director. He may show a small flair
with certain actors (Keener and Greenwood do yeoman work), but there's a flatness to
the manner in which he frames some of the scenes. I also felt the film dragged in spots.
CAPOTE seeks to be the story of the fall of an artist who becomes too consumed
by the story he is pursuing that it eventually destroys him. At one point, he explains the
perverse kinship he feels with Perry Smith by saying they could be the same person, except
he went out one door and I went another. I never saw that relationship on screen. Instead,
I saw a self-absorbed individual who disintegrated thanks to a combination of egotism and
alcohol. Somehow I suspect the real truth about the author remains to be seen.
MPAA Rating: R for some violent images and brief strong language
Running time: 114 mins.
Viewed at the SONY Screening Room
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.