By the end of his life, Truman Capote was somethng of a professional gadfly. He haunted the talk show circuit, chatting with Johnny, Merv and Dick as the years passed and the glow of his original fame faded away, gradually replaced by his strange mannerisms, which made him a self parody and a sad spectacle. There was a time, however, when he was a shining star in the American intelligentsia, all talent and ambition.

This is the Truman Capote that the movie Capote shows us: a young man, nattily dressed with a disarming charm that quickly overtakes his odd first impression. This allows him to insinuate himself into situations, where you wouldn’t expect someone like him to be welcome. A murder investigation is one such example. On November 15, 1959 two drifters broke into a lonely farmhouse near Holcomb, Kansas, tied up the family, ransacked the house and then shot all four members of the Clutter family point blank in the head. For Capote this was a delicious peek into the workings of the underclass, as well as a hell of a story. He talks his editor at the New Yorker into sending him out there with a research assistant (Harper Lee, the auther of To Kill a Mockingbird, as it happens) and they cover the investigation and trial during that bleak Kansas winter.

The Kansans investigating the murders are law enforcement officers of the old school, tight jawed, God-fearing men, without a trace of flamboyance about them. And here they are confronted with a man who is frankly more effeminate than their women. And yet, Capote wins them over with his charm and his ability to see similarities instead of differences. He is especially skillful at gaining the trust of the murderers. Perry Smith turns out to be an intelligent and articulate man. Capote develops an interesting relationship with him. When the initial guilty verdict come in, it is Capote who finds them a better lawyer than the hacks the state provided. The auther also visits and sends the murderer books.

This presents Capote with a dilemma. He has grown close to this young man but in order to finish the book, Perry must die. The filmmakers contend that this guilt is why he never published another book after In Cold Blood and spent the next twenty years drinking himself to death. Bennett Miller, the director and Gerald Clarke, who wrote the biography the film is based on, make a convincing case.

Capote is a wonderful film with great performances, particularly the lead. This film poses the same acting problem for the title character as last year’s Ray. How do you play a figure that’s not just well known but has such outrageous and easily mimicked mannerisms that it’s easy to slip into parody? Jamie Foxx used his considerable talent as an impersonator to pull off a triumph. Philip Seymour Hoffman relies on his ability to physically immerse himself in his roles. He is one of the best character actors working today and this is the film that may catapult him into the realm of leading men.

The supporting performances are excellent also. Clifton Collins, Jr. plays Perry Smith with vulnerable intensity. You feel for him but you also believe he’s guilty. Chris Cooper is the hard-nosed Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who is the calm center of the circus-like investigagion. He radiates authority. And Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee as sort of an interpreter between Capote and the real world. She steers him out of most trouble.

But in a way, she is symbolic of the film’s main flaw. It goes off on too many tangents. You can make a strong argument for her being there but you can also easily imagine the film without her. Because she’s Harper Lee, a well known and beloved author, it brings in resonances that don’t quite fit.

But this isn’t a fatal flaw; Capote will be one of the best films of this year. And will maybe serve as a reminder of a man who was once a major force in American letters but ended his life as a caricature.


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November 2005
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