reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, October 10, 2005


Philip Seymour Hoffman, the pallid, pudgy, and titanic character actor best known for playing rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous," confirms his stature as the American Alec Guinness in "Capote," a biopic recounting the six years Truman Capote devoted to his pathbreaking 1966 "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, the progenitor of the True Crime genre.

I'd always pictured Hoffman as a bear of a man -- he's long been the fan favorite to play the mountainous Ignatius J. Reilly in the great New Orleans comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which has languished in Hollywood's Development Hell for a quarter of a century -- but in "Capote" he almost disappears into a very different son of the Crescent City, the tiny, epicene café society raconteur with the voice of an effeminate child.

"Capote" exists mostly to showcase Hoffman's performance. To give you time to absorb the actor's every nuance, the pace is kept sluggish. Still, "Capote" is rewarding, even though the film's criticism of the author is tendentious.

By 1959, Capote had written a popular novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and had charmed his way into the Jet Set. Yet, he was unsatisfied.

Capote is strikingly prefigured in the character "Ambrose Silk" in Evelyn Waugh's underrated 1942 novel Put Out More Flags. Silk is one of Waugh's most sympathetic creations, a flamingly effete novelist whose default career path would have "led gently downhill to the world of fashionable photographers [and] stage sets," an unkind reference to what Waugh viewed as the squandering of the talents of Cecil Beaton, whom he lampooned as "David Lennox" in Decline and Fall.

Indeed, in the 1950s, while designing the sets and costumes for My Fair Lady's Broadway debut, Beaton mentored Capote in snobbish frivolity. Yet, just as Waugh's Silk had "turned aside from the primrose path; had deliberately chosen the austere and the heroic," Capote set aside his metropolitan amusements for a half decade to pursue an original form of literary art. He had decided that the future of literature lay in nonfiction, that journalism could be raised above quotidian hackwork, and that he was the man to do it, even if he had to cultivate strengths none of his friends suspected he had.

So, when Capote read of the murder of a respected family of four in a remote Kansas hamlet, he audaciously proposed to the New Yorker that he cover the case in depth. It's hard to imagine a less congenial subject or setting for Capote. When he first arrived, he had a hard time persuading the rural locals to talk to him. But this silly-seeming man with the adamantine ambition ultimately won their affection and cooperation.

"Capote" centers around the writer's humid relationship with the two convicted killers during the half decade they repeatedly appealed their death sentences to the U.S. Supreme Court. During his prison visits, Capote became infatuated with one of the murderers, Perry Smith, who reminded him of himself: sensitive, artistic, prissy, and ravenous for admiration. (In a sinister example of life imitating art, Smith was played in the 1967 movie version of "In Cold Blood" by actor Robert Blake, who was recently acquitted in his wife's murder.)

Capote helped the pair get a good lawyer to craft their first appeal. But after he'd completed most of his manuscript and realized how strong it was, his need for a dramatic ending (such as, say, their hangings) made him increasingly impatient with their endless appeals.

Screenwriter Dan Futterman attacks Capote for being a heartless monster who manipulated poor Smith into telling him his secrets even though Capote eventually hoped for his execution.

In reality, of course, the true monsters were the murderers, who had decided days before their home invasion to shotgun the whole family to eliminate all witnesses. With his conventional liberal bias against capital punishment, Futterman doesn't realize that without the death penalty, repeat offenders, who face long prison terms if caught again, would more often find it logical to kill their robbery victims to keep their identities secret.

The stress of writing In Cold Blood led Capote to drink, which, combined with his subsequent celebrity, set off his sad decline. Still, he had helped launch the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, the most fertile innovation in American literature since WWII.

Rated R for some violent images and brief strong language.


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