A film entitled simply Capote might have been about many things. It might, for instance, have been a bittersweet coming-of-age story with a triumphantly happy ending. In this story, we would have seen how a diminutive and dreamy child named Truman Streckfus Persons survived an eccentric, if not traumatic, childhood—shuttling between his alcoholic and abusive mother on upper Park Avenue and a beloved, rather childish aunt in small-town Alabama—to emerge as the elfin celebrity who, having turned the Gothic material of those early years into his hothouse first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, became an overnight literary sensation in Manhattan at the age of twenty-one.
Or the film might just as legitimately have belonged to the equally clichéd (and equally satisfying) genre of celebrity decline. In this movie, we would witness the internationally famous writer and personality Truman Capote—the rich, social-climbing darling of the jet-set women whom he called his “swans,” the creator of admired works of fiction such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of the best-selling “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood—disintegrating over a period of twenty years, alienating his socialite friends by betraying their perfumed confidences, careening from one unfinished project to another, and becoming, by the time of his death in 1984 at the age of fifty-nine, an appalling parody of his earlier, impish self: incoherent, incontinent. “The only one who can destroy a really strong and talented writer is himself,” Capote once said, and it was an observation that turned out, at least in his own case, to be true.
The creators of the beautifully austere and morally searching new film Capote—the director Bennett Miller and the first-time screenwriter Dan Futterman—have rejected both of these obvious choices for a third that, on the face of it, is both less dramatic and less well suited to film: the story of how Capote came to write and publish In Cold Blood, the book that made his fortune. It is a choice that seems, at first, less unlikely than downright perverse. The six-year period between the murders of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, and the executions of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the two drifters responsible for the crime, was, for Capote—whose book begins with the crime and ends with the punishment—almost entirely one of dreary and, eventually, agonized waiting. Most of what you might think of as the “action” was, indeed, crammed into the first five months of those six years. The Clutters were killed in mid-November 1959, and Capote (who thought at first that he’d be writing an article for The New Yorker about the impact of the crime on the town and its people) went out to Kansas exactly a month later, accompanied by a childhood friend, the writer Harper Lee, who was soon to write and publish her own famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird. The killers were caught late in December, and their trial in the spring of 1960 ended, in April, with their convictions …