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 and two sentences of death. The hangings were originally scheduled for May.
Very little of this short period is, in fact, dramatized in Capote. Instead, the film focuses on the ensuing five-year period during which the killers, assisted at first by Capote, found better lawyers, made appeals, and won stays of execution. During that period, two other things happened. One was that Capote grew closer to the two criminals, particularly to Perry Smith. A small and psychologically extremely damaged boy-man, Smith, like Capote, had been the sensitive, artistic son of an alcoholic mother, a wounded child who early on eagerly sought out self-improvement. (At five and six years old, the young Capote walked around with a tiny dictionary and a pen and paper; Smith, too, was an autodidact with a high-flown vocabulary. “I ask that the waiver be effectuated,” he told the judge at the beginning of his trial, a remark that caught Capote’s notice.)
This tacit identification between the reporter and the murderer helps to explain why Capote was so strongly drawn to the story—or rather, why his genuine engagement with it didn’t begin until the killers were caught, at which point he realized that the article he had set out to write must become the book he ended up writing. It also explains why In Cold Blood, a grim documentary about killings in rural Kansas, has more in common with Capote’s earlier gossamer fantasies than at first meets the eye. From Other Voices, Other Rooms to The Grass Harp to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote’s fiction had always centered around childlike heroes fighting to cling to their winsome and impractical fantasies in a hostile adult world—a role in which Capote, a child in both appearance and outlook, very clearly saw himself, and in which he was to come to see Perry Smith, too. Long after the trial, Harper Lee recalled that when the diminutive Smith sat down in court for his arraignment and Capote noticed that his feet didn’t reach the ground, she thought, “This is the beginning of a great love affair.” (In the new film, this line is assigned to Jack Dunphy, Capote’s long-suffering lover, who delivers it at a New York cocktail party; Harper Lee then retorts, “Yes, Truman in love with Truman.” This rewriting of the source material, one of the film’s rare missteps, scores an easy joke about Capote’s narcissism but misses the crucial significance of the original remark about the nature of the writer’s fascination with his subject.”
The other thing that happened as 1960 melted into 1961, and then into 1962, 1963, 1964, and finally 1965, was that Capote realized that he couldn’t finish the book into which his New Yorker article had grown until Smith and Hickock were executed. Like the children he so often portrayed in his fiction, Capote was ingratiating, appealing, and seductively charming without, often, being particularly nice. But even he seemed to be troubled by the moral conundrum in which the tension between his attraction to Smith and Hickock and his literary ambitions had placed him. That dilemma is nicely summarized by Gerald Clarke, whose 1988 biography of the author was the source for the new film, and whose account of Capote’s emotional agonies during the years between 1960 and 1965 is both judicious and chilling:
Perry’s and Dick’s numerous appeals not only caused him depression and anxiety. They presented him with an insoluble moral dilemma. He desperately wanted his book to be published. But publication almost certainly meant the painful deaths of two men who regarded him as their friend and benefactor, two men whom he had helped, counseled, and, in Perry’s case, tutored…. His entire future awaited their walk to the Big Swing, and his comments to his friends, which indicated his real feelings, ran like a grim counterpoint to the consoling comments he was making to Perry and Dick…. “As you may have heard,” he told Mary Louise [Aswell, Capote’s longtime friend and former editor at Harper’s Bazaar], the Supreme Court denied the appeals (this for the third damn time), so maybe something will soon happen one way or another. I’ve been disappointed so many times I hardly dare hope. But keep your fingers crossed.”1
The moral grotesqueness of that final request—itself a typical conjunction of the childish (“keep your fingers crossed”) and the grim (he’s asking his friend, after all, to wish for the two men’s deaths)—is not easily forgotten.
Nor, indeed, ought it to be forgotten when considering the devastating effect that the writing of In Cold Blood had on Capote’s subsequent life and career. In a review of Capote, David Denby has complained that “the filmmakers’ suggestion that Capote never recovered from the death of Perry Smith, or from the success of In Cold Blood, strikes me as doubly sentimental. Capote was ultimately done in by alcohol.”2 But even a cursory glance at the documentary evidence suggests that Futterman and Miller (who end their film with a title card that pointedly informs the audience that Capote never finished another book after In Cold Blood) are being true to the facts. “No one,” Capote told his biographer,
will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me. Before I began it, I was a stable person, comparatively speaking. Afterward, something happened to me. I just can’t forget it, particularly the hanging at the end. Horrible!
And horrible it was: the writer called Dunphy later that rainy morning in tears, shaken by what he had seen.
But we need not rely on Capote’s word alone. After the publication of In Cold Blood, his fortune was made—the book made him rich—and just months afterward he reached the pinnacle of his social success with his Black and White Ball in November of 1966, still known as “the party of the century.” But soon after that, everything began to crumble: his relationships soured, he was indeed never again able to finish a book, and his plans for a “Proustian” novel of life among the ultra-rich only revealed the increasing limitations of his woefully failing gifts.
So it does not seem at all sentimental to see the cause of his decline in the experiences that were forced on him by the writing of In Cold Blood. “Something happened,” and that something wasn’t merely the killings themselves, but the terrible five-year wait and what it meant: that the success of the book that he always knew would be his greatest achievement depended, in the end, on the deaths of two men, one of whom eerily resembled himself. Alcoholism was just the proximate cause—and indeed, even it can be legitimately blamed on In Cold Blood, if we are to trust our sources. “When I first knew him,” Capote’s longtime friend Phyllis Cerf, the publisher’s wife, recalled, “we would have a little wine with lunch, then a martini. But during the writing of In Cold Blood his drinking grew, grew, grew, grew…. That kind of heavy drinking was new with him.” In seeing the creation of In Cold Blood as a moral tragedy along Faustian lines—a drama in which the fulfillment of the protagonist’s dreams comes at a monstrous price—the creators of Capote seem to me to have got things exactly right.
Everything about Capote—which fairly quickly dispenses with the murders, Capote’s arrival on the scene, the investigation, and the trial, and then lingers over the disturbing relationship between the writer and the murderer, which is to say over the change from Capote’s initial nurturing of his “amigo” (as Smith liked to say) to his brutal refusal, at the end, either to help or to correspond with the convicted murderer as the date of the execution, and with it the completion of his book, drew near—has just the right feel to it: as grave and considered as Capote’s book, as sobering as his moral tragedy. Everything here, from the look of the movie (which is so severely photographed that I was convinced, after the first time I saw it, that it had been shot in black and white, until a second viewing set me straight) to the performances and script, is remarkable for an unusual degree of restraint. The writer and director both seem to have immersed themselves not only in Clarke’s biography of Capote, but in In Cold Blood itself, and the film they’ve created has the same austerity and sombre rhythms that give the book its distinctive poetry. An opening series of shots of Kansas wheatfields, a row of trees, a still farmhouse is, indeed, a perfect visual analog for the opening sentences of Capote’s book: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’”
Much will be written about the portrayal of Truman Capote by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and rightly so: it is a marvelous performance. More, it is a performance, rather than an act of mimicry. Hoffman wisely avoids “doing” Capote: he provides enough of the well-known mannerisms and vocal tics to authenticate his portrayal of a familiar public figure, but what makes his rendition so satisfying is that he manages to convey a coherent character—selfish, amusing, ambitious, sentimental, and, in the end, ruthless—in the terse drama the filmmakers have created, one that can stand quite apart from the real-life story. Much of his achievement, like much of the film in general, is owed to the well-researched and tautly written script of Dan Futterman, who, perhaps because he himself is an actor with substantial stage and film credits, knows when to let the actors’ faces speak—knows when reactions are as telling as the actions or words that provoke them.
Indeed, for a film about a writer, this one is remarkably unafraid of long silences. Again and again, the director lets his camera linger on Hoffman’s face (here as baby-plump and smoothly blond as Capote’s was) at critical moments during the writer’s involvement with his story—the first time Capote lays eyes on Perry Smith (who as a youth was nearly crippled by a motorcycle accident), hobbling up the steps of the Kansas courthouse to be arraigned; the moment when Capote, alone with the four caskets of the murder victims in a local funeral home, forces himself to open one of them and look inside because he knows he’ll have to write about what he sees there. The delicacy of Hoffman’s performance allows you to glimpse the writer’s interior reactions. You see the moment at which Capote’s strange sympathy for Smith first takes hold; you see the conflict between the effeminate aesthete and the grimly ambitious author. There have been many films about writers writing, and generally they resort to a kind of clichéd visual shorthand to convey the agonies of what people like to call the creative process: pieces of paper being yanked in frustration out of typewriters, crumpled, and tossed into wastebaskets. Capote is the only movie I know of that comes close to suggesting successfully what the complex process of creating a literary work actually looks like.
Capote is also ingenious at suggesting Capote’s ability, not unheard of in children of unhappy marriages, to placate and seduce people emotionally—even people who, at first, might have found his somewhat reptilian personality repellent. This talent, as we know, gained him entry into the drawing rooms of the Paleys and the Kennedys, but it proved most useful when Capote, wrapped in his Bergdorf Goodman scarf, found himself in Holcomb, Kansas, faced with the task of winning over the local population of a place that was still in many ways part of the Old West. Futterman provides scenes that convincingly show Capote putting his unctuousness to work: remembering the name of the elevator operator at the hotel, buttering up the wife of the local sheriff in order to gain access to Smith’s jail cell (where Capote’s first act is to give the inmate an aspirin, a foreshadowing of the oddly maternal behavior to come), using an ostensibly deeply personal story—of how Capote’s stepfather opened up to him on the night of Nina Capote’s suicide—to get a detective working on the Clutter case to show him the crime-scene photos.
Other performances here are equally effective, both true to the facts and true to the drama. Bruce Greenwood as Jack Dunphy suggests just the right combination of affectionate indulgence and wounded competitiveness; Chris Cooper is laconic as Alvin Dewey, the detective who, at least in Capote’s book, was responsible for doggedly tracking down the killers. (Many law enforcement officials worked on the case, but for the sake of narrative Capote concentrated on Dewey, just one of the liberties he took with the truth in his “nonfiction novel.”) As Harper Lee, the principal dramatic foil to Capote, Catherine Keener conveys at once affection, quiet humor, and a dignity that, as time passes, stand in increasingly poignant contrast to the narcissistic excesses of Capote, as his desire to finish his book eventually outstrips any other human feelings. When the two friends first arrive in Kansas, you see how easily these two small-town Southerners work together. (As indeed they did: Capote and Lee would interview their subjects together with neither recorders nor notepads, and on returning to their hotel room would compare their recollections of the conversations—a method sketched in during the course of one brief scene here.) As the film goes on, however, Keener lets you see, in a few gentle but telling reaction shots, Lee’s growing dismay at her friend’s loss of moral bearings. Her voice remains soft even at the end, after the executions, when, after Capote insists that there wasn’t anything he could have done to save them, she says, simply, “Maybe not. But the fact is you didn’t want to.”
That line is the most explicit and, I think, least necessary indication of the real preoccupation of this film, which is not so much a literal depiction of a true story as an exploration of a deep literary and moral question: the relationship between the writer and his subject. I say “least necessary” only because the film presents Capote’s ethical dilemma so subtly throughout that we don’t really need to have Harper Lee formulate it. The first words we hear Capote say in the movie, as he regales a New York literary party with a bitchy story about James Baldwin, are “I’m honest. I think being true to who you are is important.” Capote establishes its theme from the start: the price of honesty, the costs of being true to who you are.
As the narrative unfolds, quietly, often silently, allowing us to both hear and see who Capote really is, the screenwriter and director suggest, with increasing intensity, that the writer who must allow his subject to die in order to write his book is, at least at some level, as monstrous as the killers themselves. “I could kill you if you got too close,” Perry Smith grimly jokes on the day Capote hands him the aspirin through the bars of his jail cell. “He’d just as soon kill you as shake your hand,” Smith’s sister tells Capote after he has abandoned the killer in his Leavenworth jail cell, frustrated and infuriated by Smith’s refusal to share the details of the murders with him. (“November 14th 1959, that’s all I want to hear from you,” a suddenly chilly Capote tells Smith. “This is my work, Perry. I’m working. When you want to tell me what I want to hear, you let me know.”) But by the end of the film, Capote’s cruelty overshadows that of the killers. The achievement of Capote is to convey the morally most disturbing element of Capote’s similarity to Smith by suggestive and literary means, rather than obvious and explicit underscoring like “Maybe not. But the fact is you didn’t want to.”
Such lapses are rare. There are, to be sure, false notes—elements that betray the writer’s prejudices and desire to shape the story at the expense of the truth of what happened, as of course was also the case in In Cold Blood. The New Yorker‘s editor, William Shawn, of all people, becomes the heavy in Futterman’s script, pushing Capote to finish his manuscript at all costs—an unnecessary transposition of an impulse that was all too clearly Capote’s own. (“I’m going to miss him,” Capote sighs right before the execution, in the film. “You’ll be able to finish now,” Shawn replies unctuously.) And Perry Smith was not a tongue-tied martyr on the hangman’s platform, as Futterman’s script, in a rare moment of sentimentality, would have it. (In fact he said, “I think it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner.”) But in all other respects, Miller and Futterman’s sober and harrowing film achieves the result attained by Capote’s novel itself: the transformation of something real, something we know to have taken place, into a work of considerable beauty that transcends the particulars of the grisly crime it depicts.
Capote: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1988), pp. 339–354.↩
The New Yorker, October 10, 2005, p. 95.↩