January 26, 2006

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FILM: Capote (R)

by Amy Diaz

Philip Seymour Hoffman does indeed give the performance of his life as Truman Capote circa In Cold Blood in Capote.

The post-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Truman Capote (Hoffman) bewitches the guests at assorted New York parties in the early 1960s with his name-dropping tales of the famous and his erudite discussions of pop philosophy. But we sense in these early scenes that Capote is at a loss for what to do next other than just be delightful at parties. That is until he finds a story in the New York Times about the killing of the Clutter family in a small town in Kansas. He tells his agent that this is what he wants to write about (initially, as an article for the New Yorker). He and friend Nell, better known as Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who is still a year or so away from her To Kill a Mockingbird fame, travel to Kansas and begin a low-key investigation of the crime and its aftermath. The pair talk to friends of the Clutters and become frequent dinner guests of the sheriff (Chris Cooper) and his wife (Amy Ryan), who seem to be both wary of these outsiders and dazzled by Capote.

Eventually, Capote is able to secure regular and pretty much unfettered access to the two men arrested for the crime, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Particularly in the case of Perry, Capote develops a fascination for the man; he allows himself to give outward signs of sympathy and even attraction, an amount of emotional investment he makes calculatingly. The payoff? He wants Perry Smith’s descriptions of the killings and to fill in enough of the character backstory to truly turn his “non-fiction novel” into a compelling and important work (not just a true-crime bit of pulp). Capote clearly believes that In Cold Blood, as the novel comes to be called, is his ticket to something better than just his current level of fame.

Capote plays an elegant game, trading fame for information with the townspeople in Kansas (and, when that doesn’t work, offering up the no-nonsenseness of Nell) and trading sympathy for insight with Smith. Smith is a killer, short on smarts but long on the sensitive neediness that is quick to turn dark. It’s the darkness that turned him from a bungling robber to a murderer in the Clutter house and it’s the neediness and sensitivity (similar in ways to Capote’s own) that begin to draw Capote in during their conversations. How close does Capote become to Smith? The movie suggests that it is closer than Capote would wish to imagine but not as close as he lets on. After several years while the lawyers (picked by Capote) appeal Smith and Hickock’s case and Smith and Capote continue their odd correspondence, Capote snaps at Smith that it’s time to give up the goods on what happened at the Clutter house. By the time Smith and Hickock run out of legal options and face execution, Capote, who has drifted away from them and is more or less just waiting out their deaths to give his book an end, seems genuinely distraught (and perhaps guilty) over their impending deaths. “I did everything I could,” he sobs, knowing, as do his friends, that that statement is neither true nor particularly honest (as stressful as their execution is, their continued existence and the crime they committed are equally abhorrent).

The portrait that Hoffman’s performance paints here is one of obsession, and ultimately that obsession is not Capote’s feelings toward Smith or toward the crime but with his work. It’s the kind of selfish determination that makes people painful to be around but interesting to learn about. There is an attraction to Hoffman’s Capote, even though we perhaps would not personally want to have to deal with him, because of the purpose it gives him.

Orbiting Hoffman’s performance, in the say way that Lee and longtime Capote boyfriend Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) orbited Capote, are excellent performances from the supporting characters, from the creepily longing Collins to the steady Keener. Smart and subtle, Capote paints a complete picture of an artist at the height of his form.

A

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