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movie: Capote (2005)

I was so pleased when Husband expressed an interest in watching Capote with me the other night. It’s rare that we agree so easily! And I have some Capote readings coming up – The Early Stories of Truman Capote for a Shelf Awareness review, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a beer-drinking book club; and I do like a little immersion when I get to know a writer. I recall being deeply impressed by In Cold Blood, but I hardly remember Other Voices, Other Rooms at all, so there’s that.

capoteCapote‘s storyline is concerned with the writing of In Cold Blood, with no examination of Capote outside that timeline. Opportunities are missed there, of course, as the man had a fascinating life in general; but as a fan of In Cold Blood I can’t complain. Any work of art, literature, or film has to choose its scope. In this case we are glad to get to meet Nelle Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener), as she assisted Capote with his research in Kansas: I read somewhere recently that she was an ideal helper there as her soft, Southern femaleness alarmed the Kansans a little less than Capote’s flamboyant New Yorkness (of Southern roots, yes, but still). The late Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Capote and does as outstanding a job as I had heard (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, among others).

The Clutter family has just been killed in rural Kansas. Capote reads about it in the New York Times, and immediately feels that this is a story he needs to write; he takes a train down to Kansas from New York with Nelle, his childhood friend. In their distinct styles – Capote pushier, Nelle more quietly sympathetic – they interview the locals and get the feel for things. Then two suspects are arrested, Dick Hickox and Perry Smith. When Capote first lays eyes on Perry, he changes his plans from an article to a full-length book. “There’s just something about him, he’s so lonely” (I paraphrase wildly). The film emphasizes the connection between Capote and Smith, which reads here, on screen, as somewhere between a strong psychological bond and infatuation. Husband struggled with Capote’s character as he transitions from apparently having a crush on Perry, and getting him a new lawyer to help him out in an appeal (and, as he later acknowledges, help himself out in terms of having a book to research)… to exploiting Perry for his story and being sorry that the man won’t die quickly enough. This makes Capote a less sympathetic character: absolutely true. But is it an accurate depiction of the man? I think quite possibly yes, so don’t hold it against the filmmakers. Finding the protagonist likable is not, I think, a requisite for art.

I was particularly intrigued by and suspicious of the implication that the epigraph for Capote’s final, unfinished work Answered Prayers was a comment on his experience with Perry Smith and In Cold Blood. It was a convenient epilogue to this film, certainly, but I think it’s a bit complex an idea to just throw out with the finishing credits. I’d enjoy exploring Capote’s life and work with this idea in mind, though. Whatever else you might say about him, I think we have to agree that he’s an intriguing guy. My favorite biographical subjects are always those that raise complicated reactions in us, and Capote fits that bill.

Capote is an arty, well-produced and interesting film that mostly follows the true and also interesting story of Truman Capote and In Cold Blood. Hoffman’s acting is very fine: his expression of Capote’s voice, mannerisms and prima donna behaviors are often a little grating but I think that was true of the original, and he does a good job with the character switching Capote used for different scenarios. I enjoyed Capote and Capote both very much.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

2 Responses

  1. “Finding the protagonist likable is not, I think, a requisite for art.”

    Very true (a distinction that gets muddled up when people use “hero” and “protagonist” interchangeably — they are very different things). And I think this applies especially when your protagonist is based on a real person. There is a long traditional in Hollywood of making people more likeable in biopics than they were in life, but it’s good to resist that.

    I like biopics that focus on one period in a person’s life (“Good Night, and Good Luck.” is a great example). Otherwise it can become like the greatest hits of somebody’s life (This happened! Then this! And this!).

    I’m glad to hear that this movie is good. I avoided seeing both of the movies about Capote for the same reason I stayed away from the movies about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. I remember the real people (not personally, though I did see both Charles and Capote perform in person at different times), and I don’t want to think about Johnny Cash and the face that comes up is Joaquin Phoenix’s. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Anthony. I agree with the “greatest hits” comment, although I guess one piece of this life leaves me wanting more. A good thing?

      And I hear you on conflating faces, as well. This is a problem with movies based on books for me, too!

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