Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Gore Vidal speaks unkindly of the dead--it's one of the reasons I adore his writing so much. He's repeatedly trashed Truman Capote as incapable being truthful, as a nearly inhuman shell, and the film Capote focuses on this, as the famous writer of Breakfast at Tiffany's heads south to write a New Yorker piece about the murder of a rural family in Kansas, Harper Lee in tow.

When Capote meets killer Perry Smith, there's an obvious fascination. They're mirror images of each other, both naturally gifted and intelligent, both somehow empty. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote is exquisite as usual, and when he says to Harper Lee "It's like Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day he left out the back door, and I went out the front," the means by which Truman gets Smith's story becomes doubly monstrous.

Capote manipulates everyone, lies continuously, uses people and throws them aside like dried-up ballpoints, and only feels emotion at those moments when his own cold detachment becomes obvious. One particularly great scene features Lee asking Capote at the premier of the movie To Kill A Mockingbird what he thought of the film. At his childhood friend's greatest achievement Capote wallows in self-pity. He's unable to finish his own book because of repeated stays of execution, and thinks Smith and the Supreme Court are torturing him. Keener and Hoffman are perfectly in tune here.

Wholly self-absorbed and calculating, Capote managed nevertheless to write a great book. I read In Cold Blood as a junior undergrad and its chilly landscape and sad portrait of Perry Smith helped gel my personal beliefs about capital punishment. Of course Capote never finished another after witnessing Smith's execution, instead putting his energy into the talk-show circuit and drinking himself to death.

Hoffman isn't the only standout here: Catherine Keener as Lee, Clifton Collins as Smith--in fact the entire cast--so fully inhabit their parts it's hard to imagine others in the roles. Director Bennett Miller is of the Merchant/Ivory school, focusing on allowing the actors to shine in lovingly crafted period sets without stylistic pyrotechnics. Great stuff.

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