Modern Classics: Capote

Capote (2005) – directed by Bennett Miller. Written by Dan Futterman, based on the book by Gerald Clarke. Produced by Caroline Baron, Michael Ohoven and William Vince. Key Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, Clifton Collins, Jr., Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino.

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” -- Truman Capote

Capote ends with its namesake’s famous quote, which resonates even more now than upon the film’s release. That line perfectly captured what Capote depicted: how Truman Capote’s research for his writing of In Cold Blood led to a classic book but destroyed its author. As Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke noted, Capote’s greatest success became his greatest failure. Reading the quote now evokes not only Capote but the man who played him, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Capote resulted in Hoffman’s only Oscar, and helped transform him from an admired supporting player to an unlikely star. Yet, as with Capote, Hoffman’s own demons got the best of him. Truman Capote died in 1984 from complications resulting from his alcoholism. Hoffman, who battled with substance abuse, died of a drug overdose last February.

Hoffman’s tragic death drew me back towards his seminal work. I had almost forgotten what a chance he took. Bennett Miller was a first time feature director. Dan Futterman was an actor who had never written a screenplay until he adapted Clarke’s book. If that wasn’t enough, the big, beefy Hoffman seemed all wrong to play the diminutive effeminate Capote. But it’s clear from the first few minutes of the film that Miller, Futterman and Hoffman are at the top of their game.

Before we ever meet Capote, the film carefully depicts a tranquil Kansas house in the middle of a field in 1959. A teenage girl discovers that the family living in the house was brutally murdered. Miller does not show the bodies, instead focusing on the girl’s reactions. Here’s a film more interested in the impact of violence than in the violence itself. Miller takes his time, lingering on shots of the Kansas landscape in silent moments. In one of these shots the sky is black, a perfect metaphor for the darkness engulfing a peaceful community. The dichotomy between the crime and the environment is what first drew Capote to Kansas, but’s it’s not what would keep him there.

Hoffman perfectly captures Capote’s voice, mannerisms, and stature. His physical transformation is so complete that after a while you forget how remarkable it is. That allows you to simply focus on the character and his emotional journey. The first part of his journey is his fish-out-of-water introduction to Kansas. Futterman’s script certainly acknowledges the contrast between the cosmopolitan Capote and the Midwestern people he meets. But he does not linger on this difference, as it’s the appetizer, not the main course.

In this first part of the film, Hoffman works as a part of an ensemble. Catherine Keener plays off him well as Harper Lee, then Capote’s assistant but later to become a celebrated author herself. Chris Cooper, as the lead police investigator, and Bruce Greenwood as Capote’s boyfriend, also give understated but effective performances. Even when shooting scenes with these other characters, Miller often sets Capote apart, illustrating Capote’s tenuous connection to those around him. Miller also keeps the colors muted, with minimal blues and reds. It’s a visual way to keep emotions in check.

Capote moves to another gear when the police find the killers, and Capote develops a bond with one of them, Perry Smith. The first time Capote and Smith see each other is in the middle of a huge crowd, but Miller shoots the scene as if those are the only two people that matter. As Capote and Smith talk to each other, the other characters slowly fade, and the film becomes about these two men. As Smith, Collins is internalized and vulnerable playing a man hiding from his pain. Because we have long since accepted Hoffman as Capote, we can willingly go along as he grows closer to Smith. The two actors develop a rhythm together as the characters get closer. Both Smith and Capote came from broken homes and had to struggle for their place in the world. Capote tells Lee that, “It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Miller very carefully stages the scenes with Capote and Smith. He often shoots their conversations as a shot-reverse shot, only occasionally showing them in the same frame. For all the empathy Capote has for Smith, he always knows that the real goal is to gather research for his book. And here’s where the film asks questions and challenges our preconceptions. Based on his specific needs, Capote selfishly gives or withdraws his friendship and support for Smith. He lies and deceives Smith to get what he wants. Normally we would say this behavior is unethical. Yet Capote’s “victim” is a man who murdered an innocent family. Is morality relative depending on who’s involved? Or is certain behavior wrong no matter what?

Miller exhibits Capote’s duplicity during a brilliant sequence as Capote gives a public reading of excerpts from his unfinished book. Capote had told Smith that he had barely written anything and did not even have a title. The film cuts back-and-forth between Capote and Smith, who is watching from his jailhouse window as another prisoner is taken for execution. Though Capote and Smith are in two different places, Miller, through deft cutting and how he places the characters, makes it appear that Smith is watching Capote. Smith is now “seeing” Capote’s deception.

Eventually Capote realizes that, for his book to have the perfect ending, Smith and his accomplice must die. Yet he had skillfully convinced Smith they were friends; so skillfully that Capote believes it. This sets up the “Catch-22”; Capote’s greatest success as a writer leads to his great failure as a human being. Hoffman’s total commitment and immersion in his part makes these last scenes both riveting and heartbreaking. He fearlessly plays Capote’s disintegration as the man gradually implodes.

Miller shoots the execution scenes with subtlety and restraint. The situation is powerful enough without him having to add to it. Capote almost breaks down crying, but the film earns that emotion and it doesn’t become melodramatic. The hangings set up a perfect final scene. Capote talks with Lee on the phone. Lee has always been loyal to Capote but can also see through him. She is Capote’s and, by extension, the film’s conscience. Miller goes to a handheld camera, which he had avoided for the bulk of the film. It’s as if the film is as shaken as its protagonist. Capote tries to assure Lee, and himself, that there was nothing he could have done to save Smith. Lee replies “Maybe, but the fact is you didn’t want to.” Few closing lines have more exquisitely captured the heart of their film.

Shortly after watching Capote again, I saw a 1972 Johnny Carson interview of the real Truman Capote on TCM. First I was struck by how similar the genuine article was to what I saw in the film. Then I noticed how disillusioned and nasty Capote seemed. He was hurling insults at other celebrities who were not there to defend themselves. Most of all Capote appeared tired and broken. By all accounts he was more interested in life as a celebrity than as a working writer. It’s no surprise that he never completed another novel. Did writing In Cold Blood destroy him as some have claimed? No one knows for sure, but that theory makes sense.

Unlike Capote, Hoffman never lost his devotion to the craft that defined him. Even after he became a star, he continued to take chances with his work. He was nominated for two more Oscars and had begun directing. He balanced starring roles with supporting ones, and blockbusters with indies. By any measure his career was thriving. Yet it’s still hard not to see parallels with Truman Capote. News articles describe Hoffman’s friends concerned that he became too emotionally invested in his work, and that he had trouble letting go. Capote’s downfall came slowly, while Hoffman’s was a shock. Yet both deaths came from addiction. At what cost were Hoffman’s answered prayers?

When I first saw Capote at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was filled with joy. Here was a first time filmmaker delivering one of the most seamless, compelling films of the year. Here was one of my favorite character actors finally breaking through. Now, nine years later I can still marvel at was achieved, but that’s tempered greatly by what has been lost.

Adam Spector
September 1, 2014

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