Review of Capote
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/8/05
The only reason to make a film about someone as controversially repugnant as Truman Capote would be to illuminate his greatest quality- his superb prose writing. At his best, Capote was one of last century’s greatest wordsmiths. Instead, the current film, Capote, focuses on the lesser things the man was known for- his showmanship, sensationalism, and homosexuality- although in that last category what is shown is tame and watered down. Now, I’m not saying that a full fledged swordfight between Philip Seymour Hoffman (who plays Capote) and Bruce Greenwood (who plays his lover Jack Dunphy) was necessary, but since the film focuses on the six years Capote was researching and writing his 1965 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, because of his homoerotic attraction for one of the two killers the book follows, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), it would have illuminated something more about the man. Of course, what creative processes were behind Capote’s creation of what he termed ‘a whole new form of writing’- the ‘non-fiction novel’- would have been even better.
That said, these elements, which are the fault of the screenplay by Dan Futterman, adapted from Gerald Clarke’s biography Capote, are the only things that keep this good film from greatness. All the rest of it, including the direction by Bennett Miller, is superb, starting with Hoffman’s stab at the icon. This is not a hagiography, and the film makes several wise choices, of which showing Capote’s flaws is one. Another excellent choice is to not do a cradle to grave biopic. By focusing only on a few year period it allows us a look at a pivotal point in the character’s life. But why, then, not go deeper into the creative processes of the artist? Why not try to provide some insight into why this meek, little man would be so attracted to an amoral thug? Manifestly, there is nothing left to get at with the November 15th, 1959, Holcomb, Kansas murders of the Clutter clan by Smith and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). As with Leopold and Loeb, before them, and any number of spree killers after them, they are relative ciphers. So, why Capote’s need to ‘understand’ them, especially Smith, if not the homo-eroticism? Unless the whole point of the film is to show us Capote as a vampire, waiting for the pair’s execution so he could have a good ending for his book.
Yet, there was so much more to be mined- Capote’s relationship with Jack Dunphy- both as a lover and artist. Considering that Dunphy was not in a league with Capote as a writer would have made their dynamic all the more interesting, as well giving the criminally underrated Greenwood (so good in the cult tv series Nowhere Man and as JFK in the Kevin Costner film Thirteen Days) a chance to show his considerable acting chops in a major role, in an arts house film. Another waste was the whole presence of Capote’s childhood friend, Catherine Keener’s (Nelle) Harper Lee character, despite her solid portrayal, especially considering her own one hit wonder, To Kill A Mockingbird, was big right at this time. There’s a scene, at a party for the film version of her book, where Capote is drunk and wallowing, that gives hints at what such a film, focused on their relationship, might have been like. Given the decades of speculation that Capote actually helped Lee write major parts of the book- if not most of it; surely that, along with Capote’s In Cold Blood quest, would have been the makings of a great film. Even what we are left with could have been great with some script tweaking. There’s a good scene, where Capote is investigating the murders with Lee, when he talks to the girl who found the bodies, Laura Kinney (Allie Mickelson), and flat out lies to her about the fact that all other people’s assumptions about him being wrong, ‘Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk.’ This is the first glimmer of the darker, amoral side of Capote, who in later years, became known as an almost sociopathic liar and manipulator of his friends and acquaintances. Yet, even this angle- Capote as the user of a murderer, and everyone else, is not touched upon, in favor of a rather banal and straightforward replay of the Clutter killings, which was better done in the film version of In Cold Blood, by Richard Brooks in 1967. That said, Collins brings a softer, more varied tone to his portrayal of Smith than Robert Blake did in Brooks’ film, and when Capote tells him, ‘If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster. I don’t want that.’ the viewer almost senses that Smith believes the manifest lie.
But, even had the film stayed straightforward, it could have done a better job by highlighting Capote’s obsession’s effect on Dunphy, Lee, New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban)- father of playwright Wallace Shawn, and Capote’s greatest literary champion, and Sheriff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who is the only one of the supporting characters who really sees the deleterious effect of Capote’s ego on the case against the killers, and the town where it happened; such as Capote’s making their case known nationwide, and assisting them in getting better legal representation. Again, we are led to assume that these people are simply so in awe of Capote’s genius that his manifest manipulations and evils are shrugged off as the cost of such an acquaintance. Surely, there was more, and more shades to it? I mean, Kansas, the 1950s, and a flaming queer rides into town to champion the cause of two killers, one whom he has a major boner for? Surely, there were local people who despised Capote and all the east Coast decadence he stood for- where was that in the film?
Yet, on the positive side, the film could have easily descended into being a brain-dead PC anti-death penalty screed like the abominable Dead Man Walking. It does not, and also does well by remembering and focusing on one of the most fundamental nuggets of reportage- never become part of the story, and Capote’s blatant violation of it, which is the very reason for the film. If only the film had not played it so safe- and instead went for the jugular on the homoeroticism, or delved deeply into the creative process, or even vamped on the exploitation theme- after all, Capote’s book was the ultimate in high brow exploitation, so why not exploit him in a high brow artsy film? What sweet irony, and the real Capote would probably have adored it.
A final point, though, and that is with the title of the film. Given the wise decision to not go cradle to grave, why such an all-encompassing title? Why not something more specific and germane to what is onscreen? As with much else in the film, such as Hoffman’s over-hyped, but solid, performance, it is these little niggles and wrong turns that make so much of what the film does right go wrong enough to just miss being something truly great.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 11/05 Hackwriters website.]
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