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"Capote": Gifted author's rise and fall
Seattle Times movie critic
"People thought they had me pegged because of the way I am, because of the way I talk," whispers Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his voice childlike and slightly slurry, his words never quite fully formed. "And they're always wrong."
Bennett Miller's tightly focused, intelligent "Capote" introduces us to the writer, and then introduces us to him again, and again — we keep thinking we have him pegged, and we're wrong. Hoffman's Capote first seems a stocky will-o'-the-wisp, too fragile and innocent to face the horrors that he's tackling. Then another note develops, that of a shrewd, canny player not afraid to play games to get what he wants. And then there's the neurotic writer, guilty and tormented; and the self-centered celebrity who preens in the spotlight. Which one is the real Truman? All of them, and perhaps none.
The great strength of Miller's film — aside from Hoffman's brilliant portrayal — is that it both tells the story behind Capote's masterpiece, the true-crime tale "In Cold Blood," and serves as an homage to it. Capote famously created something new: the nonfiction novel, in which he used the techniques of a fiction writer to make a strictly factual story come alive. Miller, likewise, has given his movie the quiet realism of a documentary, but with a cool gray elegance. The performances feel absolutely natural, the dialogue as easy as breathing.
And Miller, with screenwriter Dan Futterman (who based the script on several chapters from Gerald Clarke's biography), wisely makes no attempt to explore his subject's entire life: "Capote" begins with a bone-chilling depiction of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan.; it ends with the publication of "In Cold Blood," seven years later. In between lies the film's territory, in which a writer discovers the story of a lifetime, and destroys himself in the process of writing it down.
Capote became attached, in complicated ways, to the two killers, particularly Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). He spent long hours talking to them, watching their faces, wondering. He called himself their friend, and perhaps believed that it was true. We see him spooning baby food into the mouth of a devastated Perry, murmuring, "It's OK." Late in the film, in a harrowing echo, Truman feeds himself baby food, washed down with scotch; he's a shadow of the confident rooster we saw early in the film, in his camel-hair coat and swanky scarf ("from Bergdorf's," he confides, to a skeptical Kansan).
Though the film is Truman's story, other characters make indelible impressions. Catherine Keener is the voice of serene good sense as Truman's childhood friend, writer Harper Lee. She's perhaps the only person in the film who sees the real Capote. Watching her friend whimper over the fates of the killers, she notes drily, "The fact is, you didn't want to save them." Chris Cooper as Kansas investigator Alvin Dewey eyes Truman with wary suspicion, unimpressed by the writer's airy talk of New York.
But this is Hoffman's movie, and it's a triumph for this actor who seems do his best work when cast against type. (Hoffman, a bearlike fellow who's played nerdy shlubs a little too frequently, bears little resemblance to the diminutive, dapper Capote.) He transforms himself miraculously; we see this tortured man coming to life before our eyes. "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house," he whispers, trying to understand why this story so haunts him. "One day, he went out the back door, and I went out the front."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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