By all accounts, Truman Capote was a horrible man: unhappy, self-absorbed and bitterly insouciant, albeit a delight at his generation's It parties, where he dropped names, told stories (always titillating, sometimes salacious) and drank himself to death. His masterpiece, In Cold Blood, which invented a new genre of writing, the "nonfiction novel" -- the name itself is at least a paradox and perhaps an oxymoron -- came to its highest fruition only through his emotional manipulation of a condemned murderer, with whom Capote may have fallen in love.
He published the book in 1965, died of alcoholism in 1984, and didn't complete another book in between. After excerpts from Answered Prayers, his too-thinly veiled roman-á-clef, appeared in Esquire in 1975, he became a pariah in his beloved social circles, and all invitations ceased. Upon hearing of Capote's death, Gore Vidal reportedly quipped, "Good career move."
In Capote, which dramatizes the writing of In Cold Blood, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman re-creates his subject's nasal lisp and cavalier humanity with such precision that it becomes distracting -- just as Capote himself always did. Is it even possible to cut through so much carapace of personality to find the tender meat inside? Hoffman occasionally does in his book-rule brilliant performance: It's Rorschach acting, onto which we either project our own interpretation, or just allow ourselves to be dazzled by its mimetic perfection.
Capote opens on Nov. 15, 1959, when a teen-age niece of the Clutter family arrives at their rural Kansas farmhouse to find father, mother, son and daughter murdered. When Capote, in New York, reads an account of the crime, he calls William Shawn (Bob Balaban), the editor of The New Yorker, and declares his intention to write about it. He departs for Kansas that night, leaving behind his companion, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), and taking with him a Southern gentlewoman friend, who will serve as his cultural translator among the suspicious Kansans he'll need to woo into confession. The friend is Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who's on the verge of publishing a novel of her own.
At the sheriff's office, he introduces himself and his Bergdorf scarf. He does nothing to mask his, shall we say, delicacies. But the town's chief law officer, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), is secretly honored to meet the author of Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Soon Truman and Nelle begin having comfortable dinner parties with Dewey, his wife and their two sons.
All that leaves for Capote to conquer are the killers. Richard Hickock is a handsome, charming, strapping Philistine. Capote pays him no attention. But Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) is different: smaller, sadder, and with a good vocabulary and a placid voice. Over the next few years, Capote seduces him into talking about his terrible, lonely childhood (just like Capote's), and ultimately, he reveals all the bloody details of what happened at the Clutter home.
This is the peripheral story of Truman, directed by Bennett Miller, and written by the actor Dan Futterman from Gerald Clarke's biography. The rest of the film is a subtle effort to reveal the darkest heart of its difficult central figure. It's often effective, and also a bit coercive: To draw us into Capote's sympathies, Miller withholds details of the crime until Perry recounts them late in the drama. But Capote read the police reports and attended the trial, so we could easily have witnessed the horror much earlier than we do.
Did Truman take advantage of Perry to win his confidence and his confessions? Did he ever really empathize, despite their common emotional pain? Why does he stop visiting him for long periods of time? Did the love die as soon as the writer got what he needed? Did the relationship become too disturbing? Or, as Perry waited to die, did this monumentally selfish writer simply wither under the "harrowing" pressure of waiting to publish his book, which he knew would earn him his coveted fame, but which he couldn't do until he had an ending -- that is, an execution, which the appeals delayed for four years?
With an already unsympathetic figure on its hands, Capote makes that case disturbingly well. There's very little left to admire of Capote when it's over except his vivid writing -- regardless of how he got the story, and whether or not it's all true. (Capote frequently lied to Smith or deceived him, and he fabricated scenes in his book.) We go back and forth in Capote, trying to understand this character and penetrate Hoffman's captivating imitation. The fact that we finally can't is either a testament to a skillful drama or an emblem of its shortcoming.
One thing is clear about Capote: Without Nelle's gentle persuasions, Truman might never have been able to get the interviews that he did. Literary lore has always whispered that Capote repaid Lee by writing (or re-writing) To Kill a Mockingbird. We know he took the photograph of her for the book's dust jacket.
Lee, of course, is a legendary phantom: She's almost 80 now, and she hasn't said more than a word or two since publishing her only book. That's why Keener -- distant, sullen, extra dry -- is the perfect actress to portray the one person who, over and over again in Capote, gives us permission to dislike Truman by dismissing his pathetic egomania and cold brilliance with a few precise words and a lean, accusatory glare.