Chameleon

A new biopic sheds light on the many faces of Truman Capote

Born to play Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the famously ≠flamboyant writer as (at least) three different men in Bennett Miller's Capote, a character study as brilliantly insidious as it is humane. One Capote is the squat, frog-faced little party animal in fabulous threads who, playing raconteur to Manhattan's adoring hipperati, flutters his fingers and pays out malice in a reedy warble at once childlike and childish, punctuated by the dry, mirthless chortle with which he skewers his victims du jour. Worming himself into the good graces of the stoical gatekeepers to the Kansas multiple-murder case that will become the subject of his best-known book, the frantic little queen in Capote falls away, and his voice turns soft and ingratiating as he whispers the blandishments that will leave them eating out of his hand. Then, trying to wheedle one of the murderers into spilling the beans about what happened the night the luckless Clutter family were shot or knifed to death in their beds for a cool $50, Capote barely speaks at all, and then only in tight, breathy phrases you have to lean close to hear.

Just how hooked Capote was on performance becomes clear in an early scene on a train, in which his childhood pal Nelle Harper Lee (played with amused detachment by the wonderful Catherine Keener, in what may turn out to be the sidekick role of her career) twigs that he has actually paid a porter to rave about his novels, and to a close friend yet. In this slow, quiet, austere movie, Hoffman's performance of the performance is part creepy impersonation, part evasive interpretation of a man who, more than most, embodied Walt Whitman's observation that we all contain multitudes. Basing his crisp screenplay on Gerald Clarke's exhaustive Capote biography, Dan Futterman confines the action to the years between 1959 and 1966, when Capote researched the murders, wrote In Cold Blood and achieved fame as a pioneer of what he bombastically termed the "nonfiction novel." In Cold Blood brought Capote something he craved even more than fame, money or the steady affection of his lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). It won him mass recognition, in the pursuit of which, Hoffman shows to perfection, he was willing to lie, flatter, dissemble and betray as necessary. In a wicked brew of the sinister and the sympathetic, director Miller (whose last film was the documentary The Cruise, about another madman who never shuts up) and Futterman seize on the book's title to ponder Capote himself as a kind of murderer of the spirit—his own and others'—and imply his involvement in the case finished him off both as a productive writer and as a man, as handily as it made him a star. If, as Capote famously remarked, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act, the Clutter murders provided him with one hell of a play and a truly horrific third act—a free fall into drugs and booze, only hinted at in this admirably unexplanatory movie, and his inability to complete another book before he died, at age 59, in 1984.

Capote is also an astute and often very funny study in two Americas, setting off the brittle, fevered opulence of literary Manhattan against the simplicity of small-town Kansas, with its barren, wintry landscapes and cramped little houses. Capote, himself an escapee from the boondocks to the big city, glides between the two, helped by Lee, the success of whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird burns Capote up, and whose superior grasp of the provincial mind clears a path to the taciturn policeman (Chris Cooper) in charge of the Clutter investigation. We see Capote, a gifted snooper who once described himself as "having 50 perceptions a minute to everyone else's five," prowling the scene of the crime, lifting a coffin lid at the funeral parlor with only a small moue of distaste to hint at what he's thinking or feeling. Like a cobra rearing up to pounce on a mouse, he sizes up one of the murder suspects—a sensitive young hood named Perry Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr. with the broody truculence of a young Montgomery Clift—and goes to work on him with a recitation of the abandoned childhood they share. So muted is Hoffman's rendering of the seduction that we are kept wondering whether Capote really did identify with this troubled young man, or merely played him like a piano to get the information he needed. "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house," Capote tells a skeptical Lee when she calls him on his behavior. "And one day, he got up and went out the back door, and I went out the front." Hoffman cleverly fudges the question of whether Capote is a drama queen, or truly believes he's trying to rescue a kindred spirit. The actor won't separate the two, and Miller likewise doesn't sit in judgment on Capote, even when the writer pries a full confession out of Smith, feeds his illusion that the book will help his appeal, refuses to visit him after sentencing until The New Yorker's William Shawn (Bob Balaban) literally drags him there—then has no trouble attending the execution. The triumph of Capote is that it both grants and shares with him that twisted brew of obsessive identification and monstrous detachment that is the fertile burden of the artist. Capote always maintained that his intention in In Cold Blood was to restore the murderers to their humanity. Capote pays back the compliment and restores him to his in full, then slyly slips away.

CAPOTE WAS DIRECTED BY BENNETT MILLER; WRITTEN BY DAN FUTTERMAN, BASED ON THE BOOK BY GERALD CLARKE; PRODUCED BY CAROLINE BARON, WILLIAM VINCE AND MICHAEL OHOVEN. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.

 
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