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October 28, 2005

In odd blood

A film of Truman Capote’s days researching his murder
masterpiece gives due attention to a complex, flawed man

Truman Capote is one of the more polarizing figures in the world of literature and journalism. While he revolutionized the literary establishment with his book In Cold Blood, his tactics and demeanor with his subjects was manipulative and often less than completely honest.

His 1965 nonfiction novel explores the murder of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, six years earlier.

Capote, with his high-pitched voice and fey mannerisms, was as much a trendsetter as he was despised for being open and flamboyant in an age when gays were still closeted and hush-hush.

A new film, simply titled Capote, is a vivid retelling of his time in Kansas as he looked into the grisly world of the bloody murders and the bizarre relationships he struck up, especially with the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. He is accompanied on this journey by fellow literary genius Harper Lee, who went on to win her own fame with To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film is told with meticulous characterizations and detailed plot twists. Written by Dan Futterman (who played the straight son of gay parents in The Birdcage) and based on a book by Gerald Clarke, the script is as strong as its performances, especially by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote and Catherine Keener as Lee.

Hoffman’s performance is stellar at every level. He has captured the essence of Capote brilliantly without turning him into a caricature, something that would have been easy given Capote’s unique persona and mannerisms. Hoffman inhabits the title character with every breath registering as utterly real. The Oscar buzz is deservedly building around his virtuoso performance.

Hoffman is no stranger to gay characters and queer films. He played a closeted film hand in Boogie Nights, falling in love with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. In Flawless he played a tragic drag queen across from Robert DeNiro. Other notable roles in queer flicks include The Talented Mr. Ripley and Happiness.

Keener, who is always strong, is a wonderful foil here for the flamboyant Capote. Her more restrained and balanced persona creates a beautiful contrast in the film, making for one of the more interesting relationships recently portrayed in film.

Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith is strong as well, creating a complex monster who still tugs at the audience’s sympathies.

Bennett Miller’s directorial debut is strong and measured as he tackles difficult material with grace and ease. Miller lets Capote be the focus, but never allows that larger-than-life persona to overtake the film and detract from the other characters and the larger story being examined here.

Capote is a strong film in a year that is turning out some solid films, examining the idea of journalistic ethics much like George Clooney’s current film Good Night, and Good Luck, also opening to rave reviews. It is interesting to have these two films in the current atmosphere, when journalistic ethics and values seem to be at an all-time low. Clooney’s cautionary tale is different from Capote in that the former is an homage to the heroic Edward R. Murrow, while Capote seems more a part of the problem than the solution to the issue of getting a story at all costs.

Capote died in 1984, just shy of his 60th birthday. He never quite matched the success of In Cold Blood again, but his shadow looms large even today in the world of literature.

It also says a lot about a maturing Hollywood when a complex and flawed gay protagonist is given due attention in a film that is well made and intelligent.

 

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