Strangely for a movie about a writer crafting the book that defined his entire career, there’s actually precious little writing in Capote. In fact, there are barely a handful of scenes of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote banging away on a typewriter, turning out pages for what would become his remarkable, groundbreaking non-fiction novel In Cold Blood – detailing the 1959 slaughter of four members of the Clutter family in Kansas by drifters Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). First published in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood remains Capote’s crowning achievement, precipitating his tragic slide into alcoholism. In fact, the author never finished another book.
With his wispy blond hair and pink cheeks, Hoffman truly inhabits the legendary scribe, nailing not only his whiny voice – as footage of the real Truman in the accompanying Truman Capote featurette attests – but exquisitely capturing the homosexual writer’s preening nature, alongside his narcissism and desperate need for adulation. “From the earliest age Truman was after praise and he wanted it so badly he lost sense of the consequences of what he was doing to get it,” imparts first-time feature director Bennett Miller on the above-average behind-the-scenes featurette.
One of the strengths of Dan Futterman’s script, adapted from Gerald Clarke’s exemplary biography, is that it doesn’t try to make Capote unduly sympathetic or likeable. Nor does it make any apologies for his behaviour. He is what he is. Already famous as a novelist (Breakfast At Tiffany’s), screenwriter (Beat The Devil) and bon vivant when he turned up in rural Kansas, Capote used his celebrity to his advantage, exploiting events, peering into coffins, manipulating people – including his ‘friendship’ with Smith, which begins as sexual flirtation but ends up simulating love for the benefit of his book. Capote has much to say on the creative process; how far an artist is prepared to go in the hope of producing great art. Capote is all too aware that, in order to finish his book, two men must die. But when the closure finally comes, the emotional effect almost kills him.
While few could argue that Hoffman didn’t deserve every acting award he picked up for his performance, including both BAFTA and Oscar, Capote can scarcely be considered a one-man show. The supporting cast are equally terrific, not least the ever-wonderful Catherine Keener as his no-nonsense childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, who accompanies him to Kansas as his research assistant before going on to achieve success of her own with To Kill A Mockingbird. Also impressive are Chris Cooper, as chief detective Alvin Dewey, and Clifton Collins Jr, who admits in the extras that playing Smith took its toll. “I had a couple of breakdowns,” he explains. “That’s an understatement.”
Miller, too, deserves much credit for his sedate, seemingly effortless direction and beautifully composed style; while Hoffman, as we learn in the first of the two informative commentaries, wasn’t really happy with his performance until two weeks into shooting. According to Miller, “Phil works better when he’s miserable.” If this is the result, let’s hope he remains unhappy for years to come.