CAPOTE (Bennett Miller, 2005)

Best known for his performance as Vincent Gray, social worker Maxine Gray’s smug, sanctimonious son, who is a writer, in the television series Judging Amy, Dan Futterman majored in English at Columbia University, and graduated, with the idea in mind of becoming a writer. He is now the author of the script for Capote, a film covering the years during which Truman Capote was engaged in writing his groundbreaking nonfiction crime novel, In Cold Blood (1966). Based on the book by Gerald Clarke, this script also drew upon Futterman’s research. One of his reference points, he has said many times, was Czech-born Janet Malcolm’s 1989 New Yorker article, and subsequent book, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” whose thesis is that journalists inevitably betray the subjects they cozy up to. Specifically, Malcolm analyzes the murky ethics and psychological consequences, on both sides, engendered by author Joe McGinniss’s relationship with Jeffrey MacDonald, the Army physician convicted of murdering his family in 1970 and the subject of McGinniss’s book Fatal Vision. McGinniss initially felt that MacDonald was innocent, befriended him in order to facilitate the book, came to conclude that MacDonald was guilty and pressed on nevertheless with the book, all the while MacDonald none the wiser until the cold shoulder that the published book gave him, along with McGinniss’s public remarks, translated MacDonald’s feelings into his keen sense of having been betrayed. (MacDonald, incidentally, has maintained his innocence.) Futterman’s primary interest in Capote, then, is the relationship between Capote, while he was writing In Cold Blood, with Perry Smith, one of the two young men who, passing through Holcomb, Kansas, in late 1959, murdered all four members of the Clutter family. Smith comes to rely on Capote, who on several points identifies with this perpetual outsider; Capote manipulates Perry, helping him legally up to a point, to facilitate the writing of the book (which, like Malcolm’s, began as a commissioned New Yorker piece), and then cutting off contact with him almost entirely, once Perry’s execution alone would permit the book’s completion. “I did all I could to help you,” a mendacious, self-pitying Capote tells Perry moments prior to Perry’s hanging in 1965. A postscript to the film informs us that the publication of In Cold Blood made Capote the most famous writer in America and that Capote, presumably bedeviled by the emotionally and morally exhausting experience of In Cold Blood, never completed another book. Capote died an alcoholic, of a drug overdose, in 1984.

The crises of writers tend most of all to interest other writers, while the problem of violence in America, because we are all potential victims, claims a greater breadth of interest. However, it is simply not the case that Capote, which former documentarian Bennett Miller directed, fails to give due notice to the most relevant aspect of “social relations in America,” as critic David Walsh claims, and it should also be noted that Miller’s film coalesces into the most potent indictment of capital punishment that I have encountered in an American film. (Compare this film on that score, for instance, to Richard Brooks’s sentimental message-mongering in the 1967 In Cold Blood, based on Capote’s book.) For me, there is one particular social aspect of the material that is most important here, for it helps explain both the murders and Capote’s infatuation with Perry, which, if you will, helped direct the course of the book: Perry’s gnawing sense that he is an outsider, someone as perpetually unsettled in America as the Clutters are “settled,” that is, assured of their place in America’s provincial scheme of things. Like Capote, who is homosexual (more about which, later), Perry—to use Martha Stewart’s expression—doesn’t quite fit in. Half-white, half Cherokee, he is dark, his skin color as much of a stigma as Capote’s fey mannerisms—and without the New York arts/literary milieu that tolerated and cocooned what otherwise would have been Capote’s imperiled existence. (Suicides also marked both Capote’s and Perry’s families.) At one point the Kansas sheriff notes his own kindness by his having categorized Perry, officially, as white, and Capote responds with slippery sarcasm, “You are a kind and generous man.” Especially as suggestively played by Clifton Collins Jr., Perry emerges as a turbulent, tormented personality—someone who is perpetually homeless in America. We may say, then, that he sets off the murderous rampage precisely because the Clutters have a home and are so comfortable in it, so much an accepted part of a recognizably white American community. But, beyond that, like all paroxysms of furious violence, the killings perpetrated by Perry and his (possibly homosexual) companion, Dick Hickock, are as inexplicable as they are explicable—and possibly more so. As Capote does in In Cold Blood, the film waits for Perry’s own description of the scene of the murders; and when it comes in Capote, in flashbacking inserts, it is a scene so awesome and frightening in its suddenness, viciousness and bloody horror that it relegates “explanations” to a back seat of importance. What Perry and Hickock did is beyond the pale—largely beyond explaining because so far beyond imagining. Capote’s book also refrains from explaining the unexplainable.

Futterman has done a commendable job. If his script can be faulted on any grounds, though, that would be its clouded, inaccurate portrait of Nelle Harper Lee, the lifelong friend of Capote’s who is his assistant in the initial phase of his research for In Cold Blood, and the author herself of To Kill a Mockingbird. You may recall that that novel, ostensibly in tribute to Lee’s father (Lee herself appears in the novel as Scout), promoted gradualism, that is, the reactionary idea that federal interference was not necessary in the South to effect racial justice, which would evolve on its own over time. In other words, Lee was perfectly okay with sacrificing justice for African Americans until such time as the white South decided to extend justice to these citizens, and the example of Atticus Finch, who defends an African American wrongly accused of raping a white girl, in the meantime illustrates of what sterling progress, left to itself, the South was capable. This unfortunate little book, blithely mischaracterized in English classes throughout the U.S. in blatant disregard for its scarcely subtle political message, won the Pulitzer Prize, but Lee never had another idea and never wrote another book. (The same can be said for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gone with the Wind.) The truth is, Lee never was a serious novelist; all she wanted to do is make the white South’s case. One wonders if Futterman and Miller left out from their film all hint of Lee’s social and political despicableness in order to deflect our attention from the possibility of alternative explanations for Capote’s failure to complete another book. Was Capote as tormented a figure, privately, as they suggest? And, if so, was the source of his torment what they suggest? Isn’t it possible that Capote found In Cold Blood’s phenomenal success too daunting a marker to live up to, and that this was the principal source of his despair, if despairing he actually was? In any case, the Harper Lee that Capote shows is the weakest character in the film—more or less a mouthpiece for the filmmakers insofar as she verbally penetrates her friend’s actions and motivations with what we are meant to presume are her wisdom and wit. This constitutes the whitewashing of a personality that poses no less a threat to the viability of wholesome American society than did Perry and Hickock—but, thank goodness, although still alive (as the late Leni Riefenstahl once did, Lee believes in hanging on), Lee is more or less buried alive in the past. But that hideous book of hers lives on because American high school English classes are led by people who are incapable of, or not much interested in, analyzing the books that they teach. Moreover, the “liberal,” brain-dead 1962 film of the book repeats the book’s reactionary message, not because scenarist Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan believed in it, but, instead, because they failed to muster the degree of perception necessary to sound out what Lee really was getting at. Today, this scarcely seems possible, and, in any case, Gregory Peck’s stiff, cardboard performance as Lee’s Alabaman father makes the whole thing virtually unwatchable.

Overall, Miller has wrought a fascinating film. Long shots of rural Kansas, ironically, evoke the intense loneliness in drifter Perry’s soul. Capote is shot with his face in shadows, correlative to the fact that he is hiding from those with whom he converses and, possibly, also from himself. Nearly monochromatic cinematography—steely dark blues become the “black” in this black-and-white film in color—invests the shots of Holcomb with a depressed atmosphere in the wake of the murders and, from Capote’s viewpoint, in the driven nature of his investigation. Adam Kimmel is the cinematographer, and Mychael Danna’s score—a powerful silence interrupted by haunting chords—helps complete the forlorn impression that the film makes.

In this “Year of the Queer” in American cinema, Capote makes a vibrant contribution. Not only do we see, for all his mannerisms, Capote as an intelligent, hardworking, and broadly accepted figure, even in farmland Kansas, but, in the background, we cannot help but note, the same man is his companion throughout the half-dozen or so years that the film covers.

By the way, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a convincingly detailed performance as Capote—one that goes beyond mimicry and impersonation to suggest Capote’s hidden thoughts and feelings as Capote goes about charming nearly everyone around him, including, most treacherously, on occasion, himself. Hoffman’s Capote has been showered with acting prizes, and understandably so, but churlish I must note what others simply do not mention: the actor loses concentration at a couple of points, slipping, however briefly, entirely out of character. Hoffman is excellent; but he is certainly not the year’s best actor, or even close.*

* Here are eight better lead actors in 2005, in alphabetical order: Jamie Bell in Dear Wendy, Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice, Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, Marcell Nagy in Fateless, Issei Ogata in Solntse, Jérémie Renier in L’enfant and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Match Point.

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