My own little Truman Capote anecdote.... Not really so much an anecdote about Truman Capote as about a different time.... An anecdote about the difference, at that far-off time as against our own, in what would be commonly known and openly said of a public figure.... I can remember sitting around a table in an undergraduate English class at Columbia University in the second half of the Sixties, when one of my fellow students, hoping to affirm the imaginative powers of the fiction writer and to demonstrate the unnecessity of writing only about what one has experienced firsthand, cited Capote as an example of how one could write about homosexuality without being homosexual oneself. The professor, George Stade, set him straight, so to speak: "I know him."
I myself know little about Capote, and never very much cared. It would have been presumptuous of me to suppose I knew anything worth knowing about him from his self-parodying performance in Murder by Death or from his regular appearances as a raconteur and a gossip on TV talk shows, in varying states of muzziness. (Though I was happy on one occasion to hear him pooh-pooh Robert Altman's MASH in an exchange with John Simon.) It would be no less presumptuous, now, to suppose I know much after seeing Capote. This is just a story about him, someone's version of him, someone's take on him, from a first-time screenplay by actor Dan Futterman (Urbania, Shooting Fish, mostly indies), based on a biography by Gerald Clarke, functionally directed by Bennett Miller, whose sole other credit is the documentary The Cruise, and frostily photographed by Adam Kimmel, with an abundance of unflattering sallow-faced, hollow-eyed effects. I was not seeing Capote, if you follow the drift. I was seeing Capote.
Clearly this is not the whole story. And few will be in a position to judge the degree to which it is a true story. It would presumptuous, as well, for the filmmakers themselves, notwithstanding the diligence of their research, to suppose that the story they are telling is the truth. Filmmakers, novelists, any storytellers whatever, have a hard enough time telling the truth about fictional characters fashioned out of whole cloth. But therein lies the innate superiority of fiction. When it's done right, it is quite literally the whole story. You know all there is to know. There is nothing outside the picture frame. There is no other angle on it. The less adept storyteller will often turn to real life to make up for a lack of imagination. Real life can be relied upon for that. Which brings us back to Capote. And regardless of how true a story, anyone can see, and say, that it is a good story, whose claim on our attention is not that it's factual but that it's fascinating. Something stimulating to watch and to wonder about.
It is the story, at bottom, of an artist at work. A writer in pursuit of a subject. An established novelist, transplanted in Manhattan from the Deep South, who, for reasons unclear, clips out an item from The New York Times of November 15, 1959, about the massacre of a family in rural Kansas, the Clutters, and who promptly gets the go-ahead from the editor at The New Yorker to hop a train to the scene of the crime. The story, then, of an exotic fruit in the Midwest breadbasket, with his nasally lisping castrato drawl and his ankle-length camel's-hair coat and flowing boa-like scarf. ("Bergdorf's," he volunteers, fingering the scarf under the inquisitive gaze of an agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who, tugging on his hat brim when taking his leave, says in turn, "Sears, Roebuck.") The story of a man with sufficient self-perception to take along, as an intermediary and an amanuensis, a down-to-earth, self-effacing, almost mousy childhood friend, one "Nelle" Harper Lee, who herself is awaiting publication of her first novel, the future Pulitzer Prize-winner, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The story, as it continues to develop, of a man who, for all his self-regard, also looks hard and deep around himself; who boasts ninety-four-percent recall of his conversations ("Yeah, I had myself tested"); who has a knack for getting people to open up to him, whether with life-of-the-party talk of John Huston and Bogie on the set of Beat the Devil or with confessional talk of his own private pain; who, when two drifters named Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are arrested for the murders, attaches himself to the latter, the one initially housed in the "women's cell" in the kitchen, the sensitive one, the artistic one, the one with a vocabulary that includes "effectuate," "exacerbate," "mendacious," "desirous," etc. ("It's as if we were raised in the same house, and one day he stood up and walked out the back door and I walked out the front"); who envisions his work-in-progress as the beginning of a new literary form, the nonfiction novel ("Sometimes, when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe"); who freely shares his chosen title with the lead investigator ("I think you'll like it") but not with Perry Smith ("I have no idea"); who assists the killers in their appeal of their death sentences, then gradually withdraws when the dragged-out legal process deprives his book of an ending (a couple of tantalizing passages of it are heard at a public reading); who cannot tear himself away from his own agonies long enough to toast the success of his friend and assistant ("It's torture... what they're doing to me," he whines to her on the night of the Mockingbird movie premiere); whose famous title, In Cold Blood, in the end describes his own modus operandi in the achievement of his goal; and who would never again finish another book as long as he lived. "It was a terrible experience," he reports after attending the hanging, "and I'll never get over it." "They're dead, Truman," observes Lee, "and you're alive." But before we appoint Lee as the voice of reason, the voice of sanity, we might recollect that she, too, has never finished another book. The Curse of the Clutters?
To go back to where we began, this is not a story with a moral to it, although some viewers will feel compelled, for their own comfort, to draw one; it is simply, and complicatedly, the story of an artist at work. And of such stories on screen that typically stay on the outside looking in, it is among the finest. (The matchless example of looking at the work of an artist from the inside out: Alain Resnais's Providence.) In its general outline -- what price art? -- it may be a bit old-hat; in its particulars it is like-new.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, mimicking the familiar mannerisms of the title figure, or, as everyone seems to be saying these days, "channelling" him, probably deserves every accolade he gets. I would only like to throw in the qualification that, no matter how accurate, any actor's impersonation of a notable whose face and voice are well known, especially one whose face and voice are so distinctive, is bound to have a degree of funniness about it. Indeed the "impressionist," who fully intends to be funny in his impersonations, is always funnier the greater the degree of his accuracy. (The inaccurate impressionist elicits a response of "Who's that supposed to be?") This -- there's no getting around it -- is just a built-in obstacle to be overcome, or not. Time itself will be the actor's ally. The impersonation, as the minutes slip by, tends to supplant the model. We get used to it. We get over it. We accept it as its own thing. "I guess it stopped being funny," the Harper Lee character remarks at one point, apropos of something else. (The commendable Catherine Keener did not face the same problem. Who knows what Harper Lee looked or sounded like?) Much of that initial funniness is surely compatible with the early stages of the story, the fish-out-of-water stuff. Once the funniness stops, the deeper fascination takes over. Even then, however, Hoffman serves as our constant reminder to take the story with a grain of salt, to put quotation marks around the name of Capote. His whole-souled commitment to the part, his concentration, his emotion, his expressiveness, his nuance, his multiplicity -- all of that helps to make a good story better. Whether or not truer.