2 Movie Reviews: Capote vs. Infamous
Topic: Film & TV
Two movies on almost exactly the same subject were made within the last couple of years. Capote was released in late 2005 to much acclaim, and is now available on DVD. Infamousmade at the same time, but shelved for a year to avoid direct competitionis playing now at the Landmark Keystone Arts theater.
Fair warning: One might call this article "spoiler-laden" if one were completely unaware of Truman Capote and his most famous work, In Cold Blood.
On November 14, 1959, a family of four was murdered in Kansas. Truman Capote read an article about this crime in the New York Times, and decided that the effect of that murder on the small town of Holcomb would serve as the basis for his new book. Capote was previously celebrated as a short-story writer (e.g., Breakfast at Tiffany's), but he decided to create a new genre with this work: the "nonfiction novel."
Truman traveled to Kansas with his childhood friend, the writer Nelle Harper Lee. Over the course of several months, they ingratiated themselves into the community of Holcomb, and she helped him conduct and document his research. The killers were caught in Las Vegas and brought back to Holcomb, where the writers met them; Truman began extensive interviews with them both. At some point, Lee went back to New York, and left Capote to continue his research alone. (Soon after, Lee found great success with her book To Kill A Mockingbird.)
Capote formed a particularly close bond with one of the killers, Perry Smith. Smith grew up in a poor and broken home, as did Truman. Smith might be described as an uneducated intellectual; he lacked an academic pedigree, but valued worldly learning and propriety. Contrast those values with the horrific nature of the crime, and you can see how Capote became intrigued with this man.
Truman Capote spent four years working on In Cold Blood, and was only able to finish it when the story arc was complete: the book ends with the executions of the killers, which Truman witnessed in person. Received as a masterwork when published in 1965, In Cold Blood was the last full-length book Capote ever finished. He died from the effects of alcoholism in 1984.
I read In Cold Blood a couple of years ago. I found it to be deeply disturbing and a total page-turner. It's the kind of book that you read late into the night because it's so compelling, but then you can't sleep because you're so creeped out. It's interesting to see these films after having read the book, because I'm aware of the remarkable achievement that came out of the drama reflected on screen.
These two films have many scenes that are almost identical, but they differ in the way they frame the facts. Capote begins as Truman reads the article about the murders. He's immediately on the train with Lee, meeting Kansans over dinner, visiting the house where the murders occurred, fretting about this book. Capote is more about the internal struggle Truman faces in completing this bookhis struggle to create this new type of work, his internalization of the feelings of Perry Smith, his pent-up feelings about his difficult childhood. He spends much of the end of the film simply looking pained.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener in Capote
In Capote, Truman's relationship with Perry Smith comes from a "separated at birth" sense of shared experience. At one point, Capote tells Harper Lee that he feels like he and Perry grew up in the same house, but one day he went out the front door and Perry went out the back. The scenes between Truman and Perry are very even-keeled; there's no strong display of sentiment from either one, even when Perry is describing the crime. Truman's devastation at Perry's execution is wrapped in his selfish sense of "I could have done more" or "that could have been me," as he has made himself part of the story. Harper Lee asks Truman if he fell in love with Perry, but we don't get a real answerand I don't think the scenes between Truman and Perry give that impression.
Infamous starts earlier: it places Truman carefully into the salons of New York high society, and shows his interactions with his "swans"rich and famous society women like Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Diana Vreeland, and Marella Agnelli. He goes to Kansas with Lee, etc., but the tone of the film is different from Capote. Because we're made to understand the "Gay Paree" (no pun intended!) feeling of his life with the swans, and his place in that society, the culture shock is drastic when Truman goes to Kansas, meets with murderers, and watches executions. This movie touches on the same internal struggles as Capote does, but places the events in a wider context.
Toby Jones and Sigourney Weaver in Infamous
In Infamous, the relationship between Capote and the killer Perry Smith is a romance in the most literal sense: the two men fall in love. There are dramatic moments of high passionlust, fear, and desperation. The character of Smith is more well-fleshed, and you get to see not only his intellectual side, but also the frightening part of him that participated in the murder. His description of the crime is harrowing. And Capote's devastation at Perry's execution is one of romantic loss.
Infamous is more about Truman's external conflicts, especially with Perry Smith but also with the people of Holcomb, the swans, Harper Lee, and his longtime companion Jack Dunphy. You see Truman's dependence on the adoration of his swans, and the way his flamboyance amuses them as much as himself. Infamous also uses brief documentary-style "interviews" to insert real-life comments from the supporting charactersso you are forced to consider Truman from the outside. I found it particularly interesting to contrast the elegant swans with Truman's more dependable (and decidedly non-glamorous) friend, Harper Lee.
I think Infamous did a great job of showing Capote's slide from society amusement to a frankly despicable man: you see Truman betray the confidences and trust of everyone around him, in vainglorious pursuit. In Capote, Truman still uses everyone around him, but it lacks the sense of betrayal that contributes so strongly to his characterization in Infamous.
The Portrayals of Truman Capote
Biopics have become a popular film format in recent years, with such hit films as Ray, Walk the Line, The Aviator, and coming soon, The Queen*. Truman Capote was himself almost a caricature, and a well-known one at thatso it's almost an uphill battle to play him without the threat of unfair comparison. I suspect that the real Truman was a little bit of every facet portrayed in these films. And although I'll talk about the casting here, my judgments here are only partially about the actors' performances; the scripts have everything to do with the way Truman was presented.
Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar earlier this year for his portrayal in Capote. Hoffman's Capote had a muted melancholy that permeated every scene. Even the party scenesin New York, or at the Dewey's house in Kansashe displayed a constant sadness. His jokes were momentary, and it seemed like he was never committed to the subject at hand or the people around him. We never saw Truman explode into moments of high drama or flamboyance; it's like this Truman is too in love with Truman to be able to think about anyone else. Everything he looks at is a mirror. Hoffman's performance was so even-keeled that unfortunately it felt a bit flat, which is made worse by the fact that the dramatic arc of the movie felt flat to me.
Toby Jones isn't a well-known actorfrankly, without heading over to the IMDb, I can't name a single thing he's been in to date. But his portrayal of Truman Capote was both hilariously flamboyant and quietly devastating. One of the things I enjoyed most in Infamous is the outlandish humor Truman displays in both word and deedfrom his wide-brimmed hats, most out of place in Holcomb, to his witty commentary in salon and prison alike. (Great line: "I never snack.") But things are funny until they're not, and it's at the unfunny moments that Jones shows us Truman's very common humanityhis needs and desires. And then he twists the knife, as Truman deals with those moments by betraying every trust granted to him.
Sometimes a film benefits from having a little-known actor play the role of a well-known person. I'm sure Infamous benefited from this, as I was able to buy Jones' portrayal without question; Capote suffered (somewhat unfairly) because I was so aware of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the affectation of the voice he used for Truman. Infamous has many recognizable faces in the supporting rolesSandra Bullock (as Harper Lee), Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Daniel Craig, Juliet Stevenson, etc.but those roles were so small that the distraction was minimal. Catherine Keener is worth noting as Harper Lee in Capote.
Frankly, both films ultimately paint an unflattering picture of this writer. After Capote, I felt that Truman was ceaselessly selfish. After Infamous, I felt that Truman was despicable. Yet with all the betrayal portrayed in Infamous, I was surprised to find myself pitying Truman in that movie but not the other. Jones made Capote into a truly small man.
Which of these two films better represents the truth? I can't say. Not to mention, it seems like this is a case where "truth" of Truman Capote would be relative. But movie to movie, head to headI liked Infamous better. The acting is top-notch across the board. It's more explicit in showing a change in the character of Truman and a dramatic arc to the story. It's funnier and darkerand it does a great job of playing the comedy and drama against each other. I'm sure I would have enjoyed Capote more had I seen it first, because it wouldn't suffer so much by comparison, but I think Infamous would still have beaten it in the long run.
[* The Queen opens November 3 at the Landmark Keystone Arts. It's also the closing-night film for the Heartland Film Festival; see the HFF site for details on the October 27 showing.]
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