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A 'Blood' curse on its writer

October 02, 2005|KENNETH TURAN | Turan is a Times film critic. Contact him at

SUCCESS as a writer demands a willingness to spend long hours in a room alone. Writing nonfiction takes the opposite set of skills, the ability to comfortably interact with the outside world. Truman Capote could do both brilliantly but, as the exceptional new film "Capote" shows, the inherent conflict ended up just about killing him creatively, and possibly literally.

We're used to thinking of an author's output as being the most dramatic thing about him, but sometimes a writer's life can be equally enthralling. "Capote" takes as its subject the six years its namesake spent researching and writing the nonfiction landmark "In Cold Blood," and the story the film tells couldn't be more involving, or more devastating.

"Sometimes, when I think how good it could be, I can hardly breathe," Capote wrote to a friend about his work in progress about a series of murders in rural Kansas and their aftermath. Though it was not the first so-called nonfiction novel (Lillian Ross' "Picture" preceded it by more than a decade), "In Cold Blood's" success after its 1965 publication fulfilled every one of its author's fantasies, making him perhaps the most celebrated writer in America.

Yet, he told biographer Gerald Clarke, if he'd known what the Kansas story would do to his life, he would never have stopped in the state: "I would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell." Clarke, whose superb biography is the basis for "Capote," says the book's success was the start of its author's decline. "For years," Clarke writes, "he had pondered the aphorism attributed to Saint Theresa -- more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers -- and had collected illustrious examples. Now he too was destined to join that unhappy list."

As "Capote" reveals, what the "In Cold Blood" experience did was expose and illuminate a duality in the writer that he had never been forced to confront before, a duality that also says a great deal about potential fault lines at the heart of nonfiction writing.

Friends since they were 12, writer Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller are an unlikely team to have put together this kind of mature, thought-provoking piece of work.

"Capote" is the debut screenplay for a writer better known as an actor and the first dramatic film for a director whose career has largely been in television commercials.

But just as Capote couldn't stay away from Kansas, these two could not resist delving into his experience there. They've handled it beautifully, displaying an immaculate storytelling style that shows an appreciation for the power inherent in restraint, subtlety and nuance that is becoming increasingly uncommon. In this they were helped enormously by yet another old friend, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Even those who've long considered Hoffman to be one of the top actors of his generation will be impressed by the work he's done here. Not the same physical type as Capote, Hoffman still inhabits the role completely, almost as an act of will, giving an intense, utterly convincing performance that the film could not exist without.

CAPOTE'S first appearance is as a Manhattan social butterfly, making glib chatter at a sophisticated party. The next day, however, sitting in his study, carefully clipping a New York Times article about those Kansas murders, we see a very different Capote, someone who takes his work very seriously. As he himself says later in the film, "Ever since I was a child people thought they had me pegged, but they're always wrong."

One person who does know him is Nelle Harper Lee (an expert Catherine Keener), a childhood friend and fellow writer still months away from the publication of the book that would make her famous, "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Lee agrees to go to Kansas with Capote as "a research assistant and personal bodyguard," and it is initially her genuineness that helps him break through the reserve of the Kansans he wants to interview, especially stern lead police investigator Alvin Dewey Jr. (the always excellent Chris Cooper.)

Though his background at that point is largely in fiction, we gradually see Capote do many of the things that can characterize the work habits of nonfiction writers. He's willing to put in an ungodly amount of time, and he's both fearless, sneaking a peek inside the murder victims' coffins, and fearful, preferring to trust to his memory than unnerve skittish interview subjects by taking notes.

More than that, and this is key, Capote instinctively ingratiates himself with the local people so that they will talk to him. He realizes that an interview is a kind of dance in which both sides sometimes benefit. As Jack Nicholson said to Susan Anspach in a similar context in "Five Easy Pieces," "I faked a little Chopin, you faked a little response."

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