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In cold blood

'Capote' unveils the Faustian bargain the author made with fame.

September 30, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

THE day, in 1959, after a pair of drifters broke into the home of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., and shot all four of its members after failing to find the $10,000 they believed to be stashed there, Truman Capote clipped an item about the murders in the New York Times and immediately called William Shawn at the New Yorker.

That night, the flamboyant author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and popular man-about-Manhattan boarded a train to Kansas with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee with the intention of writing a magazine piece on how the murders had affected the quiet farming community. Six years later, he published "In Cold Blood," a "nonfiction novel" that made him the most famous writer in America, a millionaire, and ruined his life.

Bennett Miller's "Capote," which was written by Dan Futterman and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (both childhood friends of the director), carefully re-creates the agonizing stretch of years between Capote's first trip to Holcomb and the spectacular success of his book six years later. Arriving on the heels of the execution by hanging of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the book was hailed for its objectivity and steady-handed sang-froid. But Capote's own experience of the story was harrowing and deeply personal. What began as an investigation of "two Americas" -- one quiet and conservative, the other rootless and violent -- evolved, by all accounts, into a chillingly intimate portrait of the killers, in whose lives the writer would eventually play a not-insignificant role.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
"Capote" -- A credit box with a review of the movie "Capote" in Friday's Calendar section should have listed Caroline Baron as one of the producers.

As the story of an artist whose greatest success brought about his downfall, "Capote" would seem at first to fall within the parameters of the traditional Hollywood biopic. And certainly, Capote's Southern Gothic childhood (neglected by a restless, alcoholic mother, sent to live with relatives at a young age) would have made for convenient peg-the-root-of-the-pathology flashbacks, a la "Ray," "Beyond the Sea" and others. But Miller and Futterman (who based his screenplay on the biography by Gerald Clarke) avoid the pitfalls of the genre by refusing to mythologize the artist, plunging instead into the soul of the man. Where it might have perfunctorily mounted him on the "troubled genius" mantle, the movie dispenses with the usual supersaturated (it's all still so vivid!) flashbacks to childhood traumas, reconstructing instead a world as gorgeously stark, clear and straightforward as that of the book -- and of the flat, unforgiving Kansas landscape, with its dearth of places to hide.

But it doesn't condemn him for his blinkered self-striving, either. (Capote seemed to have done a good job of that himself.) Instead, the film exhumes a figure obscured by notoriety and legend to discover a fiercely ambitious, deeply lonely narcissist whose fractured personality accommodated many, often contradictory, roles and whose greatest asset turned out to be his greatest liability.

In the film's view, Capote's fluid, adaptive morality, which could be described as postmodern, pegs him as a pioneer and harbinger for the cult of success-at-any-cost that would soon become the norm in America. And Miller and Futterman have captured an era on the verge of change by bringing into focus a man who not only helped to change it but also embodied its contradictions. In the hands of talented production designer Jess Gonchor and cinematographer Adam Kimmel, the movie shifts subtly from something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting -- shades of brown, blue and white against a slate-gray sky -- to something more ominous: a 16th century Dutch painting, the characters' pale skin and grim expressions glowing against deep black backgrounds.

But much of the credit for the richness of the portrayal goes to Hoffman, whose nuanced and insightful portrait of Capote -- a man whose fey mannerisms and high, lilting voice could have easily led an actor into camp -- is as empathetic as it is brutally honest. Hoffman captures what is presented as an astonishing capacity for insinuation and connects it to a deep personal understanding of the basic human need for connection. When, in the film, Capote speaks of his unhappy past, it's usually with the aim of gaining a trust he can't help -- like the scorpion on the frog's back -- but exploit.

As recounted in the film, Capote first fixes his sights on Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) during a hearing. The killer seems strangely removed from the proceedings and passes the time drawing. The next day, Capote shows up at the sheriff's residence in Holcomb, where Smith is being held in a "women's cell" in the kitchen. Capote is fascinated by Smith, a sensitive monster with an artistic temperament, given to dreaming about public recognition. While Hickock seems to relish the attention Capote brings them and sees him as a possible path to freedom, Smith instantly sees through their surface dissimilarities and recognizes a kindred spirit who recognizes him right back.

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