Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2005 - Capote

Quite a jam-packed week it's been here in Las Vegas. With Valentine's Day, my birthday and a weekend visit from my darling wife, I've been just a little busy. I also managed to squeeze in two more shows - front row seats to probably my favourite magic act, Penn & Teller, who did not disappoint, and then a fun and raucous night at the medieval jousting show Tournament of Kings. And there's still a gazillion other shows on my wish list...

In the midst of all that activity, I took a look at the next nominee from the Best Picture race of 2005...

Bennett Miller
Dan Futterman
(based on the book by Gerald Clarke)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Mark Pellegrino, Chris Cooper, Amy Ryan
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Hoffman)

Fresh off the success of his novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, author Truman Capote (Hoffman) comes across a newspaper article about the brutal murder of a family in Kansas. Deciding this will be the subject of his next book, he travels to the area with close friend Harper Lee (Keener), herself an author, waiting for her first novel To Kill a Mockingbird to be published. Capote acquaints himself with the lead detective on the case, Alvin Dewey (Cooper), who is initially reluctant to disclose any information despite Capote's inquiries. However, Dewey allows Capote to visit the two main suspects, Perry Smith (Collins) and Richard Hickock (Pellegrino), in their holding cell, and Capote begins to develop an unlikely bond with Perry, which goes so far as helping them find a lawyer for their upcoming trial, much to Dewey's disdain. Over the next few years, sometimes at the expense of his relationship with Jack Dunphy (Greenwood), Capote continues to help the murderous pair in the hopes that Perry will give details about that fateful day that he can use in his book.

Despite its leisurely pace, Capote is intensely engrossing. Fascinating characters with fascinating motivations - the necessary ingredients for a fascinating story. With such personal subject matter, the film easily hangs on to its audience's attention. Mychael Danna's haunting score deserves a big part of the credit for that, as does Bennett Miller's sensitive direction. He lets the film breathe. The aforementioned leisurely pace is certainly no accident.

Like Good Night, and Good Luck, Capote is an actor's piece. Both scripts boast strong lead characters surrounded by plenty of engaging minor roles, a recipe for many a juicy scene. Not coincidentally, both were written by actors. You may remember Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman as the son of gay lovers played by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. Futterman's script is subtle and concise, yet another element of the film that enhances the pensive mood.

Notwithstanding the brilliance of all those other collaborators, Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured) is arguably the film's greatest success. His innately watchable demeanour, complete with Truman Capote affectations, is both infectious and captivating, particularly in his character's attention-seeking party scenes. A plethora of impassioned supporting performances, including Catherine Keener's sensible Harper Lee, Chris Cooper's reticent Dewey and a breakout performance by Clifton Collins, Jr. as the conflicted Perry Smith, contribute to an already absorbing picture.


  1. "Truman, be careful what you do, to get what you want." Advice given to Truman Capote by his partner, Jack Dunphy, and it goes to the heart of the movie. It is a fascinating study of a complex man, whose egotism and empathy are often at odds. While it is pretty easy to tell when his motives are self-serving, his compassion often has an air of performance about it ("It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.") Philip Seymour Hoffman is absolutely superb in the role. His previous work showed us his range as a consummate character actor. Often playing grungy blowhards as in Punch Drunk Love, he also showed he could play smarmy snobs as he did in Scent of a Woman and especially The Talented Mr. Ripley. He elevates this to near perfection in Capote.

    Director Bennett Miller opts for a Edward Hopperesque look and deliberate pace, holding on to his shots for a few extra seconds. While some may have felt it bordered on pretentious, it worked for me. My only criticism was that I felt he was too lenient toward the Perry Smith character. Emphasizing Smith's sensitive, tortured side a bit too much. Even though there is the scene of Smith actually being the trigger-man, it was as if he was compelled to commit the acts by some unseen force, rather than through outright menace.

    An interesting companion piece to Capote is, of course, Infamous, which was released a year afterwards. With a higher profile cast, Infamous is less somber and less artistic than Capote. Toby Jones is physically a much better match for Truman Capote than Hoffman was, but his performance isn't as nuanced. While I enjoyed both, Capote is the better overall film, in my opinion.

  2. I'm going to disagree with the above commenter, I think Infamous is a far better film than Capote. If anyone is wanting to know what Truman was really like, Infamous is the film to see. Johnny Carson's second wife, Joanne, who was a friend of Capote, said that Toby Jones captured him "perfectly," and was not fond of Hoffman's performance. With Hoffamn, I was always aware that he was "acting" whereas Jones inhabited the character.

    Capote, the film, is as dry as a piece of melba toast and about as interesting. How you can say that Jones' performance wasn't nuanced is beyond my comprehension. He covered the range of emotions from sly humor to despair that I remember from seeing Capote on talk shows in the 60's and 70's. Hoffman's performance rarely invoked anything but lethargy.

    Thanks, Martin Pal