The Academy Awards are not a place for movies that can’t be described in snappy phrases. The most recent Best Picture nominees? The gay-cowboy movie, of course. Grand Canyon II: Electric Boogaloo. Clooney hates McCarthy. Spielberg hates the Jews.
These descriptions are reductive, yet they also speak to truth. Brokeback Mountain would have never generated such buzz if it were a heterosexual love story, or even a contemporary urban homosexual love story. Crash is so self-important that it must be mocked. Good Night, and Good Luck is defined by media personalities (including its hunky director’s) in opposition to a political personality. And Munich could not escape its director’s shadow, and was judged less on its merits than by its implications in the context of Spielberg’s Jewishness and current Middle East politics.
The fifth Best Picture nominee, Capote, doesn’t belong in that group. It seems far more layered, ambiguous, and ambitious-in-scope than its fellow nominees, and it’s surprisingly subtle, rich, and sharp for a Best Picture nominee. I have to go back to 1996’s Fargo for a nominee that I found as efficient, dense, multifaceted, and successful.
The movie can be described in simple terms — the back story of In Cold Blood, how the celebrated magazine scribe of the title went to rural Kansas to write an account of a farmhouse bloodbath — but the best I can come up with in terms of a glib dismissal is that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote with the vocal mannerisms of a cartoon character. That, of course, ignores that Capote did indeed talk like a cartoon character.
Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance in Capote, one I found a mite calculating. The film as a whole suffers from a similar malady: It seems to operate more cautiously than deliberately, a hint too restrained and with a trace of self-conscious uncertainty.
Yet, fundamentally, the studied, low-key choices work. Capote’s subdued tone is a balance to its obvious notion of its own nobility. The texture of the film outside of its central performance is modest and unflashy, even with its heady themes, motifs, and touchstones: a celebrity author; the creation of a new type of journalism; Harper Lee on the cusp of becoming canonical; the New Yorker; the premiere of an iconic movie; the death penalty; the tension between high society and rural culture; self-destruction; exploitation ... .
And Hoffman’s mannered way opens a door for shades of meaning. Although it’s not a conventional reading of the character, I see Hoffman’s presentation as an expression of how Capote himself “performed,” and of his core fraudulence; the movie expertly shows how a certain type of journalist is a glorified con artist. The mincing, nasally Southern accent, the dandy dress, the ornate gestures — all are part of a costume, a mask, an alien face that the ironically named Truman wore to enchant women and knock men off-balance. Even his glasses are part of the outfit, and in the three or four instances when Hoffman takes them off, the audience briefly catches something authentic and naked in Capote.
As he’s portrayed in the movie, virtually everything Capote does is measured for effect; even the minutiae of his diction contains multitudes. Yet there’s a haughtiness in the character that assumes only he can appreciate such nuance. When he says, “I couldn’t” — long pause — “possibly,” he thinks that the person to whom he’s talking won’t understand the critical double meaning that hesitation carries.
Unlike most bio-pics, which lionize their subjects or at least wallow in the greatness of their accomplishments, Capote treats In Cold Blood as an almost incidental byproduct of the writer’s dubious process of ingratiation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t recognize the book’s skill or importance; rather, it acknowledges those qualities quickly and is done with them. The movie simply isn’t interested in the book.
Screenwriter Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller are more curious about Capote the person and his relationship with killer Perry Smith, and the portrait is not flattering. Whatever his strengths as a writer and reporter, the movie shows Truman Capote as a self-involved, self-indulgent, self-pitying human being, in addition to being a world-class fake. As Perry Smith nears his execution, Capote feels bad only for himself: You’re going to be hanged. Woe is me! To people who regularly confuse empathy and sympathy, Truman Capote is an easy reminder of the difference.
Yet there’s a refreshing level of candor and self-knowledge in Capote, an understanding of his limitations. When he sees Smith for the final time, he doesn’t tell the murderer that he did everything possible to save him; instead, Capote says he did all he could. The difference between the phrasings is subtle but clear-eyed and damning.
Smith also understands the distinction, I think. Even though the killer is a secondary character in the movie — in an understated near-joke, the quadruple-murder story plays second fiddle to the great and powerful Truman Capote — actor Clifton Collins Jr. treats Smith as a knowing equal.
There’s no doubt that Capote is exploiting Smith for his book, but the film suggests (in my reading, at least) that Smith might be manipulating the author just as much — and far more delicately. The killer’s sister tells Capote that her brother would just as soon kill him as shake his hand, and that’s followed by a startling scene in which Smith confesses.
The bit should play with at least an undercurrent of triumph, because it would appear that Capote has won the battle of wills: He has fully won Smith’s trust, and now the killer is unburdening himself.
Yet Collins gives Smith’s monologue the air of a tightly controlled narrative, with a storyteller’s flair and an expertly executed twist far afield of the story’s we-didn’t-plan-to-do-it course. This is not a person whose façade cracks, but someone mercilessly toying with his audience.
In this interpretation, Capote’s undoing — and he does unravel after this final interview — is that he held Smith in such low esteem that he didn’t even consider the possibility that the killer might be genuinely cunning and smart. Capote didn’t heed the sister’s warning, and Smith broke him.