Capote (2005): Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar Role as Noted Writer Truman Capote

Rich in ideas and full of ambiguities, “Capote” makes the smart decision of not trying to be a comprehensive biopicture of the celebrated writer Truman Capote, one of the most astonishing and singular personalities of his time.

Instead, screenwriter Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller focus on one crucial decade in Capote’s life, 1959-1966, in which he became obsessed with researching and writing “In Cold Blood,” a seminal book that revolutionized writing by introducing a new genre, the non-fiction novel.

To be sure, “Capote” is not a perfect picturethere are flat scenes, the pacing is often static, and visually the film’s style leaves something to be desired. However, “Capote” is always riveting to watch, in large measure due to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s full-bodied performance, which captures in a subtle way all the nuances of the novelist, screenwriter, playwright, spellbinding raconteur, witty superstar, and jet-setter.

What begins as a dead-on impersonation of Capote (with Hoffman unintentionally sounding a bit like Brando in the “Godafther” movies) gradually evolves into an impressive performance that stands firm on its own right. If there’s any justice, Hoffman should receive his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, after a decade of excelling but never getting Academy nods for “Boogey Nights,” “Magnolia,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and many other great turns.

There’s a lot to admire about “Capote.” This is a movie about a flamboyant gay figure that doesn’t center on sexual politics, and it’s a movie about a celeb writer that steers clear of the clichs of literary biopictures. Director Miller deserves credit for showing only once or twice Capote sitting at his typewriter, or struggling with a creative block, to mention two of the most prevalent visual clichs in films about writers.

The tale begins on November 16, 1959, when Capote, the author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and a favorite figure in the Jet Set, reads an article on a back page of the New York Time that tells of the murder of four members of a well-known farm familythe Cluttersin Holcomb, Kansas.

Similar stories appear in newspapers every day, but something about this one grabs Capote’s eye. It presents an opportunity, he believes, to test his long-held theory that, in the hands of the right writer, non-fiction can be as compelling as fiction. For his purpose, it doesn’t matter if the murderers are never caught. Which is the first moral dilemma in a film that contains several ethical, professional, and erotic ambiguities.

Occasionally, Capote himself wonders if he can write the great book that “destiny” has handed him. “Sometimes, when I think how good it could be,” he characteristically writes a friend, “I can hardly breathe.” With “In Cold Blood,” Capote set out to create something newwhat he called the “Non-Fiction Novel.” His goal was to bring the techniques of fiction, artistic selection and the novelist’s eye for telling detailto the non-fiction genre. He wanted to prove that a factual narrative could be just as gripping as the most imaginative thriller.

Capote convinces the New Yorker magazine editor, William Shawn (Bob Balaban) to give him an assignment and sets out for Kansas. Accompanying him is a friend from his Alabama childhood: Nelle Harper Lee (an astoundingly understated Catherine Keener), who within a few months will win a Pulitzer Prize and achieve fame of her own as the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

At first, Capote’s childlike voice, fey mannerisms and unconventional clothes arouse initial hostility in a region that still thinks of itself as part of the Old West. However, he quickly wins the trust of the locals, most notably Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent, who is leading the hunt for the killers, and his sympathetic wife, Marie (Amy Ryan).

Caught in Las Vegas, the killersPerry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino)are returned to Kansas, where they are tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Capote bribes warden Krutch (Marshall Bell) to get unlimited access to Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. As he gets to know them, particularly Perry, Capote realizes that what was to be a magazine article has grown into a book, one to rank with the greatest in modern literature.

The first encounter between Capote and Perry is mesmerizing. Having charmed his way into the friendship of the Sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Sanderson, Capote enters the Sheriff’s apartment, which adjoins the cell holding Perry. From a distance, he observes Perry with intense fascination. He later tells a reporter: “Two worlds exist in this country: the quiet conservative life and the lives of these two menthe underbelly, the criminally violent. Those worlds converged that bloody night.”

Upon learning that Perry is on a hunger strike, he buys baby food and spoon-feeds him. In their meetings, Capote shares a confidence with Perry from his own youth. “You know were not so different as you might think.” He convinces Perry to give him his personal notebooks so that he can demonstrate to the world that Perry is not a “monster.” After reading extracts from Perry’s notebooks, he tells Nelle: “He’s a gold mine!”

In a wonderfully acted scene, Nelle comes to Spain to visit Capote and longtime companion Jack, bringing with her a letter from Perry. Capote tells her that Jack thinks he’s using Perry and that he’s in love with him. When Nelle asks him if either statement is true, Capote evades the question and says only: “It’s as if Perry and I started life in the same house. One day he stood up and walked out the back door while I walked out the front.”

Back in New York, Shawn sets up a public reading of early chapters of “In Cold Blood,” and the transfixed audience reacts to Capote’s tale of terror with thunderous ovation. When Perry asks Truman to let him see the book, Capote denies his request, insisting that he’s written very little, and denying that the book has a title.

Perry then surprises Capote by showing him a press clipping about the reading in New York. Though Truman has obviously lied to him, he is nonetheless able to regain Perry’s trust. Finally, Perry tells him what he has been waiting forthe story of what happened the night of the murders.

Truman and Jack attend the movie premiere of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Drunk, Truman tells Nelle he is tortured by the continuing postponements of the executions. “If they win this appeal, I’m going to have a complete nervous breakdown. I just pray that it turns my way.”

Capote is given five minutes for a final meeting with the two condemned prisoners. They are stoic, but he breaks down in tears. “I did everything I could,” he says. “I truly did.” Truman watches in horror as the executioner puts a noose and a black cloth sack over Perry’s head and pulls the lever.

On the phone, Capote tells Nelle, “It was a terrible experience and I’ll never get over it. There isn’t anything I could have done to save them.” “Maybe not,” says Nelle. “But the fact is, you didn’t want to.” With everything he needs to finally finish his book, Capote flies back to New York.

Careful research was conducted by Miller and Futterman about various pertinent issues of Capote’s and the killer’s lives. Perry and Dick wrote some 40 letters, some extremely personal, to Capote. These letters, which run several pages, offer unsparing windows into life on death row. Futterman is reportedly the only person, other than Capote and his biographer, Gerald Clarke, to have seen them. The dialogue in the movie reflects, almost verbatim, what Perry and Dick actually said.

Hoffman reproduces Truman’s odd, childish voice, but he doesn’t lisp (lisping was apparently an inaccurate cliche). Based on listening to Capote’s audiotapes of biographer Gerald Clarke’s interviews, Hoffman constructs a complex portraiture that goes way beyond impersonation.

About half of the narrative concerns the evolving intimacy between Capote and Perry in a complex relationship, one based on mutual exploitation and not including erotic overtones. The movie is careful enough to suggest (but not to spell out) whether Capote was in love with the killer.

“Capote” recreates admirably a time when writers achieved the kind of fame that’s today associated with pop culture personalities. Americans read more in those days, and books mattered. Capote was a natural born self-promoter who paved the way for the cult of celebrity that’s omnipresent today. His fame cut across all categories, from high to low culture, from literary seriousness to high society frivolity. His name was a constant in newspapers, magazines and TV shows.

As a movie, “Capote” should be commended for avoiding many pitfalls. There’s only one flashback, a scene that recreates the horrific murders, and even that flashback is unnecessary. Though Capote was a celeb, there’s no name-dropping. In one scene, Perry tells Capote, “I heard you know Elizabeth Taylor,” to which the writer doesn’t respond. And in another scene, Capote tells Nelles that Tennessee (Williams) also liked “In Cold Blood.” Moreover, there are hardly any references to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the book or the 1962 movie that boasts a wonderful performance by Audrey Hepburn.

Bits and pieces of Capote’s tumultuous life are referred to in the dialogue in the most natural way. Sitting on Perry’s bed in his prison cell, the two men, who could not have been more different, establish an intimate bond when Capote reveals that he too had a bad childhood, as a product of a broken home and the son of an alcoholic mother who dragged him from city to city.

In a period when homosexuality was anathema in America, Capote was nonchalantly and resplendently gay. Though he flaunted his homosexuality in public, wearing scarves and long elegant coats, he had a likable personality and wit that charmed all those he met. “Capote” doesn’t trivialize the author’s life by dwelling on his sexual life. The depiction of Capote’s homosexuality is non-stereotypical and taken as a given.

Capote’s relationship with his companion is ackonwledged. Ten years older than Capote, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) was in many ways his opposite, as solitary as Capote was exuberantly social. Although his work consistently received good notices from critics, he never had a best-seller. The movie provides enough details to show what each partner got out of it, and how Capote drifted apart, though the couple remained together until Capote’s death in 1984 (of complications of alcoholism).

Above all, “Capote” succeeds in demystifying the writing process, depicting in detail the long, hard years, and the ethical violation, betrayal, and manipulation that go into producing a book. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting Capote as a manipulative writer who would do anything to achieve his goal. Hidden behind Capote’s often frivolous facade is a committed writer of towering ambition, determined to make his mark on the literary world at all costs.

In Capote’s case, what begins as a routine magazine assignment ultimately becomes an epic book that consumes five and a half years of his life. Capote’s subject is as profound as any an American writer has ever tackled. He himself describes it in a brief but bombastic way as “nothing less than the collision of two Americas: the safe, protected country the Clutters knew and the rootless, amoral country inhabited by their killers.” “In Cold Blood” creates an entirely new literary genre, the non-fiction novel, making Capote the most famous writer in the country.

Biographer Clarke recalls a conversation with Capote, in which he said: There’s the one and only Truman Capote. There was nobody like me before, and there ain’t gonna be anybody like me after I’m gone.”

“Capote” the movie certainly shows that.