Infamous (2006): Second, Weaker Truman Capote Movie

Judged on its own terms, “Infamous,” the second movie this year about author-celeb Truman Capote is a decent film with its own f modest merits. But movies are not made or viewed in a social void and thus, inevitable comparisons will be made to Bennett Miller’s “Capote,” the highly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film that won Philip Seymour Hoffman the Best Actor Oscar last year.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote

Can the market support two movies about the same subject, focusing on the same chapter of Capote’s life, the years in which he researched and wrote his seminal book, “In Cold Blood” Killer Films’ production of “Infamous” began shooting after “Capote” was released, but American distributor Warner Independent Picture (WIP) decided to wait with the film for close to a year in travel the global festival circuit and perhaps also get the Academy’s attention in late fall, when the Oscar race begins.

Toby Jones in Infamous

World-premiering in Telluride and Venice (within hours apart), “Infamous” will also play the Toronto Film Fest before its platformed theatrical release beginning October 13.

Comparisons between the two versions are inescapable in a situation that resembles the release of Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons” and Milos Forman’s “Valmont, two pictures drawing on the same literary source, back in 1987-1988; being first and better, Frears’ picture emerged triumphant. (See Film Comment).

Opinions may differ, and I for one, much prefer “Capote” over “Infamous” for narrative, thematic, and artistic reasons. Main problem with “Infamous” is the narrative strategy of writer-director Douglas McGrath, opting for a film that tells the story of Capote in the crucial years of 1959-1964, by placing it in the broader context of New York’s vibrant social and intellectual life, populated by artists celebs that function as sort of a modern Greek chorus.

 

Read our review of Capote

Capote (2005): Philip Seymour Hoffman Oscar Role

Casting this Greek chorus, which periodically comments on the yarn, with high-profile, beautiful actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Iabella Rossellini, and Juliet Stevenson, not mention according the role of author Nelle Harper Lee, who serves as Capote’s companion and confidante, to star Sandra Bullock, ultimately proves more distracting than rewarding.

To put it bluntly, the approach doesn’t work. In theory, it recalls Warren Beatty’s historical epic of John Reed, “Reds,” in which he integrated real-life witnesses into his tale, and perhaps even more Alan Rudolph’s pretentious literary film “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” about the New York glitterati, the fabled Dorothy Parker and the charter members of the Algonquin Round Table. While the strategy is semi-effective in Beatty’s picture, it’s a miss in Rudolph’s 1994 movie, just as it is in “Infamous.”

“Infamous” opens in 1959, with a stunning scene at New York City’s El Morocco nightclub, when a tiny man, Capote (Toby Jones), strolls in on the arm of a regal tall lady (Sigourney Weaver). A floor length Mink is passed to a coat check girl, a match is struck and a cigarette lit. Manhattans are poured, and Caviar is served, while a ravishing singer (Gwyneth Paltrow) croons Cole Porter in the spotlight.

After showing a (typical) night out on the town, full of gossip and drinks, the saga proper begins (just like “Capote”), when celebrated author Truman Capote reads a brief article buried in the New York Times on November 16, 1959 with the headline: Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain. This random event, will become a turning point in Capotes life, marks the beginning of a fascinating, obsessive, borderline erotic six-year journey, culminating in the authors crime masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” his ninth book that revolutionized the literary world with its innovative blend of fictional and non-fictional methods.

Trumans classic work is born out of the slaughter of an innocent family, a book literally and figuratively stained by the blood of their killers executions. What begins as an intriguing personal curiosity soon becomes a labor of love that calls for–and surprisingly gets–Trumans deep personal involvement with the murderers.

Capote’s undertaking affects his life in deep, unpredictable ways, including his relationship with long-time companion Jack, friendship with Harper Lee, and other significant members of his life. It also unwittingly resurrects demons of his own Capote can no longer suppress or subdue, forcing him to come to terms with a traumatic childhood, in which he was abandoned by a fame-seeking mother, who couldn’t accept her declining status as a Park Avenue denizen, after obliterating her poor Alabama origins. These are some of the fresher, innovative aspects of “Infamous” that were not dwelled upon or seen with such detail in “Capote.”

However, for the most part, “Infamous,” just like “Capote,” follows the dangerous quest for a consciously artistic greatness, chosen by Capote as he travels to Kansas to investigate the brutal murder of the Clutter family, accompanied by lifelong friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Nelle Harper Lee (Bullock).

In McGrath’s writing and Jones’ interpretation, Capote emerges as a darling of New York Citys post-WWII caf society. This version stresses more than “Capote” Trumans effeminate persona as a proud gay man, his unapologetically flamboyant dress. The film, which could have been titled “The Truman Show,” from showbiz) is so enamored of its protag that we even get a scene in which Capote learns how to twist. It’s like McGrath telling us, watch this fascinating creature in everything he does, how he eats, how he dresses, how he moves, above all, how he speaks.

Predictably, Capote’s peculiar, high-pitched voice was the object of shock and ridicule among the residents of the rural farming community where the murders took place. Eventually, though, Capote’s charisma, based on both natural and fabricated elements, does the job of impressing his captive audience, winning over the townsfolk, including Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), the strait-laced (in both senses of the terms) detective in charge of the case, with whom Capote forms an unlikely friendship.

In the first chapters, the contrast between the two men should serve as a primer of homosexual versus hetero personality in the context of late 1950s-early 1960s American culture, when being openly gay was a tabootolerated only when you were outrageously flamboyant and famous, as Capote was.

There are wonderful scenes, in which Capote is seen and heard chatting and name-dropping about his glitzy adventures, from his squabbles with Marlon (Brando) about a controversial profile he wrote, to his working, drinking and socializing with Bogey (Humphrey Bogart), John (director John Huston), and Gina (Italian star Lollobrigida) on the set of “Beat the Devil” (a film, by the way, that was a flop in 1954, but was ahead of its time and later developed a cult following).

The next day, Capot’e message-box at the hotel is full with invitations to dinners and parties all over town, eventually gaining him unparallel access to see and interview the two imprisoned killers, Perry Smith (the unrecognizable Daniel Craig, our new James Bond) and Dick Hickock (Lee Pace).

With one major exception, the scenes within the prison cells are almost the same in both pictures. As is known, Perry and Dick are caught, put on trial and sentenced to death. Capote sets out to create a psychological study of a village and how that place is affected by a vicious crime. Nonetheless, by the time he leaves, Capote had developed an intense emotional relationship with Perry that would deepen over the next five years despite court appeals, agonizing execution stays, and miles of separation.

What is implied in “Capote,” becomes overt and explicit in “Infamous,” that is the erotic tension between Capote and Perry that culminates in a borderline sex scene, in which the two men actually kiss, though not before Perry threatens to rape and humiliate the celeb in an unbearably tense but not too compelling sequence.

Through it all, the multi-faceted, complex, and even contradictory persona of Capote as eccentric, hilarious, cunning, and cerebral, is revealed in detail. To satisfy his insatiable ambition, Capote consort with his Swans, the glamorous ladies who ruled the upper strata of New York society, just as easily as he regaled wide-eyed Kansans with tales of Bogey, Marlon and Elizabeth (Taylor) over a home-cooked Christmas supper that is one of the film’s dramatic highlights.

In the end, though, “Infamous,” just like “Capote,” offers a more or less compelling study of the complex and tortured relationship between him and Perry, a bond formed in a prison cell that ultimately brings the destruction of Capotes career, as well as his soul; after “In Cold Blood,” Capote never roduced major work.

“Infamous,” however, offers a new angle than “Capote” on Nelle Harper Lee, even if she’s not as persuasively played by Bullock as she was by Catherine Keener, a far more accomplished actress. “In “Capote,” you may recall, the friendship is severed after Lee, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her only book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” realizes Capote’s selfishness and insensitivity.

In contrast, in “Infamous,” the two remain friends. Recalling convicted killer Perry Smith in the hour of his execution, Capote tells Harper Lee: “He (Perry) only kissed me on the cheek, and said, Adios, Amigo.” In this version, it’s Harper Lee who testifies to the ultimate effect of the executions, stating tellingly: Ive come to feel with deep heart-sickness that there were three deaths on the gallows that night.

A word about the acting is in order. While Toby Jones, who looks and sounds like Capote, is splendid, offering a full-bodied portrait, Bullock is too subdued as Harper Lee. Rest of the cast members, particularly the women who play the society ladies (labeled “swans” by Capote) prove more distracting than illuminating or entertaining.

As Diana Vreeland, the gifted British actress Juliet Stevenson camps up her one-liners with grand elocution that would make Maggie Smith blush, throwing the yarn out of balance and turning it into something else, sort of a Noel Coward wittily nasty take on Capote.

Cast as socialite Babe Paley, who was married to TV’s powerful tycoon William Paley, Sigourney Weaver (herself daughter of a noted TV exec) does what she can with a small role, though, admittedly, the sight of the six-foot tall patrician-looking actress and the short and physically unassuming Jones dancing together, is amusing to behold. Worst of the femmes is Isabella Rossellini as Italian socialite Marella Agnelli, who’s given nothing to do or to say.

The production’s deliberately lush look of Manhattan’s Upper East Side offer a poignant contrast with the modest, bleak feel of the provincial Kansas town, with its modest hotels and pubs (that lack the requisite liquor for a celeb like Capote), prison cells, and the vast and barren surrounding landscape.