Sunday, February 02, 2014

Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) in tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

In tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a reprint of an old article:

Little boy blue

Capote--about Truman Capote's five-year quest to write a book on the killing of a Kansas family, the friendship he develops with one of the killers, and the consequences of that friendship--is terrific, and beyond what I would have imagined director Bennett Miller was capable of. His previous feature The Cruise was a documentary about an eccentric New York tour guide, and other than the fact that both films train a largely unwavering eye on two loquacious urbanites--one openly gay, one not so open (the tour guide in The Cruise maintains that he's straight)--it's hard to believe they were the product of a single filmmaker.

The subject and glory of the film, of course, is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote. He gets most of the mannerisms down pat--the baby whisper, the fluttering hands--and even manages to make himself look smaller than his usual bulky self, but that's just the basics of the performance; beyond the nuts and bolts, he builds a portrait of a man who'll do anything--charm, bribe, lie, even tell uncomfortable truths about himself--to get the information he needs to write the book that will guarantee him literary immortality. This interpretation of Capote owes much to Dan Futterman's screenplay, I think (based on the biography by Gerald Clarke), and Hoffman runs with it--no mean feat, considering that much of the details are suggested rather than stated, and conveyed by the sequence of events rather than semaphored via one character's privileged speech, the way they are in most biopics.

Beyond Hoffman, the rest of the cast is terrific. Catherine Keener is a warm (if underwritten) Harper Lee, playing Capote's Girl Friday and liaison with the townsfolk, overall suggesting the kind of compassionately levelheaded woman that might write a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird; Chris Cooper's Officer Dewey is exactly the kind of suspicious, stolid citizen you might meet in a small town; Bruce Greenwood is modestly low-key as Jack Dunphy, Capote's longtime companion; Mark Pellegrino is chillingly cynical and crude as Dick Hickok, one of the two killers. Only Bob Balaban's William Shawn, the famous New Yorker editor who serialized the novel in his magazine, seems off--from what I've heard, he's a lot more quiet and shy in real life.

Clifton Collins, Jr., as Perry Smith (the other killer) doesn't have Robert Blake's chilling eyes in Richard Brook's 1967 film version of Capote's In Cold Blood, he does however, complement Hoffman's seductive candor with his own blend of sensitivity and neediness.

Perry and Capote's relationship is the focus of the film, of course; I'd call this a less romanticized version of Brokeback Mountain, where two men form a bond (experience friendship, perhaps even love), meeting occasionally over several years, and one of them--true to his character--proceeds to exploit said bond to his advantage. Capote sees something in common with Perry, in that they were two sensitive souls who had been neglected as children; he also perhaps sees in Perry's psychopathic capacity to kill a reflection of his own ruthlessness with regards to other people. Perry in turn responds to Capote's attention hungrily, sensing someone who for once might actually understand his situation (it never occurs to him to wonder how Capote might use that understanding). As Perry's legal fortunes wax and wane, the relationship accordingly blows hot and cold, and it's fascinating to see how this affects Capote, to see how Hoffman suggests his inner conflict: his Capote complains about the difficulties of writing the novel, about his various aches and pains (he was famously never fond of keeping his thoughts and feelings to himself), about everything in the world except what's really weighing down on his soul--the fact that while Hickock and Smith are still alive, his novel has no ending.

It's interesting to re-watch Brooks' film adaptation, aware all the time of an invisible presence walking through the corridors of the Clutter house and sitting in the jail cell beside Perry, aware that Capote had as much a role in determining the fate of the killers as anyone else around them but never once mentioning himself. Probably idle speculation on my part, but was this part of his strategy in writing the novel, that he thought it would go over better if he didn't insert himself (much less admit to what he did?)? Was it some kind of penalty he imposed on himself, a kind of self-erasure (or self-denial), in response to the guilt he felt for Perry?

The film has its minor flaws as mentioned, and one major--like Clarke's biography, it largely accepts at face value Capote's claims to have invented a genre, the "nonfiction novel" (actually there was John Hersey's 1946 Hiroshima and Luis Perez's 1947 El Coyote: the Rebel), and of the book's literary stature (Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, for example, while heavily influenced by Capote's novel, at the same time improves on it by including the kind of critical self-awareness that Capote avoided). Like Spielberg's Munich, Bennett's film relies too much on the accuracy of a single source (George Jonas' Vengeance, in Spielberg's case).

That said, it's an astonishingly assured debut fiction feature for Miller, a career-making performance for Hoffman as Capote, and one of the best mainstream (or near-mainstream) films to come out in 2005.

An odd final note (please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film): Miller seems acutely aware of the physical act of breathing in much of the film. Early on we hear Capote huffing and puffing, suggesting that in the ordinary course of life he has to struggle (thanks, I suppose, to his alcoholism and health problems) to keep up; at their execution we hear the far healthier Smith gasping desperately, as if trying to store up enough air for the time when he knows it will be totally cut off. When Smith drops--a startling moment--Capote finishes the convict's interrupted breath for him by exhaling a long stream of air. It's a sigh of relief and a sigh of sympathy--Capote's breathing because he can and Smith can't, and the film suggests that that's a difference he'll carry with him for the rest of his life.

(First published in Businessworld, 3/3/06)

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