Capote: Writing in Cold Blood

 

Truman Capote has had a tremendous influence on journalism. “In Cold Blood” is the book to read for any student aspiring to become a great reporter. Apparently, Capote was aware of the future legacy of his book; at one point in this film, he says “Sometimes when I think of how good my book is going to be, I can’t breathe.” “In Cold Blood” ushered in a new era of New Journalism where reporters told their stories the same way you tell a good fictional tale – without turning it into actual fiction. This film, documentary filmmaker Bennett Miller’s first nonfiction feature, tells the story of how Capote made it happen.

The story begins in Kansas in 1959. When a wheat farmer and his family are murdered in their home, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reads about it in the New York Times. At this point in his career, he’s the man behind “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; he’s also the life of many parties in New York and one of very few celebrities who live a relatively open life as a homosexual. He is intrigued by the story about the Kansas murders and wants to write about them. His best friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), on the verge of publishing her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, follows him to Kansas to work as his assistant. They familiarize with the locals, including Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) who works for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Capote’s superior memory makes it possible for him to write down quotes several hours after a conversation. Eventually, two men, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), are arrested for the murders and it’s obvious early on that they are guilty. Capote makes an effort to get closer to the men for the sake of his book and he finds Perry particularly suitable for intimate conversations; he’s the more emotionally sensitive and troubled of the duo. As Capote realizes that he has a lot in common with the killer, his work on the book is beginning to take its toll and finishing it before the state executes the two men becomes a challenge.

A definitive breakthrough for Hoffman
Actor Dan Futterman did an excellent job adapting Gerald Clarke’s novel; it came as something of a surprise that the guy who played Tyne Daly’s son on Judging Amy would do something this incisive, that he’d get an Oscar nomination for his first filmed screenplay. He portrays Capote as the troubled person he was; a self-centered, careless, heavy-drinking, eccentric personality who chose alcohol and loneliness during his bouts with depression rather than seeking help from his friends – or the man he loved. Hoffman got a definitive breakthrough (and reward) for his portrayal of a writer who found it hard to respect people in his life, and who may not have done everything he could to help the one person who made “In Cold Blood” possible; he’s even got Capote’s high-pitched, effeminate voice down. Collins, Jr. is also impressive as Perry, the criminal who never got much of an education but still learned a lot from reading. The second half of the film focuses on Capote’s emotional difficulties when his own feelings of guilt almost destroyed him; Hoffman’s magnificent performance carries the story through the times when it threatens to become a bit ordinary.

Director Miller tells the story without much fuss. He follows a journalist’s creed that says if a story is powerful enough all you’ve gotta do is tell it straight up. This is one instance where the same is true for a nonfiction feature.

Capote 2005-U.S. 115 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Caroline Baron, Michael Ohoven, William Vince. Directed by Bennett Miller. Screenplay: Dan Futterman. Novel: Gerald Clarke. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote), Catherine Keener (Nelle Harper Lee), Clifton Collins, Jr. (Perry Smith), Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban… Amy Ryan.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Hoffman and Futterman. This story was also told in Infamous (2006). Sandra Bullock was allegedly considered for the part of Harper Lee.

Oscar: Best Actor (Hoffman). BAFTA: Best Actor (Hoffman). Golden Globe: Best Actor (Hoffman).

Last word: “There’s a quality I had to get across. I was thin and wearing great clothes, sitting there in those great suits and holding a drink in your hand, hair cut short, clean-shaven. The style that he had was not a style that I had, and it was very pleasing. He was a high profile person; the chance of failure was greater. I struggled a long time about not doing it well.” (Hoffman, Combustible Celluloid)

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