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Capote Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/04/2006

Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor that I knew would eventually become a top-billed actor, but I never realized that he would be getting the major kudos that he received following his performance as Truman Capote in the Academy Award-nominated Capote.  I, for one, agree with all of the well-deserved praise he has gotten, because he became Capote, despite being a little taller than the actual man was.

On November 15, 1959, a 17-year-old neighbor named Laura Kinney (Allie Mickelson) came over to find Herb Clutter (Manfred Maretzki), his wife Bonnie (Miriam Smith), their 16-year-old daughter (and Laura’s friend) Nancy (Kelci Stephenson), and their 15-year-old son Kenyon (Philip Lockwood) brutally murdered in their house in Holcomb, Kansas.  Herb was a well-respected and well-liked wealthy farmer, so the murders were a shock to the nation.  A few days later, Truman Capote (Hoffman), a famous author who had already had success with the 1951 novella The Grass Harp and the 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, reads a brief 300-word article in the New York Times about the murder.  He thinks it might make for an interesting article for his work in The New Yorker, so he tells his editor, William Shawn (Bob Balaban), that it will be his next piece for the paper.  He heads for Kansas with his childhood friend and research assistant Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) to begin work on the story.  While Capote is flamboyant and outspoken with a childlike voice, Lee is more down-to-earth, so he wants her to come with him to be his “personal bodyguard” and to act as a buffer between him and the “common folk.”  Within months, she will publish the American classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which wins the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is made into an Academy Award-nominated movie starring Gregory Peck (who won Best Actor for that movie.)  Capote meets with local sheriff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who is in charge of the search for the killers.  Alvin is reluctant at first to help Capote, but his wife Marie (Amy Ryan), who is a huge fan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, convinces him.  On January 6, 1960, Dewey and his men capture the two suspects, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), in Las Vegas, and he extradites them back to Kansas.  The suspected killers were misinformed that there was a $10,000 stash in the Clutter farmhouse, and when they didn’t find it, they murdered the family and took off.  After looking at the closed caskets of the Clutter family without permission and seeing the horrific state of their demise, Capote realizes that this story is more than just a newspaper article…it will be the first ever “non-fiction novel.”  At first he didn’t care if the suspects were ever caught, but when they are, he bribes the local warden, Marshall Krutch (Marshall Bell), for unrestricted access to them (Krutch is running for congress, so he is more than willing to help out a celebrity author.)  Since Perry seems to be the more agreeable of the two, Capote tries to find out as much information as he can from him.  As time goes by, he finds himself being able to identify with Perry.  According to Capote, “I feel like Perry and I grew up in the same house.  One day he got up and walked out the back door, and I walked out the front.”  Capote gets the suspects a new lawyer so that he can get the whole story, which takes time.  All of the time spent on his book puts a strain on his friendship with Lee and his relationship with his lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood.)  After reading the first few drafts of Capote’s book, which he has titled In Cold Blood, Shawn arranges for a public reading.  When Perry hears of the reading, Capote lies to him and tells him that it’s just a name that the publishers slapped onto it.  Capote purposely sees Perry less and less, because he wants to complete his book, and he can’t do that until Perry and Hickock are executed, which happens on April 14, 1965.  In Cold Blood is published in 1966, and a movie version is made the year after (with a TV movie remake that came out in 1996.)  Capote never wrote another novel again, supposedly because of his guilt over the manipulation of Perry, but he did contribute several articles to various magazines over the years before he died of liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication at age 59 on August 25, 1984.

Aside from the Oscar, Hoffman won a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Independent Spirit Award, a Satellite Award, a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, a National Board of Review Award, an Online Film Critics Society Award, and several regional awards for his performance.  In fact, I can’t think of a single award show that didn’t award him something for it.  Hoffman has been awarded before in diverse roles, like 1998’s creepy Happiness, 1999’s odd Flawless, and 2000’s brief appearance in Almost Famous, but it wasn’t until this role that he got to shine (fans of Hoffman would argue that he has already shined…now the rest of America agrees with them.)

Hoffman shines so much that he threatens to overtake the great performances of the rest of the cast.  Keener received almost as many award nominations as Hoffman, but her role was surprisingly subdued.  In fact, after the initial research that she does for Capote in the beginning of the movie, and the premiere of the movie version of Mockingbird, she is pretty much absent for the latter half of the movie.  I’m not saying that she wasn’t good in this movie or that she didn’t deserve the praise; I’m just saying that she has been more impressive in other roles (even her comic turn in last year’s 40-Year-Old Virgin was more entertaining.)  Other critics have also heaped praise on Cooper, but I’m not sure why, because he was in the movie even less than Keener (he’s still good though…as brief as his role was.)  I could go on and on about the great performances of all of the rest of the cast, but the only role that stood out to me, other than Hoffman, was that of Collins Jr.  He managed to portray Perry as a fragile character, yet cold-blooded underneath.  I’m actually surprised that some critics have considered his performance one of the only low points in an otherwise great film.  They all want to compare him to Robert Blake’s performance from the 1967 movie version of In Cold Blood, which I think is unfair.  Collins Jr. is one of those actors that you have seen many times, but you just can’t remember his name.  After this movie, I think that more people will finally remember it.

To think that Capote was directed by Bennett Miller, a director who was making his first foray into movies with actual actors in it (his only other movie was The Cruise, a 1998 documentary about Tim “Speed” Levitch, who was a tour guide for Manhattan’s Gray Line double-decker buses), is amazing.  Miller got those amazing performances out of the actors, and he filmed it in a slightly off-color style that had a retro feel to it.  It’s also amazing that the screenplay (using Gerald Clarke’s 1988 biography of Capote) was written and produced by actor Dan Futterman, an actor my mom may recognize from the CBS show “Judging Amy,” and that I recently saw in the WB show “Related.”  Along with Collins Jr., he is one of those actors you may recognize, but you may not remember his name.  Since he is behind the scenes for this movie, you still may not match his name with his face, but if he continues to write more screenplays like this one, you will most likely enjoy his future work.  I actually feel bad for Infamous, a movie starring Toby Jones as Truman Capote, Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, Daniel Craig as Perry Smith, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Peggy Lee (huh?), because it covers the same ground and is due to be released in New York and Los Angeles in November.  Comparisons are bound to be made by everyone (including me), because this movie will be hard to top.

Get the soundtrack featuring Truman Capote reading from In Cold Blood and songs composed by Mychael Danna:

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Get the Truman Capote novel that inspired this film:

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