CAPOTE

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


“Capote” is a beautifully acted piece of the life of a gifted and rather unpleasant man.  On the day the writer read of the murders of a prosperous Kansas farm family, he called editor William Shawn of the New Yorker to announce that he needed to go to the scene to write a story about the crime.  The childhood friend who accompanied him was Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), whose book To Kill a Mockingbird, was accepted for publication during this trip to do the research for  In Cold Blood.
              By the time they made that first trip, Capote was the gay man-child darling of literary and social New York.  He wrote good books and good stories, but it was In Cold Blood that would make him, for a time, the most influential writer in the country.  Director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman have pulled a near miracle out of the impossible.  In a film about brutal murder, everything – the murderers, the murdered, the police, just slips away into the shadow of Capote himself.  The small man with the peculiar voice was a squat vessel of vanity and confidence.  He believed absolutely that he was interesting and compelling to other people.  Ever the outsider, he behaved like the center of the universe.

The inherent drama of the innocent mid-western farm family and the motiveless criminals simply moves aside for the book Capote says will change the way people write.  After befriending Perry Smith in a trusting friendship, likely built partly on Capote’s gay sensibilities and partly on his own ambition, Capote betrays Smith by refusing to carry through on his promise to help with his appeal of the death sentence.   Whether the man in question was Perry Smith, his murderous colleague Dick Hickock, or Capote’s lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), Capote’s loyalty and love were given to one man:  himself.   He was waiting to see how the story would end.  He had invented reality literature.

Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee is as loyal and supportive as Capote is not.  She goes to the limits of friendship by dressing him down when he oversteps.  She is both subtle and strong in an excellent performance.  The grandly intelligent Chris Cooper gives a needed hard edge to perceptive Sheriff Alvin Dewey.  Amy Ryan is fine as his celebrity hungry wife.  It is not surprising that the murderers (Clifton Collins Jr. and Mark Pelligrino) don’t come to life.  When Capote is on screen with one or the other, neither holds any interest next to the burning man who is talking to them.

For those of us whose view of Capote was formed late in his life as he became a late night talk show guest, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is uncanny.  There is the voice, the posture, the affectation, the selfishness, the deadly alcohol.  Watching a talented, driven narcissist is not a pleasant experience, but Mr. Hoffman has made it a consistently riveting one. 

 


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