Demure in stature, flamboyant and bitchy, Truman Capote was a caricature long before impersonator Rich Little added the author and talk show gadfly to his repertoire. Even Capote jumped on the caricature bandwagon, spoofing himself in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death.

Except for Robert Morse’s loving stage tribute, by the time the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s died of an overdose in 1984, it was impossible to take him seriously. Everything was different in 1966, when Capote released In Cold Blood, a stunning crime drama he termed a nonfiction novel. Depicting the ruthless shotgun slaughter of a Kansas farm family and the two men brought to justice for the crime, In Cold Blood transformed the author into a literary giant.

In Cold Blood also served as Capote’s pinnacle, and though he turned out several books, screenplays, and stories after it’s publication, he never achieved the same success or notoriety.

Capote, the new film from director Bennett Miller, arrives twenty-one years after the author’s death, and with a potent, penetrating performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, couldn’t be more relevant. Hoffman delivers a brave performance, faithfully surrendering any trace of himself to become the writer. Most actors would settle for imitation, but Hoffman works from the inside out.

Watching Hoffman slowly peel away layer after layer until he and the character are emotionally naked is the stuff of Oscar gold. Hoffman has always been an actor’s-actor, but as Capote he catches us off guard. It’s a seamless performance, one which dares us to look closer. If we don’t accept Hoffman as Capote, then his involvement in what eventually became one of those most gripping crimes stories ever penned would be a waste of our time. It isn’t.

On its own level, the story behind the story is just as fascinating, and screenwriter Dan Futterman (based on the novel by Gerald Clarke) instantly engages us when Capote convinces New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) there might be a story in the murder of four family members on a Kansas farm. What begins as a piece about how tragedy affects a small town unexpectedly blossoms into a full-fledged crime drama after the killers are apprehended.

Although he doesn’t initially pursue the killer angle, Capote changes his mind when he meets the two men accused of the crime: Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Realizing the literary and financial benefits of the story, Capote befriends Smith, knowing his book will betray his growing infatuation with the killer. Capote is at its best dealing with crossroads, how the characters decide to take one road over another. The author realizes the only way to understand the mind of a killer is to get inside it, and once there, finds himself imprisoned by the disturbing imagery.

Capote’s deal with the devil in order to get inside the killer’s head and thus the farmhouse during the slaughter takes its toll on him, and its these moments where Hoffman excels. Bitchy turns into bitterness and despair, apathy into anger, and yet we still find ourselves in Capote’s corner.

Catherine Keener has some excellent moments as Capote cohort and fellow author Nelle Harper Lee, on the verge of publishing To Kill a Mockingbird. Chris Cooper is convincing as the reluctant agent in charge of the case, while Collins Jr. makes a sympathetic monster.

Unlike the 1967 Richard Brooks film based on the book, Capote has more on its mind than murder. With perfectly realized characters, tight direction, thoughtful dialogue, and exquisite period detail, Capote is about how our fascination with the dark side can leave can leave a scar.

The Truman Show

Hoffman Books A Date With Capote


Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated R. 115 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $8.00

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