A social butterfly with wings dipped in acid, Truman Capote flitted through the literary beau monde during the '50s, '60s and '70s, daring anybody to ignore him. And nobody could. He was far too memorable. There were the mannerisms ' those fluttering hands, that girlish stride, and a voice that had the high-pitched languor of a thoroughly exhausted Southern belle. "For God's sake, what was that?" Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, screamed when Capote, recently hired as a copy boy, passed by in the hallway. This was before the publication of Capote's magnolia-scented novels and short stories, which catapulted him into the front ranks of American writers. And it was long before the publication of In Cold Blood, the "nonfiction novel" that both won Capote fame and fortune and, over the course of the next 20 years, killed him.
Such is the thesis proposed by Bennett Miller's quietly enthralling Capote. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous author, this story-behind-the-story look at the relationship between those who write and those who are written about had the hallmark of a tragedy ' a noble hero who, because of a fatal flaw, is reduced to ruins. Capote didn't exactly look the part of a noble hero. And Hoffman, who's savvy enough to underplay rather than overplay this Queer Studies icon, isn't afraid to let his feminine side come shining through. But he manages to convey both tenderness and toughness. Capote may have fallen in love with one of the men convicted of murdering a family of four on the windswept plains of Kansas one cold November night in 1959, but when it came to finishing his book he was a bit of a killer himself.
It was conceived as a story about two Americas ' the one inhabited by the Clutter family, a 4-H poster sprung to life, and the one inhabited by the two ex-cons who, unwilling to leave any witnesses to a robbery that netted them less than 50 bucks, extinguished that life. The details were suitably horrific: shotgun blasts to the head, a slit throat. But it was that pair of ex-cons, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who really caught Capote's eye. He'd expected to be afraid of them, repelled by them. Instead, he saw himself in Smith, an abandoned kid from a broken home who'd never been able to put the pieces of his life together. That became Capote's job, of course ' to make sense out of senseless violence. And if to understand is to forgive, then Capote's book offered penance for a crime that only seemed to have been committed in cold blood.
But first he had to get the story, a years-long process that Capote turns into a slow slide down the slippery slope of trust and betrayal. From the moment he shows up in Holcomb, Kan., his floor-length Bergdorf's scarf trailing behind him, Capote had to use every trick in the reporter's handbook to get people to talk to him, and what's so brilliant about Hoffman's performance is that we never know where the sincerity ends and the manipulation begins. Nor does Hoffman's Capote seem to know. To open doors otherwise closed to a circus freak like himself, Capote takes Harper Lee, a childhood friend who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, with him. They make a strangely effective pair, Lee (the wonderfully understated Catherine Keener) so down to earth, Capote always ready to take flight. As Capote's integrity sours, so does the friendship.
In his defense, he was caught in a bind: The only way to get at the truth was to tell some lies. And after a while, even he must not have known how he truly felt about these natural-born killers. Hoffman's scenes with Clifton Collins Jr., who plays Smith, are a delicate pas de deux, each needing something from the other, each unable to pinpoint exactly what that something is. One thing Capote needed was information ' Smith's version of what happened that night. And that was his fatal flaw, the fatal flaw of many great reporters: He was willing to do whatever it took to get that information. Then fate played a cruel trick on him: All but done with his manuscript, he had to wait and wait while Hickock and Smith were awarded one stay of execution after another. Despite the promise of literary immortality, there was no end ' or ending ' in sight.
No wonder Hoffman rarely appears in the last third of the movie without a drink in his hand. Capote had one of the more flamboyant flame-outs in the booze-soaked, drug-stoked history of American literature, throwing regular hissy fits on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" before succumbing to alcohol-related illness in 1984. He never finished another book, as Capote points out, and although the movie doesn't leave us with the impression that he got what he deserved, it does leave us with a sense of how high a price he had to pay to get what he wanted, which was a book that would forever alter our notion of literary truth. Did he betray his sources? Only before they climbed the scaffold. After that, he did exactly what he said he planned to do: "return them to the realm of humanity." Alas, his own neck wound up in the noose.