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Capote, starring Best Actor Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, tells the story of the writing of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's most famous and successful work, a "nonfiction novel" that gave birth to New Journalism. His research and writing took six years and the book made Capote the most famous writer in the world, but there was a steep price paid for this success. Many feel that the process of creating the work ultimately destroyed its creator, bringing to mind the quote from Saint Theresa of Avila that inspired the title of Capote's unfinished novel, Answered Prayers: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers."
Based upon the masterful biography by Gerald Clarke, the film begins with Capote, already well-known for his novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a darling of the New York literary world, holding forth at a cocktail party. Ever since his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was published in 1948, Capote had been the openly gay, flamboyant and brilliantly witty "enfant terrible" of the literary world. A master stylist, he was a brilliant self-promoter, with the ability to seduce people into revealing themselves in ways they could never have imagined.
In 1949, Capote read a newspaper article about the murder of a prominent and successful West Kansas farmer, Herb Clutter, his wife and two teenaged children. With permission from New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban), he flew to Holcomb, Kansas with his childhood friend, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), soon to win the Pulitzer Prize for her own novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. His plan was to write an article about the sensational crime. An odd duck by any standards, Capote, with his childlike voice, fey mannerisms, and eccentric clothes, set many solid West Kansas jaws a-droppin'. But he charmed them all and got them to talk. And talk. "After a month I was practically the mayor," he bragged.
Once the killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), two career criminals who had met in prison, were caught, Capote charmed and bribed his way into gaining unlimited access to them. Hickock, a former high school star athlete turned check forger, was of little interest to Capote. Instead he focused his lens on Smith, a self-described loser with deformed legs caused by an accident, a tragic family history of poverty and multiple suicides, and who was, by Capote's estimation, a true sociopath, albeit a sane one, with artistic aspirations. Capote, who had had a miserable childhood marked by abandonment by his mother and being shuttled from aunt to aunt, identified with Smith, who ultimately confessed to doing the actual killings. He and Hickock had been led to believe by a fellow jailbird who had worked for the family that the Clutters kept $10,000 in cash in their house. It wasn't true. The murderous pair ended up with less than fifty dollars, and four deaths on their conscience, if they had one.
The real story of Capote lies in the conflict generated within the central character, a conflict that Hoffman projects impressively. Hoffman wisely does not attempt to channel Truman Capote as he was, an impossible task given the complexities and contradictions of Capote's personality. Nor does he fall into the trap of parodying the writer, who in his later years became the ultimate self-parodist, the drunken, talk-show buffoon, famous for being famous. Hoffman, Director Bennett Miller, and screenwriter Dan Futterman succeed together in recreating the writer in a way that advances the story and gives it its considerable credibility and power.
The central conflict that we witness in Capote is quite simple. Truman, in befriending, and many believe falling in love with Perry Smith, acts as a conduit to attorneys that could help the prisoners with their appeals. As the case drags on, and Capote becomes increasingly tired and restive, he is forced to confront a grim reality: in order for his book to come to a sufficiently dramatic conclusion, Perry and Hickock need to die. What ultimately occurs sends Capote into a spiral of drinking and drugging and inexplicably vicious behavior that alienates his lovers and causes his wealthy friends to abandon him. His life ends tragically, much of his promise unfulfilled. There'll never be another TC, he tells a friend shortly before his death, and he may well have been right.
The film is slow-paced at times, but what is projected onto the screen seems completely genuine and often unrehearsed. The color palette chosen is deliberately limited, and the scenes depicting the endless Kansas plains, actually filmed in Winnipeg, Canada, are indescribably moving. Those open spaces, those towns that were, as Capote wrote, bypassed by drama just as they were by the railroad trains that rumble across the land, finally bore witness to a terrible tragedy.
The disc is presented in a 2.35-1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with excellent overall detail. The score is in Dolby Digital 5.1, doing justice to the predominant strings and piano in the score.
The extras include 2 feature-length audio commentaries which include informative statements by Hoffman concerning the manner in which he learned to inhabit his challenging role in the face of Capote's highly eccentric, larger-than life persona. The emotional spontaneity sought by the creators, exemplified by Hoffman's spontaneously bursting into tears near the end, offers an interesting window into the craft of acting.
There are three featurettes, of which I found the shortest, "Truman Capote: Answered Prayers", to be the most absorbing. It focuses on the writer himself, with commentary by Gerald Clarke, Capote's biographer, concerning the long series of wine-drenched interviews taking place in fancy restaurants and Clarke's observing Capote's final decline. The two other featurettes provide detailed behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of the film. Too long and detailed for my taste, but of good quality and potential appeal. Overall, the disc is well worthy of purchase and an informative addition to any collection of biographical material concerning a man who remains fascinating and enigmatic more than twenty years after his death.
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