Does Capote get the writer right?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 6 2005 3:47 PM

In Warm Blood

What the film got right about Truman Capote.

Note: This is the second part of a two-part article. To return to Part 1, click here.

Book cover

Capote is focused almost entirely on the six years during which In Cold Blood was being researched and written, and this deliberate sense of containment is a mostly inspired artistic decision. (I wish that the filmmakers had stuck entirely to their decision to keep the movie's scope small and not tried for a run at a fuller biopic treatment by telescoping the facts of Capote's eventual decline at the end.) Capote's exhibitionism and narcissism are very much in evidence—and, lest we somehow fail to recognize these traits, his pal Nelle (the writer Harper Lee, played with great pliancy and an unexpected softness by Catherine Keener) is always on hand to help underline them. Nelle, who accompanied Capote on his first trip to Kansas and helped ease his dialogue with the solid-citizen types who were initially put off by his flippant humor and sashaying ephebe manners, is especially impatient with her friend's professions of having done everything he could to help the killers appeal the death penalty. (He did intervene on their behalf but eventually backed off.) When, for instance, we see Capote on the phone with Nelle toward the end of the film, trying to rustle up some sympathy after the long ordeal of writing the book and the more recent ordeal of having witnessed Perry and Dick's execution, six years after their conviction, she crisply cuts into his self-absorbed reverie: "They're dead, Truman," she points out. "You're alive." (In Clarke's biography, it is actually Truman's lover Jack Dunphy who says this.)

Although some reviewers have charged the film with soft-pedaling Capote's more egregious sides—his betrayal, for instance of the bonds he forged with the killers, or his eagerness to see them hang so he could have a conclusion for his book—the filmmakers are more than keen to highlight Capote's moral compromises and deceitful journalistic methods. We see him telling Perry (played by Clifton Collins Jr.) that he hasn't written much of the book (when in fact it is practically finished) and insisting that the title, which rubs Perry's aesthetic sensibilities and noble misfit sense of himself the wrong way, won't be In Cold Blood. But the dark and unscrupulous strands running through Capote's character—the persistent suggestion that he cut his loyalties to suit his deadlines—strike me as much the least interesting part of the story. Capote could have had these same flaws, the same powers of seduction and ambiguous affections, and not gone off and written a masterpiece in prose that Norman Mailer once judged to be "word for word, rhythm for rhythm" the best of his generation. Capote might have written a mediocre thriller, or a piece of competent journalism, instead of a book that transformed the workmanlike genre of true-crime into a starkly realistic yet lyrical work of art that changed the way literary journalism was done, for better and for worse.

We surely all know by now that journalists are a bad bunch—a "morally indefensible" species of con-artist always looking to sell someone out—if only because the best of them (Janet Malcolm and Joan Didion) are always ratting on themselves. The truth is that by today's scoop-obsessed and elasticized journalistic standards, Capote comes off looking better than most. At least he had the decency to be sufficiently conflicted about the devil's bargain he struck in pursuit of his story to still be summoning up the ghost of Perry Smith in an essay called "Self Portrait," which he wrote six years after In Cold Blood appeared:

A young man with black cowlicked hair. He is wearing a leather harness that keeps his arms strapped to his sides. He is trembling; but he is speaking to me, smiling. All I can hear is the roar of blood in my ears. Twenty minutes later he is dead, hanging from the end of a rope.

In Conversations With Capote, a series of talks Laurence Grobel recorded with the writer during the last two years of his life, Capote refers to the writing of In Cold Blood as "the most emotional experience of my creative life" and discusses his opposition to the death penalty. To say that he wasn't genuinely attached to the killers (and deeply sympathetic toward Perry Smith) or exorcised over capital punishment, as Kenneth Tynan and others have, seems to me blatantly unfair. I am convinced that the case haunted him—and certainly derailed him—up until his death.

Indeed, the insights of Capote have little to do with the cautionary tale aspect of the film. It seems to me that the film would have made a more compelling statement about the soul-scorching cost of the obsessionalism that fuels creative endeavor had it not italicized the trade-offs and compromises that eased Capote's path and thereby made it easy for viewers to write him off as a manipulative egomaniac—someone a bit like themselves, only weirder. The real revelation of Hoffman's performance is that it shows Capote at the height of his astonishing powers, conscientiously plying his trade, looking, talking, brooding, wandering in his head, entering other people's heads, brooding some more, imaging his way into an alien world. Something flits across Hoffman's eyes early in the film, when he suddenly realizes he has made the wrong insouciant remark to Alvin Dewey, the lawman on the case, who was a close friend of Herb Clutter. Then, in a matter of seconds, internal adjustments are made, decisions are taken, and the two men forge an alliance.

Film has tended to present the unkinetic profession of writing in one of two stereotyped ways: as a precarious occupation that takes place in garreted isolation—think of a red-eyed, holed-up Jane Fonda wildly puffing at her cigarettes in Julia—or as a cushy desk job that resembles a less energetic form of interior decoration, which is what it looks like whenever Diane Keaton sits down at her laptop in Something's Gotta Give. Capote enables us to grasp, more than any movie on the subject I have seen, what it is exactly that a writer does when he or she writes, how observation leads to perception leads to the crafting of sentences. In so doing, it gets far closer to the complicated, elusive heart of this strange calling—the way it is both an explicitly private but implicitly public act, a means of rendezvousing with the self but also of showcasing the self—than any cinematic depiction until now. During the film, Capote observes, almost as an aside, that he feels as though he and Perry had grown up in the same house, except that one left by the front door and one by the back. After paying a visit to Perry in his cell, Capote lies on his bed and watches bars of light move across the ceiling of his room, like a free-floating image of incarceration. That scene helps to establish the mystery at the heart of great writing, the way it crosses over from darkness to light, from a restaurant in Great Bend where two drifters chow down a steak dinner in preparation for their mayhem-producing scheme to a neat farmhouse a hundred miles away where the Clutters are sleeping unawares, under a full and impervious moon.

Daphne Merkin is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler. She lives in New York City and is at work on a memoir, Melancholy Baby.