Does Capote get the writer right?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 6 2005 3:51 PM

In Warm Blood

What the film got right about Truman Capote.

Note: This is the first of a two-part article. For Part 2, click here.

The Truman show 
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The Truman show

Long before I ever read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood—with its "immaculately factual" (according to Capote) descriptions of the lead-up to and aftermath of four random murders that occurred in the very early morning of Nov. 15, 1959, in an isolated farmhouse in the tiny hamlet (population 270) of Holcomb, Kan.—bloodied images of the Clutter family used to color my adolescent dreams. Thanks to my mother's transfixed reading of Capote's account as it appeared in four consecutive installments in The New Yorker in the fall of 1965, when I was 11, I was aware of the book well before it was published, and had pestered my mother for all the ghoulish details. I would lie in bed at night, envisioning Nancy Clutter, only five years older at the time of her death than I was then—kind, journal-keeping Nancy Clutter, 16 and rarely been kissed—lying with her hands and feet bound in her pink and white bed, listening in the dark to the ominous sound of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock coming up the stairs in their boots. Nancy was dispatched with one shotgun blast to her head, like her younger brother and her parents (Mr. Clutter's throat had first been slit). I don't know when it was exactly that I learned of Perry's limp, acquired in a motorcycle wreck that was one of the innumerable mishaps that marked his own desolate growing up, but I do remember being intrigued enough by the detail to incorporate it into my re-creation of Nancy's last minutes.

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For this was the thing about In Cold Blood—and about Capote's trumpeting of his "non-fiction novel" as an innovative narrative form that drew on both the persuasiveness of fact and the poetic altitude of fiction: It decisively upped the literary ante. Every detail about the Clutter case, from the idyllic-seeming family with conservative heartland values who were the victims, to the two punks who had little in common but a sense of derring-do, a collection of tattoos, and a chewing-gum habit, seemed thrilling and potentially life-transforming. It was as though the more details you had firmly in hand—the killers' final pathetic haul of $43, a pair of binoculars, and a transistor radio (a far cry from the $10,000 they'd been told by a former cellmate of Hickock's that they'd find in Herb Clutter's safe); the lingering postpartum depressions of Mrs. Clutter; Perry Smith's love of esoteric, triple-inning words—the closer you might come to comprehending not only the age-old question of good versus evil, but the haphazard workings of fate itself. It was as if the details could explain why one moment the small-town assumption that it is safe to sleep with unlocked doors still holds up, and the next moment the worst has happened and your neighbors suddenly strike you as potentially homicidal.

In Cold Blood made the largely passive acts of observing and writing seem freshly potent, as though the movies hadn't yet gobbled up all the cultural oxygen. The book made Capote, as he put it, "the most famous author in America"; George Plimpton described the newly lionized writer as becoming "so extraordinarily famous that he was recognized by the average person in the street." Whatever you chose to make of Capote's puffy claims about himself or the artistic ground he insisted he was breaking (he was at pains to separate himself from the pack of New Journalists, like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, whom he considered to lack "the proper fictional equipment"), there is no doubt that he helped create a more intimate and crafted kind of journalism. His anthropological method lent the aimless, misspent lives of Hickock and Smith as equally textured a reality as the God-fearing, cherry-pie-baking lives of their victims. With only the sustained quality of his attention and his prodigious memory to call on, Capote succeeded in making the eventual collision of these two worlds a paradigmatic (and, as it turned out, psychologically plausible) tragedy that reverberated long after it actually occurred. In doing so he brought to the literary landscape an energy and allure—a sense of high-stakes drama—that it hadn't seen since the days when Victorian readers awaited the death of Dickens' Little Nell.

Inhabiting Capote 
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Inhabiting Capote

Capote, which opened last week, has been justly praised on many fronts, from its subtle, literate script (based on Gerald Clarke's biography, Capote) and quietly memorable cinematography (Adam Kimmel), to the unobtrusively effective score and the remarkable work of its cast. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movie is how assured it is for a novice effort. It is the first feature for both the director, Bennett Miller (his previous credits include 204 commercials and a one-man digital documentary, The Cruise), and the screenwriter, Dan Futterman (this is his first produced screenplay), and it is noticeably lacking, with one or two exceptions (such as the oddly mistuned, avuncular portrait of William Shawn), in wrong turns or amateurish moves. Almost from the moment the camera pans across the flat wheat fields and wide swath of Midwestern sky, the film establishes a sense of parallel universes, deftly cutting from a scene "out there" in unpopulous Kansas in which Nancy Clutter's best friend knocks at the door of the silent farmhouse where her friend lies dead, to a throbbing, smoke-filled Manhattan gathering where Capote, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, holds an audience of literati spellbound with his glittering, frequently heartless anecdotes. The versatile Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabits Capote as though they were brothers under the skin, with a degree of empathy that circumvents caricature (unlike Robert Morse's portrayal of Capote in Broadway's Tru) and adds a note of poignancy to even his character's less endearing traits.

Most of us know Capote only by way of the sensationalistic images he cultivated on his way up (The New Yorker's Brendan Gill once described the young Capote as a "gorgeous apparition, fluttering, flitting up and down the corridors") or the scandalous gossip that circulated around the 5-foot-3-inch "Tiny Terror," as he was dubbed, on his way down, after his muse had largely abandoned him. The perennially baby-faced creature, whose gargantuan charm and savage opinions wore less and less well, wobbled on and off talk shows in an alcohol- and drugged-induced haze, still childlike of mien and sibilantly nasal of tone (Capote's voice was once compared to that of a baby seal), before he died at the age of 59. * But right from the beginning, even before he moved into the social epicenter on the arms of the rich and beautiful women he called his "swans," there was something both ephemeral and larger than life about him. You can see it in the early, faunlike jacket photo on the back of Other Voices, Other Rooms, where the 23-year-old writer is posed lolling on a sofa for maximal winsome effect, like a beautiful boy who got lost on the way to reform school.

How does the film treat Capote's darker side?  To see Part 2, click here.

Correction, Oct. 11, 2005: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Truman Capote died at age 60. In fact, he died just before his 60th birthday.

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. 

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