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Directed by Bennett Miller from actor Dan Futterman’s script and co-produced by star Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote is a cool and polished hall of mirrors reflecting the ways in which Truman Capote came to write (and be written by) In Cold Blood—the “nonfiction novel” about the senseless massacre of a Kansas farm family and the sociopathic drifters who committed the crime.
The author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was already experimenting with journalism when he read an account of the killings in The New York Times. Armed with a New Yorker assignment and accompanied by faithful research assistant Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), soon to publish To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote ventured into America’s heart of darkness, leveraging his celebrity to gain unprecedented access to the chief investigator (Chris Cooper) and later the perps, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). Best known for The Cruise, his 1998 docu-portrait of tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch, Miller has experience directing a vehicle for motormouth megalomania. But when Capote hits a snag of sameness, the engine stalls and the constant hum of purposeful activity rises to a dull roar.
In Cold Blood had the good fortune to be published early in the season of America’s domestic apocalypse. Its mass market saturation anticipated the two meaningless mass murders in the summer of 1966—Richard Speck’s slaughter of eight student nurses and Charles Whitman’s University of Texas clock tower shooting spree—and it was filmed by Richard Brooks in 1967. Hopelessly square in the year of Bonnie and Clyde, the movie starred Robert Blake, no less, as Smith and featured the terminally sarcastic Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane‘s valet) in the Capote role. Capote is In Cold Blood‘s In Cold Blood: Amid the true-crime scenes, Truman dazzles the audience at the 92nd Street Y and drools over Smith’s notebooks: “He’s a gold mine.”
Futterman has cited Janet Malcolm’s critique of journalism as his source of inspiration. It has been argued (I believe by Malcolm) that, in making Hickock and Smith into literary characters, Capote humanized them. That’s not true of Capote, where even their execution is all about Truman. “I don’t know what you must think of me,” he whines as the smirking killers are harnessed for the gallows. The horrors of random murder or capital punishment are subsumed by Capote’s narcissism. Nailing the writer’s querulous drawl, Hoffman plays him as a vain and peevish monster of self-absorption. Solipsism may even be the meaning of the movie. But in the bell jar that is Capote, Hoffman bogarts the oxygen; everyone else asphyxiates. Fame is its own punishment. The credit crawl suggests that In Cold Blood made Capote the most famous writer in America—Johnny Carson’s garden gnome familiar—and ruined his life.