dir: Douglas McGrath
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The makers of this flick must have been sooooo pissed off when Capote came out, with Philip Seymour Hoffman being lauded to the high heavens and beyond. It guaranteed that no matter how splendiferous Infamous turned out to be, it was always going to be seen as an also-ran, as a bandwagon-jumper, as opportunistic.
I’m talking about amongst critics. The general public wouldn’t care, because the general public never went and watched Capote in the first place. The general public couldn’t care less about Truman Capote, and probably think that if he isn’t the president who dropped the bomb on Japan, he’s the guy The Truman Show was based on.
Even if In Cold Blood is still a book that appears on the syllabus for many a high school student, an investigation into the life and times of its author hardly seems like a timely endeavour. The fact that two such films came out in such close proximity shouldn’t point to a resurgence in Capote-mania. It’s probably more a case of one studio hearing about another studio going for the prestige market, and deciding they’d get theirs out there too. Kind of like an Armageddon/Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak/Volcano, Triumph of the Will/It’s a Wonderful Life type situation.
Whatever happened, we now have two recent films where the events surrounding the publication of In Cold Blood are brought up and regurgitated onto the big (or little) screen.
In both films, it’s Capote that’s the real focus, and not the crimes committed by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The murder of the Clutter family in Kansas is but the prelude to a riveting story about a New York sophisticate who travels out to the sticks in order to dole out fashion tips and etiquette advice to the rubes who live thereabouts.
Or something like that. Truman Capote (Toby Jones) travels out to Kansas with his dear friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), of To Kill A Mockingbird fame in order to write a book that would revolutionise both the fields of non-fiction writing and journalism. In essence, this was to become known as the New Journalism, and created the True Crime genre and the excruciating style of article that is half-read everywhere from the New Yorker to the Good Weekend.
It gave license, essentially, to hacks like Capote, to create a broad canvas of characters and landmarks, and to populate it with the forensic details of a crime, and an extrapolation into the mindsets of all the protagonists and minor players involved to reveal the ‘truth’ of an event that actually occurred. Of course, Capote has been revealed to have never let the truth get in the way of an amusing anecdote, so much of what he’s famous or infamous for creating is debatable in terms of its validity.
At the very least we can say that the situation was a unique one, and had captured the national imagination. When the Clutters are murdered, Middle America is terrified, terrified out of its gingham dresses, twin sets and pearls, bifocals and sock garters, and out of its freaking collective mind. What savagery could attack the home and hearth in Kansas? Of course such behaviour could be expected in California, New York, or anywhere else filled with immigrants and darked skinned people. But in 1950s Kansas, this is unheard of. Who would kill an entire family, and for what? Was it a jealous neighbour, a travelling Fuller Brush salesman, some aliens from Roswell, what could it have been?
The details of the crime and the capture of the perpetrators is well covered in the book, and in the excellent film version of In Cold Blood from 1967. This flick isn’t about that, and neither was Capote. They’re all about Capote, and what he was like as a person, as a deeply contradictory, alternately affectionate and cold-hearted manipulator of the people around him.
As a flamboyantly out of the closet individual, in neither film does he see any purpose or percentage in hiding what he is like. His wheezy lisp and effeminate manner hides a keen intelligence, effective in getting people onside even when they’re disgusted with him.
Infamous has, for me, the primary virtue of being a far less boring film than Capote. As celebrated and vaunted as Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote was, it generally felt like a caricature, or like an impersonation. The problem therein could lie with the fact that I’ve seen Phillip Seymour Hoffman in dozens of films, and like him a whole hell of a lot. With Toby Jones, I actually felt like I was watching Truman Capote. He embodies instead of performs the character. It helps that I’ve not seen Jones in anything I can recall.
More importantly, the structure of Infamous lends itself to a more interesting telling of the tale as it stands, and the telling of what a seriously screwed up individual Capote was, and the bizarre situation he got himself into with the relationship he developed with Perry Smith.
As in the book, as in either film, as is the factual record we can somewhat rely upon, Capote did wheedle his way into the jail cells of the two gallows-bound criminals. Where the various accounts diverge is upon the detail of what the nature of his relationship was with Perry. In Capote it’s implied; in Infamous it’s made explicit that theirs is a clumsily sexual relationship. In Capote the protagonist hand feeds Perry some baby food; in Infamous they actively kiss.
Various accounts claim Capote has a sexual relationship with Smith, but tired of him and actively tried to get the long, drawn out execution processes foreshortened so as to get the ending his book desperately needed. Based on external accounts, and on the Capote represented here, it’s something he easily could have lied about since it appealed to his vanity to be telling Manhattan society dames that a brutish, virile criminal had loved Capote, in any sense of the word. I personally don’t care.
Watching Toby Jones and Daniel Craig (yes, the current James Bond plays Perry) kiss is not much of a thrill for me. But it does indicate just how complicated the situation must have become. In Capote, it is his guilt over wanting Perry and Dick to die that is blamed for sending Capote on the downward spiral that he would never recover from. In Infamous, it is the wealth that comes from the book’s success that renders him incapable of not drinking himself to death. Nelle Harper helpfully (and unnecessarily) spells out for us that this is the case, arising from the traumas of his childhood.
It’s a mixed bag as a film and as a narrative. I certainly enjoyed it more than Capote, but it has many weaknesses the other flick lacked. As much as I like Craig, his version of Perry is inconsistent and sporadic, and doesn’t add anything to the conception I have of the man arising from the book or the other sources of info on him. Clifton Collins Jnr managed to do far better as Perry in the earlier film.
The two stand out scenes from my perspective involve the manner in which Capote uses name-dropping (and, strangely, arm wrestling) to get the Kansan rubes onside at a dinner party, especially the hard nut, suffer-no-fools sheriff Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels). The way in which his storytelling abilities have the various listeners leaning in towards him with each name he casually utters is priceless.
The other involves Capote explaining to Perry just how horribly the world will view him if he doesn’t let Capote into his life. When you realise how self-serving it is, it is somewhat chilling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t compete with an equivalent scene in Capote where Hoffman dismissively explains to Perry that there’s not a single word or phrase in the English language that Capote could possibly need Perry to correct him upon.
Sandra Bullock does an admirable job playing the dowdy Lee, but her performance is spoiled with these pseudo interviews which add nothing and remind you that you’re watching a very contrived and artificial construct. Fake pieces to an unseen questioner, or to camera, as if the actor is being interviewed by a documentary maker or current affairs crew within the film, are very distracting and are lazy.
Show, don’t tell, is the law of cinematic storytelling, ladies and gentlemen, and even the laziest hacks know that.
Which is why they usually do it with voiceover narration. Instead we get a whole bunch of pseudo interviews telling a story that should have been told, um, in the story itself.
It shouldn’t be seen as a competition betwixt the two films for the mantle of “Best rendition of Truman Capote and the events surrounding the publication of In Cold Blood”. They should be seen as companion pieces, adding and subtracting different aspects to the overall intriguing story of a flamboyant socialite and compulsive liar, and the senseless murder of a harmless family for a little over thirty dollars.
Interesting stuff, all the same
7 times they never really got Perry Smith to explain why he put a pillow under the head of one of his victims to make them comfortable before shooting them in the head out of 10
“When you're talking to them, they seem like perfectly nice boys. To be frank, I'm much more concerned for my safety around Norman Mailer.” - Infamous