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On November 16, 1959, Truman Capote reads about the murder of a Kansas family. There are no suspects. With Harper Lee, he visits the town: he wants to write about their response. First he must get locals to talk, then, after arrests, he must gain access to the prisoners. One talks constantly; the other, Perry Smith, says little. Capote is implacable, wanting the story, believing this book will establish a new form of reportage: he must figure out what Perry wants. Their relationship becomes something more than writer and character: Perry killed in cold blood, the state will execute him in cold blood; does Capote get his story through cold calculation, or is there a price for him to pay? Written by
Capote in Kansas Redux; A very good film, but not quite up to "Capote"
Writer-director Douglas McGrath's new film about Truman Capote and the creation of his most famous book, "In Cold Blood," is full of contradictions and contrasts when compared with its predecessor, the 2005 film "Capote," that covers the same five-year period. Perhaps this is fitting. There may be some justice in the fact that these two filmic accounts of how Capote researched material for his magnum opus disagree significantly in emphasis and purported events.
After all, Capote used fictional methods to embellish - some might say falsify - his journalistic reportage on the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. If the screenplays for these two films tell differing stories of Capote's experience, does it matter if one is closer to the truth than the other? Or that we can't be sure - indeed, will never know - what actually occurred during many of the encounters between Capote, who was famous for fabricating yarns about his own life, and others out in Holcomb so long ago?
The films are each based on separate biographical accounts. "Capote" was adapted from Gerald Clarke's 1988 biography bearing the same title. "Infamous" is based on George Plimpton's 1997 book, "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career," an account presented as a sequence of quotes from interviews Plimpton conducted with more than 150 people who knew Capote.
"Infamous" is far kinder to Capote than the earlier film, portraying him as quite clearly enamored of the killer Perry Smith (an ardor fully requited by Smith) and deeply anguished when Smith is executed. "Capote" depicts the author as more conniving, manipulative and disingenuous, willing to say or do anything to get Smith to spill his story, and withholding of possible interventions he - Capote - might have made to further delay or avert the executions of Smith and his accomplice, Dick Hickock.
In "Capote" the author's erotic attraction to Smith is more muted, hinted at, not acted upon. Indeed, "Infamous" is in general more explicit and direct in its portrayals, often more graphic if you will, than "Capote." Besides kisses and embraces between Capote and Smith, other scenes not covered in "Capote" include moments of violence when Smith virtually attacks Capote in his cell. We also witness the murders of the Clutters and Hickock's execution by hanging, including the protracted interval during which his body remains vertically suspended until he is finally declared dead by the attending physician.
There are other differences, for example, Capote's bid to establish rapport with the local Sheriff, Alvin Dewey, is depicted as much more problematic in "Infamous" than in "Capote." A plus for "Infamous" is its attention to Capote's relationships with a covey of New York society women known as his "swans," their adulation of him, his ability to coax them into sharing their secrets for his later use as gossip fodder. But, again, McGrath employs a graphic style to introduce us to these women, and several others in Capote's social circle, namely, the use of large white name titles as we first meet each, documentary style.
I find it impossible to resist comparing acting performances in the two productions. The more nuanced, oblique style of "Capote" is realized not only through its general avoidance of graphic scenes but in the greater subtlety of the two central actors' performances. In "Infamous," the English character actor Toby Jones physically resembles Capote more than does his counterpart in "Capote," Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both actors offer convincing personifications in voice and style. But I lean toward Hoffman's as the more complex, accomplished turn, characterized by critic Shawn Levy as "note-perfect." Levy goes on, "The wheezy laugh, the pain of work, the prying nature, the cold eye, the self-obsession, the ability to perform and ingratiate and wheedle - it's Capote you're watching up there "
The brilliant English actor Daniel Craig gives a forceful, indeed galvanizing, performance as the killer, Perry Smith. But I think his mercurial, intensely melodramatic interpretation of his character is less convincing than his counterpart in "Capote," Clifton Collins, Jr. Collins's Smith is more introverted, by turns chilling or vulnerable to be sure, but for the most part quietly opaque, subdued, soulfully melancholic. For me this depiction is the more compelling and believable.
Other key performances are well delivered in both films: Catherine Keener ("Capote") and Sandra Bullock ("Infamous") as Harper Lee, though I liked Ms. Bullock's turn better; Chris Cooper ("Capote") and Jeff Daniels ("Infamous") as Sheriff Dewey. Capote's "swans" in "Infamous" are delightfully played by Sigourney Weaver, Juliet Stevenson, Hope Davis and Isabella Rossellini.
So we have two versions of the story of Capote's adventures in Kansas: both strong films, well cast, worthwhile. I think "Capote" is the better film because of its more subtle approach and the performances of the two central actors. As for realism in the interpretation of Truman Capote's character, perhaps the two portrayals taken together triangulate on the "real" Capote, a complex, convoluted personality as worthy of our sympathy as our contempt. My grades: 8/10 (high B+) (Seen on 10/10/06)
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