The Triumph of Capote
More than 40 years later, In Cold Blood seems as fresh and as horrifying as it did on publication. The book’s success and continued critical reputation have distorted Truman Capote’s image in American letters. In truth, before In Cold Blood he was seen in Manhattan literary circles as a colorful but minor celebrity better known for appearances at fashionable parties and on TV talk shows than for his books—with the sole exception of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that charming bauble of a novella.
It isn’t so much that Capote’s oeuvre has not stood the test of time as that it scarcely existed in the first place. As Gore Vidal mercilessly and accurately observed, Capote’s early works were synthetic Southern gothic, pale golden reflections of Carson McCullers. Aside from the film script for John Huston’s Beat the Devil and a handful of sharply written New Yorker features (including a memorable sketch of Marlon Brando), there wasn’t much else to hang a legend on until Capote stumbled on the story of a farm family murdered in their home near a small Kansas town in 1959. He saw his chance to become America’s Dostoyevsky, at least for one book, and pursued the story with a ruthless singleness of purpose.
Taking its lead from Gerald Clarke’s 1988 biography, the remarkable film Capote, recently released on DVD, is directed by Bennett Miller in his feature debut. Miller shows how In Cold Blood came to be written and how it ultimately led to the disintegration of the author, who died of complications of alcoholism 19 years later without having written another long-form book. Miller had extraordinary luck: It’s doubtful that any other actor could have brought Capote to life with the vividness and compassion of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those who recall Capote from TV appearances will gasp at the eerie approximation of his lisp and tremulous intonation, but these merely serve to draw the viewer in. Hoffman gets so deep inside Capote’s tortured psyche that one wonders if he was able to easily extricate himself when the production was over. His Truman is a sweet-mannered, self-destructive, self-absorbed monster, a man who means no one any harm but who cold-bloodedly—and no other term applies— sacrificed the subjects of his story to achieve literary success.
The subjects were Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the killers of the Clutter family, from whom Capote gleaned enough material to compose what he grandiosely announced to be “the first non-fiction novel.” In particular, the relationship between Capote and Smith (chillingly portrayed here by a soulful young actor, Clifton Collins, Jr.) is what’s missing from Richard Brooks’s well-made 1967 film version of In Cold Blood. Brooks’s film is intelligent and gets the nonfiction aspect of the book right, but except for a bravura performance by the young Robert Blake as Perry Smith, it never comes alive.
That Truman Capote came to regard Smith as a shadow image of himself almost seems like a literary conceit, but it’s one that Dan Futterman’s script justifies. Capote helped keep Smith and Hickock alive just long enough to write his book, then withdrew legal aid and abandoned them to their fate. With the executions, something of the artist in Capote died as well. For the remainder of his life he gave parties, appeared on television, and even popped up in small roles in movies, but he wrote almost nothing of lasting value. In taking the viewer to the dark heart of Truman Capote, Miller and Futterman have in some ways surpassed Capote’s own achievement and told the great story that he did not have the courage to tell himself.—Allen Barra