Dir: Bennett Miller

T.B. Meek

When I first met Bennett Miller at the Boston Film Festival back in 1998 he was a wide-eyed first-time filmmaker. The subject of his documentary, Timothy "Speed” Levitch, a hyperbolic New York City tour bus guide, happened to also be the nascent director’s high school classmate. Since then Miller has had no other credits to his name. That’s why it’s shocking to see that he’s helmed Capote, the much trumpeted film about the author’s arduous and peculiar process in penning In Cold Blood—a book that went on to launch the non-fiction novel and alter narrative journalism. The reason for Miller’s arrival is another high school buddy, Dan Futterman, more known as a B-level actor, who, over five years as a hobby, adapted Gerald Clarke’s 1988 biographical account of Capote’s travail.

Capote in his own right was enigmatic. A small, foppish man with a southern lisp that borders on being mistaken for a speech impediment, he’s somewhat of a Yoda, vastly wise, skilled, accomplished and all-knowing, yet at the same moment, a plump cartoonish pixie that demands bemusement. As a writer, Capote collaborated with some of the biggest names in literature, journalism and film. Before arriving at the New Yorker, he rose to notoriety with the novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and as a young man he penned the script for Beat the Devil— allegedly hanging out on the set and boozing with Humphrey Bogart and John Huston at night as the trio made on the spot changes to the script. And of course he entertained a tight cadre of literati that included his editor, William Shawn, partner, Jack Dunphy and Nelle Harper Lee, more famously known as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Shawn, Dunphy and Lee all factor large into Futterman’s adaptation. And while, friendship and favoritism ostensibly had a hand in hooking Miller up with the gig, he’s up to the task, scrutinizing and laying out the factual elements with a documentarian eye—which is precisely what most bio-pics demand, and generally don’t get. The smartest thing he and Futterman do collectively however, is cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. You can tell by watching Hoffman’s performance that the actor prepared meticulously for the part, going beyond thespian boundaries, physically and emotionally becoming Capote for the duration of the shoot, much the same way Robert DeNiro struck awe with his portrayal of the boxer, Jake LaMottta in Raging Bull. It’s a performance that will redefine Hoffman’s career as something more that an amiable supporting cog (Mangnolia, 25th Hour and Along Came Polly). An Oscar nod’s almost certain and it’ll send Futterman and Miller off in directions never open to them before.

What’s alluring about Capote is the complexity of the path that Futterman, Miller and Hoffman steer the icon down, most especially the friendship forged with a convicted killer. The time is 1959, a family of four is killed execution style in a rural Kansas farmhouse and Capote sits in his New York apartment pinning for inspiration. Lightening strikes when he finds the details of the gory deed in a newspaper clip and heads off to Kansas to pursue the story. Soon afterwards, the killers are apprehended and five years later Capote delivers the critically heralded masterpiece that would be his last published work and later itself adapted into a cinematic classic, starring Robert Blake—a man himself, once accused of murder. It’s what happens during those five years that Capote renders so poignantly with Futterman and Miller honing in on the sometimes hard to digest actions that Capote takes in the process. Most notably he gets the killers an attorney to stay their execution (so he could ostensibly mine for more material). Later he bribes a prison official so he can gain unlimited access to his subject, imports his pal, New Yorker photog Richard Avedon, to the prison for a fashion shoot, lies to the killers, telling them he hasn’t written a word and hasn’t come up with a title for his work, even though he’s just returned from a big brouhaha reading in New York, and in the end, as time winds down for the killers, intentionally ignores their requests for further legal help, silently wishing the ordeal to just end so he can finally finish—not that Capote could have done anything, but his prior actions clearly lent false hope.

Most of that may seem reprehensible, but that’s not how it comes across on the screen. Hoffman’s Capote exudes real compassion for his subject and sensitivity for the family of the victims. At the core beats the adoring friendship between Hoffman’s Capote and one of the killers, Perry Smith (played with resignation and seething savagery by Clifton Collins Jr). Their attraction is palpably inevitable. Capote was a known homosexual and Smith, a good-looking man with a brutish passion for literature and art. Worlds apart, their relationship is tender, perverse and at times you can’t tell who’s playing who.

What nearly derails the film is Capote’s arrogance. He constantly asserts to Shawn (Bob Balaban) that the work will be masterpiece even before he pens a word and later pats Lee (played with superb restrain by Catherine Keener) condescendingly on the head when she informs him that her book—which would garner the Pulitzer Prize within a year—had just found a publisher. It’s a double-edged sword that makes Capote, the character, less appealing, but at the same time all the more intriguing.

The end is a forgone conclusion. It’s well known and documented history, but the journey of the artist and the limits he goes to—struggling with his conscience and integrity along the way—is riveting. Futterman, Miller and Hoffman have entered the project in much the same fashion, and like Capote they will exit changed.

-- T. B. Meek

Copyright Web del Sol, 2005

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