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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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