Saturday, February 21, 2009
Most biopics fancy themselves as insightful exposés of their subjects, revealing looks into the pathos and addictions and flaws that drove men and women to greatness. But Bennett Miller's Capote is that rare beast, a biopic that works on more than one level. We like to say that certain figures symbolize more than themselves -- and that's certainly true in a few cases, such as protest leaders -- Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman craft a moment of Truman Capote's life into one of the great statements on art and the artist.
Capote charts the life of the famous author hot off the heels of his breakthrough novella Breakfast at Tiffany's. Suddenly the fame-hungry artist was the toast of the town, and the artistic community couldn't wait to see what he did next. Capote opens a paper one morning to find a news blurb about the brutal killing of a farmer and his family in Kansas. The story captivates the author, who convinces The New Yorker to send him and his childhood friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), to the small town to further investigate.
This trip would eventually result in Capote's acknowledged masterpiece In Cold Blood, and the film documents the author's excruciating creative process as he attempts to understand what drove lead convicted suspects Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to their crimes. By the end of the four-year struggle to coax all the information he needed out of these men, Capote had been driven to despair. Miller and Futterman craft these events into a bleak depiction of the creative process and its effect on the artist.
Capote enters this small town as the stuck-up, effete city intellectual but, with the help of Lee, ingratiates himself into the community. Before long he gets interviews out of anyone of even minor relevance. But he finds himself fascinated with Perry, visiting his cell at every opportunity and forging a deep level of mutual trust. One could argue that Capote, openly homosexual in a time when it was simply not discussed, developed a sort of crush on Smith, but I think that's oversimplification. The artist simply had a chance to meet and speak with his muse, the creature who held within him the possibility for Capote's success.
This complex relationship informs the great tragedy of the story, the conflict between moral responsibility and artistic responsibility. Perry eventually divulges what happened believing that Truman will take this information to an appeal, that by confessing and getting the facts straight Capote's novel will prove his salvation. The problem is, Capote realizes that the only way his book can end is with the execution of the two killers. To those who consider real history to contain spoilers, look away for a moment: the two are indeed hanged, and Capote says he wished he could have helped them but couldn't, only for Harper to see through him. Miller and Futterman fill this give-and-take between artist and subject with crippling despair and revulsion, fuelled by Perry's growing realization that the man he trusted is using him, even if that man doesn't like it.
Of course, the best possible thing the director and writer could have done was cast Philip Seymour Hoffman. He does indeed get dressed up to look like the author, and he affects a perfect recreation of Capote's voice, but anyone who really cares about film knows that imitation matters little. The best depictions of real figures on-screen transcend merely mimicry and bring a revisionist portrait of that person. Hoffman subdues Capote's wild flamboyance to bring to light the immense pain he felt as he condemned someone close to him to death in order to receive artistic acclaim.
Capote is a figure whose persona far outweighed his literary work; for example, I knew the image of the flamboyant, tiny Southern homosexual long before I knew he wrote In Cold Blood or Breakfast at Tiffany's, which I only knew as films at first. But that quest for fame destroyed him; text at the end reveals that, though Capote continued to write, he never published another book after In Cold Blood, and that what he did write never received the acclaim of his magnum opus. Capote uses this knowledge to show how artistic drive can ultimately eradicate the itself in the quest for success. The fact that it boasts two of the finest performances of recent years is just icing on the cake.