The Dilettante

The Great American Drama Queen

How Capote the film explains Capote the writer.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote

Along with everyone else who waited to see Capote on DVD, I had heard two things about it. First, of course, was that in playing Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman had delivered the performance of a lifetime. Second was that though Capote was a superlative film, it was also a small one. About Hoffman, what more needs to be said? To transform himself into Capote, he parted with one of his great natural assets, that oak-and-gravel basso, trading it for Capote’s famous lisps and trills with their odd levitations and sudden plunges—a unique instrument, to say the least. But the performance is not an impersonation, and, as Hoffman himself insists on one of the DVD’s well-produced featurettes, and in this Slate interview, Capote is not a biopic. Which leads us to the second notion, that it was an accomplished but modest movie. True, in contrast to that awful midwife of race sentimentality Crash, none of Capote’s importance shows up as self-importance. But tact should never be mistaken for lack of ambition. Capote is not only an American tragedy, as its director Bennett Miller has said, but an important one, and a little history can help us remember why.

In 1959, Truman Capote traveled from New York City to Holcomb, Kan., under the aegis of The New Yorker and with his childhood friend Harper Lee, to write about the brutal murder of a family of small-town farmers. While Capote worked on his initial magazine articles, the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were apprehended; as Hickock and Perry were tried, convicted of capital murder, and eventually hanged, Capote spun their story into a full-length book. Capote’s creation of In Cold Blood—a masterpiece that made the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s only more famous—is the stuff of legend. Famously, Capote ingratiated himself with the Kansas locals, who had initially looked upon this epicene miniature in a pillbox hat as a kind of freak; and famously, he fell semi-in love with Perry Smith, the more vicious yet more sensitive of the two killers. The extent to which Capote manipulated Smith into believing that he, Capote, a man with money and connections, could help a nobody like Smith win an appeal has long been disputed. So too has the extent to which Capote, a raconteur whose “lies were better than other people’s truths,” as one friend put it, embroidered reality in creating his nonfiction potboiler.

The misapprehension of Capote as a small movie begins with its own dedication to small moments. Early on it is a comedy of manners, in which a small town adjusts itself to the presence of a New York literary god, even as the New York literary god adjusts himself to the small town, in order to get it to talk. As the film progresses, so does Capote’s obsession with Smith, whom he comes to regard as a version of himself. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” Capote tells Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), “then one day, he walked out the back door, and I walked out the front.” (To which Lee, increasingly the moral center of the movie, replies “You kidding?”) But Capote is not really a study of Capote’s relationship with Smith. As Smith idles in his cell, poring over a copy of Walden given to him by Capote, Capote reads early chapters of his work-in-progress to a rapt New York audience. Later Capote sums up his feeling for Smith, hardly even noticing his words. “Do you hold him in esteem, Truman?” Lee asks him. “Well. He’s a goldmine.”

Capote’s enormous power comes from its embodiment of all the virtues Capote the man eventually rejected—tact, self-control, reticence. Bennett Miller’s palette is autumnal—one nice nugget from the DVD reveals how the color scheme of the film excluded entirely all reds and blues in favor of muted yellows and browns—and his pacing is deliberate, even stately. The movie argues, as others have, that the experience of courting Perry Smith to write In Cold Blood broke something within Capote and speeded his transition from the boy-sylph of apparently limitless talent, who published Other Voices, Other Rooms when he was 23, to the bitchy society lapdog of the ‘70s talk-show circuit. As a closing intertitle points out, Capote never published another book before dying of alcoholism in 1984. Within a year of publishing In Cold Blood, Capote had thrown the Black and White Ball, an affair at the Plaza Hotel that established, to the terror-laced glee of the haute mode, who was in and who was out in New York society. It was a harbinger of the Studio 54 Capote. A depressing anecdote dating from the ‘70s has Capote inviting the gossip columnist Liz Smith and John Berendt—later to write Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—up to his apartment in the U.N. Plaza. Capote left the room, then returned with a giant bowl of cocaine, which Smith guessed at the time represented $10,000 worth of the drug. As suddenly as he had brandished it, Capote snatched it away, saying, “No. No. I’m not going to give you any. You’re not good enough. Neither one of you is good enough.”

Capote’s surface modesties aside, the moment in which a writer of importance confronts a man of no importance is not a small one, especially in America, and especially if the man of no importance is about to be blotted out forever by forces that lie beyond his comprehension. This Capote at least dimly understood, and the film has him saying of Smith, “The book I’m writing will return him to the realm of humanity.” Less dimly understood, by Capote and by (at least in the film’s telling) his New Yorker editor William Shawn, is how In Cold Blood instigated a new kind of writing, the so-called “nonfiction novel.”

It’s an awful locution—as Norman Mailer once said, “Nonfiction novel sounds like a prescription for some nonspecific disease.” But the mixing of the high (Capote’s refined literary sensibility) with the low (the “true crime” genre) in order to gain access to reality has a long literary pedigree. It extends back to the Gospels and Peter’s denial of Jesus, which, as Erich Auerbach famously (and beautifully) argued, destroyed forever the classical connection between the seriousness of high style and aristocratic characters. As Auerbach wrote in Mimesis:

Of course this mingling of styles is not dictated by an artistic purpose. On the contrary, it was rooted from the beginning in the character of Jewish-Christian literature; it was graphically and harshly dramatized through God’s incarnation in a human being of the humblest social station, through the existence on earth amid humble everyday people and conditions, and through his Passion which, judged by earthly standards was ignominious.

(What Auerbach said of Peter—”He is the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense” applies as well to Perry Smith.) The upending of strict canons of high and low runs through Dante’s choice—according to Auerbach, a choice that laid the foundation for European literature—to write his epic in vulgar Italian, and not high Latin. It was there when Capote knew he had to go to Kansas; and every time a literary journalist, as heir to Capote, establishes the humanity of his subject through simple detail. All this Capote eventually forsook for “You’re not good enough.”