I tried years ago to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but I was never quite able to finish it. Capote himself called it a masterpiece, and no one has ever contradicted him. Certainly I won’t; what I read of the book was indeed masterful.
For the benefit of those who have been up the Amazon for 40 years, In Cold Blood is Capote’s 1966 book about a quadruple murder on a Kansas farm in November 1959. Two ex-cons, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, broke into the home of well-to-do farmer Herbert Clutter expecting to find a safe full of cash. When Clutter had no safe and only $50 or so, the two killed him, his wife Bonnie, and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. Capote’s book recounts the crime and the killers’ flight, arrest, trial and execution. Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Capote claimed to have invented a new literary genre, the “nonfiction novel,” although In Cold Blood actually had roots in the 1940s and ’50s “Annals of Crime” articles by St. Clair McKelway, printed in The New Yorker, where Capote’s book first appeared.
The book cemented Capote’s reputation, but it also sealed his fate. Already a darling of the Manhattan art world, he soared up the bestseller lists but never wrote another book. He spent two decades pretending to be a 20th-century Oscar Wilde, hanging out with the rich and famous and being TV’s favorite catty talk-show schmooze. The magnum opus he was supposedly working on all that time, Answered Prayers, was finally published (unfinished at 200 pages) after he drank and snorted himself to death in 1984.
Capote, directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman (based on the book by Gerald Clarke), tells the story of the Clutter murders once again, this time through the eyes of Capote himself, from the time he first read about the killings on a back page of The New York Times to the night he watched Smith drop through the gallows floor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote, in another one of those amazing performance-cum-reincarnations that have been so common lately (Jamie Foxx in Ray, Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea, Bruno Ganz in Downfall and David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck). Hoffman nails every mincing lisp and simper, as Capote divides his time between New York, holding bitch-court among the fawning intelligentsia, and Kansas, where he oils his way into the confidence of the unsophisticated locals and the killers themselves—especially Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), to whom Capote formed an extra-close attachment. Less showy but just as good are Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, Capote’s “research assistant,” who comes to suspect his motives, and Chris Cooper as Alvin Dewey, the chief investigator on the case, who suspects them both from the start but remains cordial and businesslike.
Along with its virtues, the movie reminded me why I was never able to finish Capote’s book: As masterfully written and impeccably composed as it was, I also found it cold and more than a little full of itself. Capote can’t help reminding us at every turn what a fine writer he is. (There’s even a funny moment in the movie that hints at this, as Capote bribes a train porter to praise his writing in Lee’s presence.)
Bennett and Futterman tell us that Capote exploited and betrayed the friendship of Smith, promising to “get his story out” while making halfhearted gestures toward getting the trial overturned—all the time knowing that he needed Smith and Hickock dead to make his book complete. The movie paints a melancholy picture of the writer as tragic hero, driven by his art to personal betrayals that make it impossible even to practice his art anymore.
Well, that’s one way to look at it. But, as with the book, I found myself admiring the movie’s technique without really buying what it sells. If there’s a tragedy here, it’s not Truman Capote’s—he came out of the deal with fame, fortune and the means to indulge his vices into an early grave. In 1966, Capote made the story about Hickock and Smith; now Miller and Futterman make it about Capote. But back in November 1959, the story started out about four other people—people who also went to early graves, but without ever hurting or exploiting anybody.