The following is my entry in the Philip Seymour Hoffman Blogathon, being hosted on July 23, 2015 by the blog Epileptic Moon Dancer. Click on the above banner to read critiques of movies starring and co-starring the late, wide-ranging actor!
How many actors would/could have been as fearless as Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role of Capote? Hoffman always played offbeat outsiders you couldn’t quite get a handle on. Here, he doesn’t portray Truman Capote, the egocentric, effeminate author; he inhabits him. Because of that, we come to understand that in a sense, Capote is just as selfish and cold-blooded as the two murderers who made him legendary.
The backstory: In Cold Blood was Capote’s 1965 “non-fiction novel” about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two drifters who murdered all four members of the Clutter family in 1959 because they’d heard the family had a safe with $10,000 in it. The duo got away with about $50 in cash and were caught a short while later. A morbidly fascinating, black-and-white movie of the novel was made in 1967.
That movie would make a devastating double feature with Capote. Blood‘s director, Richard Brooks, went out of his way to present the story in a matter-of-fact manner, as though Capote had simply presented the facts. By contrast, Capote makes it brutally clear that Capote wants his fingerprints all over the story. He sucks up information and details like a scavenger hunter. At the funeral home where the Clutters are respectfully stored in closed caskets, Capote looks around furtively and then gingerly opens each casket, the better to see gruesome detail that he can describe later in his book.
Capote was hardly an unknown author in 1959, but he knows that this story will cement his reputation. He befriends everyone involved with the Clutters just to extract the necessary information for his book. Most notably, he befriends Smith and strings him along, telling Smith he’ll get him a better lawyer if Smith will only tell him the details of that fateful night. But Capote couldn’t possibly want Smith or Hickock to be set free; otherwise, he’d have no ending for his book.
Hoffman shows us that Capote lets himself be led down his own primrose path. Little by little, he alienates all of his associates (particularly his best friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee, beautifully played by Catherine Keener). And in his own way, Capote is as responsible for one man’s murder — Smith’s — as Smith was for his abetting the murders of the Clutters.
Here are two recommendations: (1) Preface your viewing of Capote with a screening of In Cold Blood. Capote is like the older movie photographed from a wider camera lens to encompass the entire back story. (2) If you can’t get hold of a copy of In Cold Blood, don’t let that stop you from viewing Hoffman’s performance in Capote. It’s searing.