The Truman Show


Infamous, the second feature about Truman Capote released within a year, opens in El Morocco, the glamorous Manhattan nightclub
Toby Jones dons the glasses and mannerisms of the Infamous writer Truman Capote. 
Writ. & dir. Douglas McGrath, based on a book by George Plimpton; feat. Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Jeff Daniels (R)
Infamous, the second feature about Truman Capote released within a year, opens in El Morocco, the glamorous Manhattan nightclub. In the midst of a spirited rendition of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” a torch singer falters, apparently overcome by personal anguish. After excruciating moments in which the audience, including Capote, is mesmerized by the spectacle of private agony, she abruptly snaps out of it, concluding the song with enough zest to suggest that the temporary breakdown had been a sham. Thus are we prepared to encounter a writer who is master of the strategems necessary to gain trust. “I immediately fell for him,” John Huston recalls about Capote, in the oral biography by George Plimpton on which the screenplay of Infamous is based. “It didn’t take me five minutes to be won over completely, as he did with everyone I ever saw him encounter.”

Infamous is a portrait of the artist as con man, a writer who knows exactly which blandishments earn intimacy with three different social circles. In New York, Capote wheedles his way into friendship with the wealthy ladies — including Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Diana Vreeland, and Marella Agnelli — who constitute Gotham aristocracy. He deploys gossip to beguile and betray. Detective Alvin Dewey and other residents of Holcomb, Kansas, are so charmed by the anecdotes that Capote relates about contacts with Bogart and Brando that they surrender information about the murder of the Clutters. And he persuades the two murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, that they can trust him with their stories. In a performance that echoes the singer’s apparent stumble, Capote overcomes Smith’s resistance by sharing a tearful account of his own mother’s suicide. “No one’s ever treated me the way you do,” says Smith, who, scorned by his father, despairs of finding any man he can trust. However, the treacherous writer ultimately treats him as a character whose hanging makes a fitting conclusion to a book. Its composition constitutes literary homicide, committed in cold blood.

Infamous obviously invites comparisons with Bennett Miller’s Capote. I find no need to rank them, any more than it is necessary to choose between Claudio Arrau’s and Artur Schnabel’s interpretations of Beethoven sonatas. Douglas McGrath, who filmed his Kansas scenes in and around Austin, pays more attention than Miller does to Capote in New York, and, drawing on his source in oral biography, features cameo statements about him. Toby Jones bears more of a physical resemblance to the author than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s riveting facsimile, and his character’s sexuality is more overt, though when his Capote kisses Smith, one thinks of Judas more than Shakespeare in love.

Beyond the minuscule category of films about Capote, Infamous belongs to the larger class of films about writers. However, a demographer who tried to compute the census of writers on screen would find them outnumbered by detectives, prostitutes, and space aliens. Cinema has been hostile to literature, even when pretending to revere it (think of old movies that begin by turning the pages of a gilded tome). “I would rather take a 50-mile hike than crawl through a book,” admitted Jack Warner, who, like other Hollywood moguls, paid writers ample salaries but not much respect.

The most significant action in a great writer’s life is the writing, which, even done as Capote does it, with a fancy fountain pen, is as visually thrilling as the six-hour snooze that Andy Warhol recorded in his monument to tedium, Sleep. Except for the moment when we see Capote scrawl a couple of sentences uttered by Smith, Infamous spares its audience exposure to the act of writing. Because wearisome stretches would have to be devoted to a pen propelled across a page, a movie about Emily Dickinson, anchorite of her solitary craft, is unlikely. When writers do appear in film, the writing is almost incidental to romance (Shakespeare in Love; Dr. Zhivago), lechery (Henry and June; The Libertine), tippling (Bar Fly; Big Bad Love), or suicide (Sylvia; The Hours). What makes Capote a subject compelling enough for two simultaneous productions is the fact that he was an unlikely celebrity, known as much for his odd elfin appearance, droll flamboyance, and refusal to stay in the closet as he was for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Gore Vidal describes Capote’s voice as “what a Brussels sprout would sound like if a Brussels sprout could talk.” That he was also a writer is simply béarnaise on the sprout.

Infamous includes another writer — Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend who accompanies him to Kansas, helps with his research, and types up his notes. She is also the author of To Kill a Mockingbird who dreams of becoming “the Jane Austen of Alabama.” A voice of decency, she opposes Capote’s attempt to exploit the Clutter murders for artistic glory. In the end, she observes that Capote’s guilt over literary crimes sapped him of creativity and drove him to an early grave. “There were three deaths on the gallows that night,” she says about the execution of Hickcock and Smith. By suggesting that Capote’s fate discouraged Lee from publishing another book of her own, Infamous perpetuates cinema’s contempt for writers. It offers them two options — silence or death.

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