Cold blooded: Capote captures its man

What Michael Moore has done for the documentary film, Truman Capote did in the book world with the publication of In Cold Blood, which he called "the first nonfiction novel." The movie Capote isn't as revolutionary– just damn good– but fortunately Hollywood hasn't yet developed a formula for films about the relationship between killers and their biographers.

One thing is missing from Dan Futterman's otherwise illuminating screenplay, based on Gerald Clarke's book. Why was Capote so intrigued by a 1959 news item in The New York Times about the murder of the four members of the Clutter family that he left for Kansas that night with the intent of writing a New Yorker article about the effect of the killings on the local community? The article would grow into a book that would take five years of his life to write, the five years this film spans, and become his magnum opus.

Capote is also the crowning achievement- so far, at least- for its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. The much-respected actor has been honored by various organizations for no fewer than nine of his screen performances, yet Capote will be his first Oscar nomination. He not only does a letter-perfect impersonation, but he gets into the skin and soul of the man.

Truman is used to being stared at. It started when he was growing up in Alabama because he was "different" and continued in New York because he was famous. When he reaches Holcomb, Kansas, where his Breakfast at Tiffany's is banned from the library, the stares are caused by his differentness again, but he soon becomes a familiar figure in the bleak landscape.

Accompanied by Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), his "research assistant and personal bodyguard," his lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) says, "I can't think of a single quality I share with Nelle. Maybe manliness."

Capote gets the locals to cooperate, one way or another. It helps that the wife of Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), who heads the hunt for the killers, is a fan of Capote's books, but he'll have to bribe the warden (Marshall Bell) for unlimited access to the men once they're imprisoned.

It must have frustrated Capote that while he worked on his book Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was published, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was made into an award-winning film.

Truman immediately feels a complex attraction to one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., who should also be in line for an Oscar nomination). It's partly physical, no doubt, but also due to Perry being more sensitive and intelligent than his partner in crime, Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Maybe there's some identification because Perry, the first time Truman sees him, is in the "women's cell" in the sheriff's kitchen awaiting transfer to prison.

Capote will find many ways to rationalize his feelings and later say, "It's as if we grew up in the same house, but one day he stood up and walked out the back door while I walked out the front."

As in all relationships, whatever else may be true of them, both parties are using each other. Capote helps Hickock and Smith find a "proper lawyer" to appeal their conviction and death sentence. They think his book will be a sympathetic portrait of them that will aid their defense. He lets them think that, and trying to get the essential description of the crime from Perry, tells him, "If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster."

It's all about the book for Truman, and when repeated stays of execution postpone the inevitable ending he needs to complete the work, he withdraws his support in hopes it will be over with quickly. It's not that simple, but it's almost that cold.

Capote needed to be the center of attention. An excellent raconteur, it was easy for him to hold court at parties and on talk shows with gossip about other celebrities. As he contemplates In Cold Blood, he says, "Sometimes when I think how good my book can be I can hardly breathe."

Sometimes when Capote's in the room, no one else can breathe because he's taking up all the oxygen, as at the party for the premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird. He can be maddening, but he's a genius, so we cut him some slack.

Capote cuts him just enough slack to create a fascinatingly complex portrait. Director Bennett Miller (The Cruise) captures Hoffman's brilliant performance and gives it the context it deserves.