sam's notes

notes on government, sports and popular culture

Monday, March 06, 2006

....You know by now: Philip Seymour Hoffman wins the Oscar for Capote. It just so happens I caught Hoffman's award-winning performance over the weekend.

You know the story: Perry Smith and his buddy Dick Hitchcock blow away the Clutter family when they don't find a safe that doesn't exist. Capote reads about it in N.Y. Times, befriends everyone on all sides of the case, and spends five years researching and writing what would become In Cold Blood. Capote becomes rich and famous; Perry and Dick are hanged.

While the Clutter murders are well-documented in Capote's nonfiction account as well as a feature-length film and a TV movie, Capote himself, while certainly a character in real life, remained simply the narrator. Now he's a character in the drama that seized Holcomb, Kan.

And what a character. We first hear Capote's voice at a party in New York. Hoffman did it dead-on; as the camera pans through the party you expect to see the wan little fellow instead of the heavier-set Hoffman. The audience is treated to a couple of Capote monologues while hanging out with the crowd.

But most of the movie is set in Kansas, where Capote employs his own brand of journalism. He was there the next day, attended the usual press conferences and got time with officials when available.

Yet you never saw Capote take a note. He bragged about his "94 percent recall" a few times during the movie. Any journalist knows that scribbling notes interferes with really getting to know your subject. Capote's smooth methodology eventually gained him access to all the key players, including lead investigator Alvin Dewey (played by Chris Cooper).

The movie addresses some serious ethical issues that are still prominent in journalism today. In mind, Capote's cozy social relationship with Dewey while the case was still live (they were having dinner at Dewey's house when the call came in that Smith and Hitchcock had been captured) would be viewed with contempt today. If anybody finds out, that is.

But what about Capote's relationship with Smith? It's well-known that Capote was infatuated with Smith (though surprisingly, the movie doesn't explore Smith's sexual confusion). The movie makes the claim that Capote helped get them lawyers for their appeal. He also bribed the prison warden to get unlimited access to both prisoners.

But the strategy backfired. As the appeal wore on, Capote continually had to ward off his publisher. Making matters worse was the fact that Smith balked at talking about the murders. He finally spilled, giving the book and the movie its climax. If you're squeamish, I'll go ahead and tell you the murders in "Capote" are recreated in a quick, camera-darting scene.

Where the movie came up short, in my opinion, was that it didn't really show Capote performing the monumental task of actually writing the book. That's the hardest part, any writer will tell you. I would have liked to have Capote sweating over the keys, pouring over notes, checking facts by phone, tearing up pages.

The movie's well-filmed; it's cold and dark in Kansas, and you feel it. But that said, it will work fine as a rental.


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