Don’t miss it.
It’s a terse film–Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review calls it “austerely beautiful.” The movie is powerful even though many circumstances surrounding Capote and his writing of his historic, innovative In Cold Blood–the frame of the movie—are left out. I think this has mostly to do with Hollywood budgeting: The bean counters’ pursuit of the Small Film.
One reviewer sees Capote as “Faustian”: Capote, in a complicated way, sells his literary soul for the success of In Cold Blood. I think Capote is not so much Faustian as Darwinian, as in sailing south to Galapagos (or, if you wish, Dantean, as in descending into the Inferno): the discovery of the Worst News About Us. Certainly, In Cold Blood, in its delving deeper and deeper into the cave-like Darkness-of-the-Primate, is a long, long way back in savage time from Holly Golightly’s mere “mean reds” in Breakfast at Tiffanys. A Martian literary scholar, shown the two books and told they were written by the same author, might well not believe it.
In sum: In Cold Blood, Capote’s dramatic account of the 1959 murders in Holcomb, Kansas, of the prosperous farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their children when two ex-convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, broke into their isolated house at night, recounts the search for and arrest of the killers, their imprisonment, trial and execution. The book, six years in the writing, was a sensation.
Here is the famous revelatory statement the imprisoned Perry Smith made to Capote:
“I didn’t want to harm the man (Herbert Clutter). I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought that right up to the minute I cut his throat.”
The key scene in Capote comes quietly when Capote (played wonderfully by Philip Seymour Hoffman) briefly encounters in an otherwise empty grocery store aisle Out There in Kansas a small boy who, we must say, in a sense assaults Capote. At the same time, that boy is Capote, Perry Smith and, well…. That little boy, elemental Homo sapiens, is of a terrible timelessness. Few if any scenes of children in movies in my memory are less innocent than this one; the best characterization of the scene, I think, is one of a primal menacing; and, perhaps in the context of Capote and In Cold Blood, the horrifying revelation about humans. It’s a most inspired theme-revealing scene, one about the awful, perhaps finally inscrutable, reality of our natural heritage. Back to the swamp.
George Plimpton, in an “oral history” some years back in The New Yorker in which he stitches together reminisences by Kansas law enforcement staff and literary insiders about Capote and his research and writing of In Cold Blood, reveals that, contrary to what is depicted in the film, Capote could not bear to watch the hanging of Smith (as opposed to that of Hickock) and fled the “Warehouse” and its gallows on the grounds of the Kansas prison before that execution occurred. Also and contrary to the film, William Shawn, then editor of The New Yorker, did not accompany Capote to the hangings in Kansas but, rather, Jeff Fox, Capote’s editor, went there to witness with Capote.
Officials at the prison where the executions were carried out cannot prove but are convinced that Capote and Smith were much closer than is conveyed in the film. This does not matter one way or the other, in my view, as to the significance of the movie and its theme, which seems to me to be that Capote, perhaps suffering something like the tragic experience of Iris Chang, fell into a certified Hell and most sadly wasn’t redeemed.
David Denby, movie critic at The New Yorker, simplistically agrees with Brendan Gill, there in Capote’s time, that alcoholism accounts for the sad end of the ravaged Capote at 59, not Capote’s expedition to Kansas on which Capote confronted human bestiality perhaps more deeply than he ever had before. I suspect both movie critics are confusing effect with cause.
To give an idea of the scene-by-scene excellence of Capote: There’s a noteworthy depiction in Capote of a New York party for Capote’s friend and companion-traveler to Kansas, Harper Lee, to celebrate the film of her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which, when Capote is in the ballroom, we suddenly hear an excerpt of John Coltrane playing the ballad, “My One And Only Love.” That music is beautiful, surprising, and transporting. The music and the action in that brief sequence are brilliantly intended to reinforce Capote’s notorious vanity. When the scene opens, Hoffman as a smirking, smiling Capote is posed alone and almost heroically just inside the entrance of the ballroom at the hotel as though he had just come upon the scene not as a guest of Harper Lee but as the celebrant himself, looking exactly like some royal in a classic portrait about to receive the acclaim of a loving audience. The lyrical Coltrane ballad-playing of “My One And Only Love,” with no precedent in the film’s otherwise muted, soft musical scoring, bursts forth beautifully and stunningly at just that moment, as though a fanfare for a famous principal player. Then, the Coltrane lyricism having become muted as distant background music, we next see Capote off alone in a corner at the party and now disgruntled, pouting, envious, self-pitying and out of the limelight. Obviously, Capote is stung that he is not the center of attention. Then Harper Lee finds him and, being his ever-tolerant friend, is consoling. After she’s left, Capote, again alone in the otherwise boisterous party room, mumbles bitterly to himself about the celebration that he can’t see “what all the fuss is about.”
So: “My One And Only Love” can’t be idle scoring, certainly not in a movie as wonderfully crafted as this one.
Further, Coltrane plays this ballad as one of several selections in a legendary jazz recording session in the early 1960’s in which he and his quartet back the jazz balladeer, Johnny Hartman. “My One And Only Love” is the exception to the rule of that particular recording session because the musicians, rather than opening the rendition with Hartman singing the first line of the lyric, decided in this one selection to open with Coltrane playing the song as seemingly an instrumental, including the basic melody followed by an improvised solo, before, many bars later, Hartman begins to vocalize. It’s an unusual ordering in jazz vocals. This arrangement is, however, key for Capote because as soon as Johnny Hartman begins to sing of some woman as “My One And Only Love,” the tune wouldn’t work, for obviously from that moment there could no longer be a simple, direct allusion to Capote himself as “My One And Only Love.” So: the unique Coltrane instrumental opening to the ballad is an inspired choice for Capote.
Further, the context from Capote’s life that reinforces in an apposite way the Harper Lee party scene as rendered in Capote is the famous Black and White Ball Capote gave at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1966 after he had finally seen a historical resolution (the killers’ executions) to the events making up the “True Life Novel” he named In Cold Blood and, having finally gotten his book published, was ready to celebrate. Alas, reports of this legendary party–supposedly one drawing the line between those celebrities then “in” and those (the uninvited) “out”–suggest that actually it didn’t work very well: friends congregated with friends and the little circles didn’t expand; and some people thought it was silly and left early much to Capote’s pleading dismay: and so his vanity apparently was yet again wounded even on the night when at long last he himself was the celebrant.
Hence the dramatic tension in Capote: Capote, I surmise, grew hauntingly fearful and disheartened about Homo sapiens from his experiences in Kansas, but never lost his self-love.