The Academy Awards ceremony that took place ten years ago was a mess of mixed emotions. It anointed Crash as Best Picture, which many consider to be one of the worst choices for the Academy’s top prize in recent decades (I maintain the real worst choice in my lifetime is A Beautiful Mind, though The Revenant seems primed to become my new choice for that dubious category) and strained to honor a couple movie stars in the acting categories by awarding George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon Oscars for mediocre work. But then, Ange Lee won his first directing Oscar, entirely overdue, for lovely, insightful, controlled work on Brokeback Mountain. The other two acting awards were equally admirable. That includes Rachel Weisz winning for The Constant Gardener, but there was arguably no more just selection the entire evening than that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Capote. The significance of his loss from the cinematic arts community remains heartbreaking, hard to fathom. From my former digital word depository, this is my original review of the film.
Capote is about Truman Capote, focusing intensely on the time during which he conceptualized, researched, wrote and began to receive acclaim for his book In Cold Blood.
Director Bennett Miller (whose sole previous credit is The Cruise) achieves a stark elegance with his imagery, particularly when he uses the plywood-flat landscapes of Kansas to great advantage. This film is full of excellent examples of how to construct shots to properly use the widest widescreen format. Just because the screen is more oblong doesn’t mean that bigger explosions and fussier special effects are the best way to fill the extra space.
At times, Miller seems most interested in capturing the stillness of this place, this time and this writer who soaks the world in, and, he will proudly, repeatedly tell you, retains 94% of what he sponges up. This instinct can sometimes make the film feel a little too still, the deliberateness of some stretches dulling the narrative drive. Sometimes the characters seem as distant as the trees that are impossibly far away on horizon. The film tells us that Harper Lee accompanied Capote on his first trip to Kansas, ostensibly to help him connect with the Midwesterners whose insights he needed, but at times it seems the role is inserted in the film primarily to allow for gentle jokes about people not really knowing the name of her just-published novel. Oh, that person thinks that she wrote a kid’s book called Killing a Bird, how wry!
Of course, that sense that the film occasionally sags a bit could be because of the comparison of these quieter elements to the boldness of Capote—the audaciousness of his self-regard and the subjectivity of his connection to others. These moments of great energy, of Truman presiding loudly over a cocktail-fueled conversation or radiating glee in the warm beam of others’ attention, are what make the greatest impact. In fact, the film succeeds most grandly as a character study of Truman. Watching him pull together the facts that will fill his book are interesting insofar as they afford the greatest opportunity for revelation. We see Capote as brilliant and petty, charming (in a highly obnoxious sort of way) and headstrong. He connects with others only through relating their ordeals to his own in a sort of sympathy through one-upmanship. His relationship with the murderers who will take central roles in his final published work is riddled with acts of kindness that raise the ire of the law enforcement officer who brought them to justice, but the generosity is only there as long as it serves the needs of Capote. It’s humanitarianism fuelled by the need to up the page count.
Unsurprisingly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is phenomenal in the title role. He affects the vocal mannerisms of Capote and adopts his fey twitchiness, but also connects deeply with all the inner contradictions of the man. He expertly plays the emotions of each moment, smoothly signaling whether those emotions were truly felt or employed as a tactic. By the end, intriguingly, the question becomes whether or not Capote himself really knew the difference any more. Or whether or not it mattered.