Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – Capote

“There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”, wrote Graham Greene. Watch Capote, and it’s hard to disagree. Bennett Miller’s forensic biopic serves up such a chilling portrait of Truman Capote, as he researches and writes In Cold Blood, that it’s never clear whether the title of the groundbreaking ‘non-fiction novel’ refers to the real-life homicides it examines or to Capote’s own methods of investigation. But that’s the point: the book was the pinnacle of Capote’s career, and the film filters his life through the prism of its creation to show how vampiric great writing can be.

Capote

Played in the film by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote certainly appears like a creature of the night, moving with ease among the cocktail parties of New York’s social elite, his photographic memory primed with juicy anecdotes and scandalous gossip for their delectation. Already famous for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he hungers for mass recognition of his literary talents and is hunting for a story with which he can reinvent the form. He finds it in a short article in the New York Times, which details the slaying of an entire family on their Kansas farm.

Miller spends Capote’s first half zeroing in on Truman as he slakes his thirst for this story. Securing a commission from the New Yorker, he imagines he’ll bring his novelistic talents to bear on a tale about clashing Americas: the civilised with the uncivilised, the rooted with the transient. Truman himself is a symbol of that clash. With his effete mannerisms and high-pitched baby voice, he’s unlike anything the fraught townspeople of Holcomb, Kansas have encountered. Erudite, urbane and openly gay, he arrives in their midst with the arrogance of the aristocracy, his trilby and scarf cloaking his desire to get under their skin.

But it’s not long before he’s seducing them with tales of the rich and famous, impressing the sheriff’s wife with tidbits about Humphrey Bogart (he rewrote the script to Bogart’s Beat the Devil) to gain access to her husband’s case files. He brings with him a secret weapon, too: Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). Yet to become the Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame (that book is on the cusp of being published as the film opens), she’s Truman’s best friend, her empathetic presence easing the hostility of Holcomb’s warier residents.

Lee’s centrality to the writing of In Cold Blood makes Capote an intriguing meditation on the different ways literary genius can manifest itself. Even when her debut starts becoming a phenomenon, she has none of Truman’s narcissistic need for validation, brushing off with polite smiles the condescending dismissals that she’s written something for children. Truman, meanwhile, repeatedly basks in the martini-hazed glow of socialites who hang on his every word as he recounts gruesome insider details of a story he hasn’t yet written.

Writing

Unlike a lot of movies about writers, Capote is actually interested in the mechanics of the job. The way Truman and Lee diligently transcribe conversations as close to verbatim as possible (“I have 94 percent recall”, boasts Truman), the way he sits among boxes of notes carefully piecing together a story that has taken him years to report, the way he peeks into one of the victims’ coffins and transforms what he may or may not have seen into a poetic description of innocence destroyed – all of it helps dispel the myth that great literature arrives on the page fully formed.

It also underscores the way certain writers suspend decency in the pursuit of fine prose. As Capote has it, Truman was even more willing to do that once the killers were caught. His subsequent relationships with Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and, especially, with Perry Smith (Clifford Collins Jr) – in whom he saw something of himself, something he feared – are almost sexual: whispered promises of friendship, help, understanding and even legal aid are mixed with flat-out lies, a calculated display of premeditated ruthlessness designed to get Truman all the information he needs.

But it’s a two-way process. As he’s feeding off the killers, waiting years for them to hang so that he can complete In Cold Blood, his own soul is withering: “Sometimes when I think how good my book is going to be, I can’t breathe”, he tells his editor. The asphyxiating effect of his desire for literary immortality is a portent of the ruinous toll its attainment will take. He never finished another book.

The author, Alistair Harkness, is a film critic for The Scotsman. You can follow him on Twitter here.