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Capote’ not just a brilliant biography

Molly Griffin | Friday, December 2, 2005

Biographical films tend to start at the beginning of a life and end with death. “Capote” takes a somewhat different approach – it starts with events that inspired a novel and ends with the events that complete it.

“Capote” chronicles the relationships and events that go into shaping one of the author’s novels rather than focusing on his life. The film follows the development of “In Cold Blood,” which is both Capote’s masterpiece and his final book.

The film begins with the violent and shocking murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. This event attracts the attention of Capote, who becomes fascinated with the murders and decides to write about them. He is initially curious and inquisitive about the murders, but the longer he works with those involved, specifically the murderers, the more complicated his feelings and motivations become.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the likable but complicated author is one of the highlights of the film. His high, wavering lisp initially makes the author seem almost comical, but it swiftly becomes part of the emotional impact of the film through Hoffman’s powerful performance. His portrayal of Capote captures the simultaneously charming and disturbing nature of the character.

While the movie chronicles the development of “In Cold Blood” and the events that inspired it, two relationships in Capote’s life make up the true heart of the film.

The friendship between Capote and his childhood friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, is central to understanding the action in the film and Capote himself. She behaves as both a friend and mother figure in his life, and coddles the difficult author through the trials he faces while writing “In Cold Blood.” While she is patient and supportive of the frequently childish and quixotic author, Lee also provides some of his most scathing criticism.

Catherine Keener, in a drastic turn from her last role in “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” plays Lee with a mix of warmth, compassion and steely resolve. Her performance, while not as flashy or noticeable as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote himself, anchors the film and gives it emotional stability.

The other major relationship in the film emerges between Capote and one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Capote becomes deeply and emotionally involved with the perpetrator in an attempt to get as close to the motivation behind the murder, but he grows terrified with how close he comes to evil.

The two share similar childhoods, causing Capote to feel that he isn’t far removed from these actions.

“It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front,” Capote said.

One major question the film puts forth is whether Capote actually empathized with the criminals or if he was simply using them to further his literary career. “In Cold Blood” remains unfinished for much of the film because Smith and his accomplice, Richard Hickock, get several stays of executions, which drives Capote close to a nervous breakdown.

After the murderers are executed, Capote sobs to Harper Lee that he did all he could for them, to which she replies, “The fact is, you didn’t want them to live.” Her cutting remark reveals that only when the criminals died could Capote actually finish his book, and his desire to be loved by the literati may have quashed any of his feelings of empathy.

Overall, “Capote” is an intriguing portrait of a flawed and fascinating author and the trials and successes that go into writing a novel. A great cast and even direction make it an interesting look into the events and people that ultimately shaped a great and important American novel and its writer.