Still reeling from the awful news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. Unbelievably sad. I thought of the only time I was able to interview him, for Vue Weekly, back in 2005, about Capote, the film for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. That was before this blog, so I'd never posted the piece before. One small way of remembering this wonderful, prolific, singular actor. Apropos of the film's subject, we wound up talking about death.
In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, his spell-binding account of a senseless murder in a rural community and its aftermath, no single figure touched by the events, however briefly, passes through without some significant establishment of character; no detail regarding the actions, ideas, feelings or even dreams of the people featured in these pages seem beyond the author’s narrative reach. The crystalline detail and flights of poetry of In Cold Blood are so rich as to truly substantiate Capote’s identifying the book a “non-fiction novel.” Yet something conspicuously absent from the book is Capote himself, who exists only as our phantom guide, netting the dense psychological trauma surrounding these murders without leaving so much as a fingerprint in his wake.
Bennett Miller’s Capote, in its evocatively compact, largely visual way, also vibrates with novelistic detail, its austere framing of the Kansas countryside where the Clutter family met their deaths (recalling Bergman’s Winter Light) and the gestures it captures from its players (especially Chris Cooper and Clifton Collins Jr.) tell us volumes about the grief, isolation, anger and trust that haunts the characters with impressive economy. Yet here, Capote is no phantom but an active participant, an urbane, disarmingly effeminate outsider who appears in striking contrast to his surroundings.
Adapted by Dan Futterman from Gerald Clarke’s biography of the same name, Capote follows Capote as he tries to find In Cold Blood, to coax his masterpiece out of the unruly shadows of real life, to almost literally distil the book from its source, and in doing so, develop intimate relationships—especially with convicted killer Perry Smith—that shroud his blatant journalistic ambitions, causing one character to wonder if the book’s title is a reference to the murders or to the way Capote exploits his subjects. (The obvious third alternative reading of the title would be in reference to capital punishment.) A quietly provocative film, Capote is a critical portrait of a journalist in an ethical whirlpool, its only problem being its title and its closing title card, which inevitably reduce Capote to this single, if very powerful, period in his career.
At the film’s heart is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Capote, blending virtuosic technical work—he uncannily speaks Capote’s distinctive voice without sounding like a caricature—with brilliant instinct for playing a delicate scene forcefully, as well as on a number of other levels. He so fully inhabits his role that there’s no niggling sense of his steering us toward developing sympathies, antipathies or any one interpretation. Also one of Capote’s executive producers, Hoffman has an unusual dual perspective on the film and its particular meaning for him.
JB: Biopics are frequently infused with this false air of resolution and redemption, but Capote takes a highly critical approach of its subject. Given your task, was it difficult for you to compartmentalize the film’s implications about Capote, your own feelings about Capote and your role embodying Capote?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I didn’t know much about Capote when I first took the job, so at the start I was genuinely unbiased. As an actor, I went into this always trying to support his angle. That’s my work. But sure, looking from the outside I was quite aware of the harsh light that needed to be shone on him. I mean, that’s the story of this movie and I think it has a lot to say about the subsequent 20 years of Capote’s life.
JB: So when you’re playing Capote, how do you come to terms with the precarious way he conducts himself with his subjects?
PSH: I look at it like this: He has this person he’s talking to who’s murdered an entire family, so if Capote’s withholding information or lying to this man, there’s justification to be found in this very crude fact. Beside that, I think his ambition was burning him up inside; he was almost helpless under the blaze of white light he was walking toward. And then the other thing is that I think he’s very attracted to Perry. He becomes close to both Perry and Dick and deals with each compassionately in his book. So I think he had ways to justify his actions. Of course it’s a no-win situation. He can’t have this book and this success and have Perry lingering. Perry needs to die for this work to come to life.
JB: Reading In Cold Blood after seeing Capote, I was very aware of the erotic element of Perry and Dick’s characterizations. It contributed to this sense of ambiguity regarding Capote’s true feelings: is he really drawn to these guys as much as he is repulsed, or is he purely manipulating them into false friendship for his own purposes?
PSH: He’s having all of these feelings for these men and is nonetheless manipulating them at the same time. That’s what made the script so good. Yet I also think it’s very clear that his objective is always to get these men to trust him and tell him stuff. In that sense I don’t know what you mean by ambiguity.
JB: I suppose it’s just that thing that happens when we’re caught up in a movie. For me at least, while in the thick of it, I hope that Capote’s compassion or loyalty might run deeper than it does. It was only at a point in the last third or so that I could no longer doubt his fundamental ruthlessness. Until then, I’m still swayed by him telling Harper Lee that he’s in love.
PSH: And he is! He does love him—but he also knows that the book is going to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Both things are real. And that’s what causes the tragedy. It’s complex, but it’s not ambiguous because those feelings are real.
JB: Something that separates Capote distinctly from Capote’s writing is how it works on the level of self-reflection. In a sense, it’s a fiction about a real person making a fiction about a real event.
PSH: Absolutely. We’re not making a documentary. There needs to be certain liberties taken in order to… well, in order to still tell the truth; the truth as we see it. But that’s the same thing Capote does in his book: it’s all factual, but from his angle. He provides a perspective and I think that’s valuable. Otherwise it’s just a document. The artistry lends itself to discovering other truths.
JB: Perhaps one of these truths arises from the way the film reveals a proliferation of murder, the murder of the family allowing for the murder of the murderers. These murders, without superfluous commentary, bookend the story, in a way that reminded me of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing. Death flows through these films. And this is also alluded to in the book, when, near the beginning, Capote writes about “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”
PSH: You’re quite right, he’s very clear about those numbers and their consequences. Yet I have to say that I never thought about that theory in making the film because it’s not very actable. Themes aren’t things you can think about when you’re acting. Really, I think the film is less about the death penalty than it is about compromise and betrayal, and is it worth the price you pay? But you’ve hit on something in that, although it might not seem like it, you do see a lot of death in the movie. In a way, it’s like Capote has come to bear witness to all these deaths. And the truth he discovers is that they don’t pass through him without leaving marks.