Talent, research, and dedication aren't always enough.
Sometimes ya gotta pick your spots. If Infamous had come out a year and a half
earlier it might well have earned many Oscar nominations. It is an excellent
evocation of the six years that author Truman Capote dedicated to the creation of his
masterwork, In Cold Blood, and is anchored by a pluperfect performance by Toby
Jones, who looks and sounds exactly like Mr. Capote. This is not an actor playing
Capote. This is Capote come back to life to play himself.
Only one problem. Been there; done that. In September of 2005,
just thirteen months before Infamous was released, another excellent film
(Capote) came out, which covered the exact same story, within the exact same
period of time, with a very similar spin, and with another acclaimed performance
(by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The earlier film grossed about twenty million
dollars, pretty solid numbers for a cerebral film about a flamboyantly gay
writer and his relationship with a convicted mass murderer. The first film also
won an Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's reasonable to say that the Hofman
version exhausted the public demand for this tale, as well as the academy's quota
of awards to be given to Truman Capote impersonators and films featuring them.
That's a shame, because Infamous is a film of comparable
quality to Capote, and Toby's performance is (I'm about to commit a sacrilege
here) as good as or better than Hoffman's Oscar-winning turn.
The basic difference between the two films is that Infamous is
the more visceral, Capote the more cerebral. The Infamous version of the story
is not based on a formal biography, as the first one was, but rather on a series
of gossipy interviews conducted by George Plimpton in his book, "Truman Capote:
In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His
Turbulent Career." The Hoffman version kept a great emotional distance in the
interactions between its characters, and left much unsaid, often building a wall
between itself and its audience, and living in the minds of its characters.
Infamous lives in the passions of its characters. The quasi-sexual relationship
between Capote and Perry Smith is right out in the open, whether historically
accurate or not. Killer Perry Smith admits to being in love with the author, and
Capote reciprocates to the extent that anyone can love a man who has slaughtered
four people and will soon hang. They exchange a sexual kiss in the privacy of
Smith's cell, and Smith publicly kisses Capote goodbye when he is led off to the
gallows. In this latest version of the story, Capote is not merely manipulating
the killer to create a better book, but is genuinely involved with his heart,
and is distraught after Smith's hanging. His failure to intercede on behalf of
the killers was not a matter of callousness (as in the earlier film), but powerlessness. It is the thesis
of this screenplay that the emotional devastation of watching Smith hanged was
what ultimately caused Capote's life to disintegrate and his career to founder
after the publication of In Cold Blood. This version of Truman Capote is deeper
and more capable of genuine emotion than the one Hoffman created in Capote.
Hoffman's version of the character was brilliant, but possessed neither
emotional depth nor a moral compass.
They are both good movies, but Capote is a film to admire from
afar, while Infamous is more engaging and a better story (if perhaps not as
likely to be true). Infamous has more gaiety in the New York social whirl, and
more tension in the Smith/Capote encounters. It has higher highs and lower lows
than the first film. It also has a brilliant supporting performance from Daniel
Craig (the new 007), who brings intensity and intellectual strength to the role
of Perry Smith. While the first film showed a cold and manipulative Capote
pulling Smith's strings like a puppet-master, Infamous shows them as duelists,
exchanging the position of advantage from time to time. Capote gets severely
reprimanded by Smith when his efforts are obviously insincere and manipulative.
This version of Perry Smith is every bit Capote's intellectual equal. Smith is
even an incisive critic of Capote's earlier books, because the killer has to
study the works intensely in order to determine whether Capote is the sort of
man to whom he should trust his life story. While Truman still manages to
manipulate Smith to some extent, he has to reach deep inside himself to do so,
because Smith is not easily fooled by Capote's first superficial efforts. In
doing that, Truman eventually lets down his guard and offers his real self.
Although he is a man who never really loved, he comes as close as he ever did
with Perry Smith. Only after sensing that does Smith soften and co-operate with
I really am never comfortable in cobbling films into the
vocabulary of "better" or "worse." Oh, of course I do it for fun now and again
as we all do when he have a beer or two and somebody at the bar says, "Best
sports film?" Who can resist that? But I'll start taking it seriously only when
somebody can offer me a methodology that will allow me to evaluate whether Pulp
Fiction is better or worse than Fantasia. And it's not just that I hate trying
to rank disparate films. In the case of Capote and Infamous, the films are as
similar as any two films can be, and I'm still not comfortable in listing them
vertically. But I will say this without qualification: although I am open to the
idea that Capote is a smarter film, and will acknowledge that it is certainly
subtler, I like Infamous better. In fact, much better.