This fall, the roll call of gigantic ghosts inhabiting cinematic biographies continues unabated, with Joaquin Phoenix as a shrunken Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, David Strathairn as an inscrutable Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the ambitiously manipulative Truman Capote in, what else, Capote. The Cash biopic, sadly, possesses all the oomph of a straight line; it's impossible to illuminate a man who was as ablaze as Cash. But the latter two offer far more novel and ultimately longer-lasting tellings of less familiar tales: how (and, less so, why) TV journalist Murrow chose to take on Senator Joe McCarthy, leading to the downfall of both men; and how, during a trip to Kansas, Capote found his greatest book while losing the best part of himself in the process. They are not proper, moribund biopics at all, but snippets extracted from biographies -- A. M. Sperber's Murrow: His Life and Times and Gerald Clarke's Capote: A Biography -- used to show how a seemingly exultant interlude brings about a tailspin from which its subject can't recover.
There is, in Capote, a wonderful moment (among countless others) that captures the defeat concealed in triumph. Capote, played with such vibrancy by Hoffman that you quickly forget the effeminate mannerisms and lisping speech, and see and hear only the man himself, is on a theater-hall stage reading passages from his yet-unpublished nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, about the murder, and murderers, of a Kansas family in the fall of 1959. He begins at the beginning -- "The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat fields of western Kansas, a lonesome area that the other Kansans call 'out there'" -- and after he is finished, the black-tie crowd, assembled by New Yorker editor and Capote confidant/cheerleader William Shawn (Bob Balaban), leaps to its feet. Capote backs away from the podium and begins to weep, and we are left to wonder why. Is he proud of his achievement, which he has insisted will revolutionize journalism and literature, or ashamed of how he accomplished such a feat by manipulating, using and ultimately even betraying killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith?
That's the question ultimately asked by screenwriter Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller, both first-timers at the feature-film game. Theirs isn't just a story about how Capote wrote his masterpiece, but about the toll it took on him; this was, after all, a book about which even Capote said, "Before I began it, I was a stable person, comparatively speaking. Afterward, something happened to me.... Horrible!" Writer and director continue that trajectory, following as the successful, beloved life of the party ultimately destroyed himself writing about two killers -- one, Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), a grubby small-timer; the other, Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man who fancied himself considerate and literate, not all that different from Capote. (And Capote, too, would see himself reflected through Smith, with whom he sort of fell in love; of Smith, Capote says in the film, "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, and he went out the back door while I went out the front.")
By focusing on the four-year period during which Capote researched, with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, as earthy here as dirt on a boot heel), and wrote In Cold Blood, Futterman and Miller capture the sea change that took place in Capote. He begins the movie as a small man who seemed somehow a foot taller in appearance, a giddy name-dropper ("I had lunch with Jimmy Baldwin") for whom alcohol was a social lubricant. He's arrogant, too, to the point of offending the people he needs most for his tale: When Capote first goes to Kansas, he offends Kansas Bureau of Investigations agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) by not only demanding his time, right now, but also by claiming that for his story, he doesn't even care who killed the well-off Clutter family.
But as the story unfolds, as Hickock and Smith are captured and tried and imprisoned, Capote begins to unravel, too; their story becomes too much his story, and he begins to lose himself in the telling of what was meant to be a tidy little tale. By the end, Capote's an outright alcoholic, praying for the death of his two new friends if only so he can finish his goddamned book, which needs an ending. He begins to alienate his friends and loved ones, especially patient partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood); he's too deep in it, and finally unable to extricate himself. By the movie's end, the little man seems to disappear altogether -- to fold into himself, exhausted and more than a little ashamed. Hoffman's is among the year's finest performances, precisely because it doesn't feel like one at all.
Capote, of course, is about much more than Capote's downward spiral in the face of success -- it's a history lesson, too, about the birth of New Journalism (or celebrity journalism) -- but Miller and Futterman were wise to keep the focus tight, clean, precise. To have gone too far back (to, say, the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany's) or too far forward would mute its impact -- turn its punch into a slap. It's this moment, when a man goes too far and loses his way, that matters most, and they're wise men for recognizing that. Go figure, then: How often does one see a masterpiece about a masterpiece?