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00641 – CAPOTE

Movie-Hype00641 – CAPOTE

{Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener), Director, Adapted Screenplay}

The advantage of watching a Biopic of a historical figure you know well is your familiarity with the man, and therefore the performance. The best recent example I can think of it last year’s RAY, for which Jamie Foxx won an Academy Award. Watching a film like CAPOTE, however, someone like me is in the dark.

(In true Hyperion fashion, once the film was over I poured myself into researching the man, and now hold a fair amount of knowledge. At the time, however….)

In some ways, it’s not fair to Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the cast and crew of CAPOTE that I didn’t know exactly what I was watching. I’ve seen Hoffman many times, and like the actor a lot. His favorite performances of mine include TWISTER, BOOGIE NIGHTS, COLD MOUNTAIN and STATE AND MAIN. He has kind of a Seymour Hoffman thing going on in each of these, and he definitely DOES NOT do that thing in CAPOTE. I could only assume he was mimicking the real Truman Capote. (He was. What archive footage I was able to unearth was almost scary. They seemed virtually identical.)

However, I’m assuming that most of you are like me; without a great deal of background on who are what Truman Capote was, his life, how he acted, what he did. That’s okay. Any movie you sit down to watch you should be able to enjoy purely on its own merits. If you can’t figure out the character, if you don’t know what’s going on, if the significance of events is not apparent to you by watching, than the movie has failed, no matter what historical ignorance you bring to the table.

By that standard, CAPOTE is a complete success. The film doesn’t tell the story of his life, but rather one small chapter, which will ultimately be the thing Capote is most remembered for. In some ways it seems strange to pick out one small part of a man’s life—even this important part—seeing as how most people don’t know a lot about him, and by all accounts the dude had some interesting adventures. But what do I preach to you people? You judge a movie for what it is, not what you hoped it would be.

And there may be a method to director Bennett Miller’s madness. By focusing on a relatively short time period, we don’t have to go through all the “changes in life” stuff that accompanies most Biopics. We are able to laser in, a small place, and perhaps in that way, come to know the man.

(If you think about it, how can anyone know anyone anyway? Is some grand retrospective that shows off the wonders of the makeup department any more illuminating? Why not focus on just as small time period?)

The following paragraph is going to contain VERY VERY MILD SPOILERS, just to give a slight background to what’s going on, but SKIP IT if you’re one of those ANAL-RETENTIVE TYPES.

Truman Capote had been known for his socializing with the Hollywood glamour-set, and for short stories and novels, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1959, a family was murdered in Kansas. Truman Capote went there, talked to everyone in the town he could; the sheriffs, the friends, the neighbors, and perhaps most significantly, the accused criminals. Then he wrote a book about the event. What’s so significant about this is that Capote wrote his book, In Cold Blood, as a novel, even though it was an actual event. Basically—and it’s hard to stress this enough—Truman Capote invented the genre of engaging non-fiction storytelling. The film covers the time period right after the crime to when the book came out.

WELCOME BACK ANAL-RETENTIVE TYPES. I suppose some might call it brave and others might call it stupid, but Capote the character is a pretty unlikable SOB. His genius is hard to ignore, but it’s really hard to root for the guy. His self-centeredness is almost breathtaking, and the way he uses people to get what he wants doesn’t inspire a lot of good will. Even to his friends Capote is not that great. The film starts with Capote taking the train from New York to Kansas with child-hood pal Harper Lee. (There’s a great scene where the black porter talks about how good an author Capote is, using words it would be extremely unlikely for a black porter on a train in 1959 to use. Harper correctly deduces that Truman has paid the guy to say these things.)

When I first saw that Catherine Keener was playing Harper Lee, my immediate thought was, “Is this before or after she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird?” It made a difference in how I perceived her. I tried to let that go and just watch. The question eventually is answered, in a way that shows us the shallowness Capote was capable of.

Hyperion’s Rating System

Suspension of Disbelief: 0

Genre Grade: This is straight Biopic. I give last year’s RAY an A-, and by that standard I give CAPOTE a B+.

Sex/Violence? Kids would be bored to tears, but there is nothing objectionable here you wouldn’t see on CSI, unless you object to homosexuals breathing air. And if you’re one of those people, why on earth would you be reading my column?

Kickassability? Capote does have a couple of cool moments (although the only chill moment is when Chris Cooper as the local Sheriff threatens him), but if you’re looking for Kickassness, you might want to try another film.

Get the Facts Right? Any Biopic has to be taken with a grain of salt. What from what I can deduce they seemed to get it mostly right, and for what it’s worth, Hoffman’s Capote is spot on.

Pantheon Percentile: This film won’t really date, and people will be interested because of the great performance. But I don’t see you telling your kids about it. 80.

Other than some affection with Harper Lee, about the only people Truman Capote is able to connect with are the criminals. It’s almost tender the way he…I don’t want to say believes in them or takes their side, but empathizes with their situation in order to understand them.

Of course, when the agenda of why he’s acting this way is fully revealed, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, as a writer I felt a affinity to Capote, and was compelled by his work and his ability to draw colors from what seemed so monochrome. On the other hand, as a human, it’s hard to like the guy.

The film is a virtual lock to win Philip Seymour Hoffman Best Actor. (Vegas has odds on these things, and Hoffman has the shortest of any category.) Best Actor is the most crowded category, with worthy nominees all over the place, and some worthy ones not getting in. I won’t say that Hoffman is the choice in my mind, but he certainly is fantastic and will be very deserving. Not much has been made out of the fact that Capote is obviously gay, but once Hoffman wins, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN cleans up and possibly even Felicity Huffman for her Trans-gender role sneaks a win, expect to hear about how Hollywood is corrupting America. We’ll get to Brokeback later this week, but as for CAPOTE, don’t believe that BS. There is not chance anyone would watch CAPOTE and want to be like the man, either his personality or his sexuality.

As for the other nominations, I try to be equanimical about these things. I understand that politics plays a large part, as does timing and buzz. But for all that, I don’t see how this very good film gets up for Best Picture and Director. And while I’m a big fan of Catherine Keener, her role is very slight and doesn’t really add to the texture of the film in an essential way. To think of her getting nominated while others are passed over (Q’Orkiana Kilcher in THE NEW WORLD, for example) just doesn’t sit right with me.

But obviously I can do nothing about that. And CAPOTE is a fine film, well acted, and movingly played out. I just don’t think they really invented anything new here, and in that way, they failed they legacy they were trying to show.

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