More human than Truman

By Alexander Cho

Originally published on Advocate.com October 10 2006 12:00 AM ET

There’s
something both familiar and unsettling about the first word
that comes out of actor Toby Jones’s mouth as
Truman Capote in the new film Infamous.
He’s at a swank New York City nightclub with one of
his society-lady “swans,” Babe Paley
(played by Sigourney Weaver). The two are doing the
meet-and-greet, making their way to their prime table, and
just as they sit down Capote waves his hand, looks almost
directly at the camera, and squeaks,
“Hi.”

It’s the
Capote voice and manner we all know. But with this one word,
Jones hints that somewhere below the seamless performance
that was Truman Capote in real life lies a sensitivity
we’re not used to seeing. It’s a tiny
glimpse that this Capote story is going to be different.

It would have to
be, since Infamous follows exactly the same
period in his life as last year’s Capote, the
acclaimed film fueled by Philip Seymour
Hoffman’s Oscar-winning lead performance.
(Infamous was made at the same time but delayed by
the studio when Capote was released first.)

Capote, the
celebrated author and toast of New York City’s
café society, takes an extended trip to a small
town in Kansas where an entire family has been
murdered. He camps out with the convicted murderers, Richard
Hickock and Perry Smith, and gets them to spill all the gory
details. He emerges seven years later with the novel
In Cold Blood, which skyrockets him to
international acclaim and makes him a very wealthy man.
And he never again completes a book-length work.

“I came at
this movie to answer a question,” says
Infamous writer-director Douglas McGrath
(Nicholas Nickleby, Emma). “What
happened to Truman Capote after In Cold Blood? If you
look at his life before, it’s almost an
unbroken series of successes and achievements. From
that point on, everything goes wrong for him for the
next 20 years of his life before he dies. Professional
failure and humiliation. Terrible public
embarrassments. I kept thinking, What
happened?”

According to
McGrath, the answer is simple: Capote was in love with
Smith, and it shattered him to see Smith executed.

As McGrath tells
it, Perry Smith, played by Bond-to-be Daniel Craig, is a
hulking, working-class thinking man. Capote, who comes to
Kansas full of New York City attitude (Babe Paley
sends him a can of Beluga caviar as a care package the
first week), quickly learns that in order to crack
Smith’s shell, he’s going to have to let his
own guard down. In doing so, he is confronted with a
reality he’s never faced: The shiny veneer that
is Truman Capote ceases to matter inside a Kansas jail cell.
Smith and Capote develop an attachment to each other,
and in one surprising scene they have a loaded
physical exchange, including a prolonged kiss.

Did Smith and
Capote really have a physical relationship, or is McGrath
taking liberties for the sake of his film? Capote would
never admit to a relationship with Smith even among
his closest confidants. But in George
Plimpton’s 1997 biography, Truman Capote: In Which
Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and
Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career,
a
Kansas local who was involved with the case states flat out
that Smith and Capote became lovers in the
penitentiary—although he admits that he
wasn’t there himself and wasn’t exactly a fan
of Capote’s to begin with. In the same book at
least one of Capote’s New York literary acquaintances
describes him as “in love” with Perry Smith.
Of course, Capote made no bones about the fact that he
found Smith fascinating, even endearing.

There’s a
telling moment, however, in a little-watched Maysles
brothers documentary that McGrath and Jones both cite
as crucial to the film’s premise. Originally
titled A Visit With Truman Capote and now known
as With Love From Truman, the documentary was made
just as In Cold Blood was beginning to take the
world by storm. Capote is at his home on New
York’s Long Island with a journalist from Newsweek,
explaining how he researched the story. At this point, the
Truman Show is so polished that he might as well be
reciting a script. Then Capote brings out a box
stuffed with letters from Smith. As he fondles the edge
of one of the envelopes, the filmmakers’ cameras
catch a strange break in his demeanor. He’s
suddenly silent. His lower lip trembles several times.
His eyebrows furrow. He lets out a strange sigh. Then, just
as quickly, he’s back in form, changing the
subject. That’s about as much of the real human
who played Truman Capote as we’re ever allowed to
see.

“Doug
[McGrath] suggests in the film that there’s a kind of
Faustian pact,” explains Jones (most recently
seen on the big screen as Smee in Finding
Neverland
). “The man who has meant so much to you
has to die for you to get your masterpiece.
It’s the stuff of tragedy.”

For McGrath, the
decision to do more than just hint at
Infamous’s gay relationship was
make-or-break. “When we made the deal with Warner
Independent, I had a talk with [then-president] Mark
Gill,” he says. “It’s the central
thesis of my movie, and it wasn’t something I was
going to change. I wanted to make sure that there was
a kiss between two men in the movie. And he said,
‘Yeah, I get it.’ ”

One wonders if
Capote would. Or maybe, by the time he had fallen out of
favor, he might have felt, looking back, as if he were
watching his own performance. He’d understand
the irony. “If you want to move someone else as
an artist,” he says at the beginning of the Maysles
documentary, “you must be truly moved by what
it is you’re writing.” Then he adds,
“But you must keep exploiting that emotion in
yourself, over and over and over again, until you
become completely cold about it.”