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Capote reveals tragedy of author's life

Capote reveals tragedy of author's life

In real life, character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has a beard, pot belly, deep voice, and a graduate student's disheveled demeanor--all of which disappear in an amazing screen transformation that is the talk of the Toronto International Film Festival. In the new film Capote, Hoffman plays Truman Capote, the so-called Tiny Terror of American letters who achieved fame and broke new ground for literature but also sold his soul to write a book that ultimately destroyed his life.

Hoffman says the film is about Capote's "deal with the devil" to write In Cold Blood, the first of a genre called the "nonfiction novel," which tells how drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock murdered a family of four in a lonely Kansas farmhouse in 1959. Capote spent months researching his book in Kansas, where his fey manner, odd look, upturned pinkie finger, and squeaky voice grated against the values of Middle America. But ultimately he won the confidence of almost all involved in the case, including Smith, with whom he developed a close friendship. The film says that Smith counted desperately on Capote to maintain his legal fight to stay alive. But Capote needed Smith and Hickock executed so that his book would have its last chapter and he could finally publish it.

To play Capote, Hoffman says he had to shed dozens of pounds, find a way to emulate Capote's high-pitched Southern drawl, and capture the man's flamboyant mannerisms while at the same time discover the "emotional and intellectual logic he worked under."

"The last thing I wanted to do was mimic him," Hoffman said in an interview with Reuters. "I wanted to get his essence. It was the hardest thing I ever did on film." Judging from the reviews coming out of the 10-day festival, Hoffman has achieved his goal. The Hollywood professionals in town to see new films say the performance and the movie, directed by newcomer Bennett Miller, are certain Oscar nominees.

Miller and Hoffman insist the film is not a "biopic" but their interpretation of how In Cold Blood came to be written and the price Capote had to pay for an ambition that led him to betray people. "The movie is about knowing that somebody has lost his soul out there, somebody has destroyed a part of himself.... The minute he saw Perry Smith, the outcome was inevitable that two men would die--one literally and the other figuratively," Hoffman said.

In the film, Hoffman as Capote breaks down and cries uncontrollably when he meets Smith and Hickock just before their execution. He claims he did everything he could to save their lives, while in fact he didn't. Hoffman describes that scene as "a self-awareness moment. All of a sudden everything he has done comes flashing into his mind, a self-criticism that is unbearable." After publishing In Cold Blood, Capote became for a while the most celebrated writer in America. But he never wrote another full-length work and drifted into drug use, alcoholism, and embarrassing self-parody. He died in 1984 at age 59, abandoned by his many high-flying friends. "He just expired," Hoffman said. (Arthur Spiegelman, via Reuters)

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