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More human than

More human than


Infamous reassembles the gay love story between the lines of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

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 cafe 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."

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