“The movies. Again. In the last month he’d seen so many films, snatches of Hollywood dialogue rumbled in his dreams… And each morning before leaving for work he left on the mantel fifty cents—rain or shine she went to a picture show.”
—from “The Headless Hawk”, by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s legacy as one of the finest American writers of all time is undeniable, but as Tison Pugh suggests in his Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies, Capote was also very important as a cultural figure; perhaps the first truly “modern” literary artist the 20th century gave us. In his book, Pugh attempts to create the ultimate essay on why Capote’s work epitomizes truly “influential” work. Pugh’s interest is in Capote’s effect on film, and as he explains, he doesn’t necessarily mean films about Capote or those written by him, but rather, films and even plays that were made about his work.
Divided into chapters that encompass each of Capote’s facets in the movie world (from screenwriter to character), the book makes for a breezy read, especially when Pugh quotes Capote. “I wasn’t more than fifteen years old when I decided to be so obviously who I am and what I am that anyone who so much as asked the question would look like a fool” he said about his sexuality, and Pugh aptly mentions this right away, as if to get Capote’s homosexuality out of the way and avoid pretending he was ever closeted.
Yet the book tends to become too obsessed with Capote’s sexuality, to the point where it feels sensationalist at times. While it’s clear that the author was completely comfortable in his controversial skin, Pugh denies him the chance to be an artist who did not necessarily have to always talk about sex. Pugh gives everything Capote did or said a queer angle, and as much as that could make sense, it also could go the other way.
To assume, for example, that every child in a Capote creation is a manifestation of his early queer self (because children are not sexualized and therefore “must” represent ambiguous sexuality) makes for an interesting and valid critical point. “Capote’s child characters, appear on the surface as avatars of innocence and introspection, but whose subterranean desires surface to reveal their queer investments in adult eroticism” he explains, but by the time you reach the fourth mention of this theory, it makes Pugh sound too self important and self conscious.
To call Pugh’s intentions ambitious would be an understatement. The problem is that more often than not, the author seems to be running out of ideas and choosing to recur to repetition and assumptions, particularly when it comes to Capote’s sexual orientation. It’s a well known fact, for example, that Capote had a platonic affair with murderer Perry Smith when he was doing research for In Cold Blood. Like the old adage of beating a dead horse with a stick, the story doesn’t change, yet Pugh keeps at that horse as if that were the only reason In Cold Blood became a seminal part of literature and film.
Pugh also mentions Capote’s affair with actor John Garfield and tends to paint him too much like a “bitter queen”, instead of focusing on his achievements in the art of cinema, as opposed to Hollywood gossip. However, there are chapters in which the book attains true lyricism, and it’s in those chapters in which Pugh lets others do the talking for him.
The chapter about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a terrific account about the making of the movie which highlights Audrey Hepburn’s class—“I was terribly afraid I was not right for the part. This part called for an extroverted character… I am an introvert” she said about being cast—and how Capote came to terms with the beauty of her work, even if he intended the part to go to another actress. “Holly had to have something touching about her… unfinished. Marilyn had that. But Paramount double-crossed me and gave the part to Audrey Hepburn” he reportedly said.
What the book does best is encourage us to seek out Capote’s work in any form. Capote’s artistic talent, and not his sexuality, is of utmost importance. There are moments of heartbreaking beauty in quotes like “I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing,” uttered by Holly Golightly, which could also have been about Capote himself, who knew he didn’t have the right looks to be a star, even though he adored the movies.
Capote’s incendiary comments also make for a treat. For example, “You can not get dumber than Marlon Brando… he’s got a great sensibility and no sense.” Apparently Capote he had a soft spot for Geraldine Page (who won several Emmys starring in television adaptations of his works) “Capote frequently voiced his disdain for actors in his writings, yet he unreservedly admired Page’s talents”.
Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies makes for a good enough read, but it doesn’t find the right balance between sensationalism and criticism.