Another Capote biopic? Yep, it's 'Infamous'
Toby Jones stars as Truman Capote in Infamous. (Warner Independent Pictures)
If you held a gun to my head and demanded to know which Truman Capote biopic -- last year's "Capote" or this year's "Infamous" -- was better, it's "Capote," no contest.
Still, "Infamous," Doug McGrath's evocative profile of the social moth who fluttered from the flickering candlelight of Manhattan dinner parties to the naked lightbulbs of Kansas prisons, more engagingly contrasts the author's fascination with high life, and low.
In other words, "Capote" is serious, deep and unadorned in the manner of the 1967 movie adaptation of the writer's true-crime novel" In Cold Blood." And "Infamous" boasts the high-gloss frivolity of the 1961 film version of Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's." (What a quadruple-bill these films would make!)
Both film portraits span the years 1959 to 1965, from the time the diminutive writer began investigating a murder in the American heartland through to the publication of "In Cold Blood," the nonfiction masterpiece that both made and unmade him.
"Capote" has a superior Truman in Philip Seymour Hoffman, who incarnates the author's public mask and private moral relativism.
"Infamous'" Toby Jones impersonates the author's frog-prince squeal and imperiousness, but rarely goes deeper.
"Infamous," however, has Sandra Bullock, who is superb as Harper Lee. One reason that her performance is better than that of the divine Catherine Keener in the other picture is that McGrath's film (based on George Plimpton's biography incorporating the voices of Capote intimates) is largely drawn from Lee's own eloquent words. Bullock's warm, wise and penetrating presence as the "To Kill a Mockingbird" author -- Capote childhood friend, assistant and conscience -- is the soul of McGrath's sumptuously art-directed (by Judy Becker) and scored (by Rachel Portman)film.
"Infamous" opens, elegantly, in 1959 at El Morocco, watering hole of New York society. Capote (Jones) sails in with swanlike Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) to hear a chanteuse (Gwyneth Paltrow, channeling Peggy Lee) sing a killer rendition of Cole Porter's "What is This Called Called Love?"
The song's question reverberates through McGrath's film, as Capote is variously seen in the throes of self-love and homoerotic passion.
An impish entertainer, Capote held court among Manhattan socialites such as Paley, whom he beguiles and casually betrays.
But Capote is also a smitten lover, captivated by convicted murderer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig, miscast), whom he likewise befriends and bamboozles. Seduction and abandonment was Capote's emotional "modus operandi, which is McGrath's true subject here.
And this is why the character of Nelle Harper Lee, who regards her spoiled child of a friend with the gimlet eye of a disciplinarian aunt, emerges as the film's linchpin.
Immune to Capote's considerable charms, Lee has seen the Truman show and can distinguish the truth from his colorful embroidery. Unlike the society friends who would cut him when he turned their luncheon gossip into the basis of his novel "Answered Prayers," Lee cannot be seduced and she will not abandon. In Bullock's soft-spoken, deglamorized turn, Lee is Capote's muse and unconditional love.
Produced by Christine Vachon, Jocelyn Hayes and Anne Walker-McBay, written and directed by Doug McGrath, based on "Truman Capote" by George Plimpton, photography by Bruno Delbonnel, music by Rachel Portman, distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Truman Capote/Toby Jones
Nelle Harper Lee/Sandra Bullock
Alvin Dewey/Jeff Daniels
Bennett Cerf/Peter Bogdanovich
Perry Smith/Daniel Craig
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sexual candor, sex)
© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.