Sympathy for the Devil: In Cold Blood

Jennifer Makowsky
Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.

Truman Capote crafted a masterpiece in human ambiguity with his classic 'nonfiction' novel. Our leading lady of letters argues that the recent cinematic exploration of the book's creation is an equally unnerving experience.

Truman Capote chose the following epigraph to open his famous non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood:

Freres humains qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis,
Car, se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.

This translates into English as:

Brothers, men who live after us,
Let not your hearts be hardened against us,
Because, if you have pity for us poor men,
God will have more mercy toward you.

The name of the piece by Francois Villon is "Ballade des pendus" which translates into "Ballad of the Hanged Man". Upon first read, this may sound like an inappropriate way to start off a book that is initially about the brutal murder of a Kansas family named the Clutters, and the men who bound their hands and feet, sealed their mouths with electrical tape, and then shot each point blank in the face with a hunting rifle. But upon further review, this horrific crime becomes a vehicle which Truman Capote uses to drive into the very heart of human nature and all its complications.

The movie, Capote, doesn't specifically focus on the murder of the Clutters or try to recreate the book the way the 1967 film directed by Richard Brooks did. Instead the film is based on selected chapters from the Capote biography by Gerald Clarke, which explores the almost six years of the writer's life spent frequenting Holcomb Kansas while writing In Cold Blood, and the complex relationship he came to have with the killers, Dick Hitchcock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), particularly Smith.

This sounds like a grand concept for a movie, but who could possibly fill the shoes of the brilliant and eccentric Southern writer? Phillip Seymour Hoffman, of course. Some were skeptical at first. After all, Hoffman is over six feet tall and built like a freckled, blonde bookcase while Capote was a slight man with a delicate demeanor. Yet I never had a doubt about Hoffman's ability to embody Capote.

Since I first saw him as the wise ass Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, I've been shaking my pom poms all over the place for Philip Seymour Hoffman. I've seen 27 of his movies. I even suffered through the awful ones, Twister, Patch Adams, State and Main, just to see him morph into the character he's been assigned and watch him prove that acting can be a serious artistic endeavor despite so many crap performances and so much vanity consistently coming out of Hollywood.

Hoffman has been dubed a "human chameleon" due to his eerie ability to become someone else. He confirms his talent in Capote where he appears every bit the effeminate writer with the delicate Southern accent and delightful giggle. His depiction of Capote is nothing short of thrilling. But Hoffman goes beyond an impersonation of Capote and becomes an incarnation of him, seamlessly materializing into him before our eyes.

Despite his amazing portrayal and recent Academy Award for his performance, being Capote was no simple task for Hoffman. "It wasn't easy being him," he said in an interview at the Toronto Film Festival. "I think Norman Mailer said, 'It must have been exhausting to be Truman,' and I understand what he meant. It really was. There was no one like him."

What Hoffman may be referring to was the elusiveness that Capote is said to have exhibited. He was a complex character who struggled with childhood ghosts and a battle with alcohol and drugs, which purportedly may have spun out of control after he wrote In Cold Blood.

Capote has been quoted as saying, "This book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

He got what he was after, but at a reportedly mighty cost. While In Cold Blood won Capote critical acclaim and catapulted him to the zenith of literary stardom, he suffered personally for it and never finished another book. Hoffman brings Truman's torment to stunning heights as he uses Perry Smith to gain information for his book, but also develops an attraction to and close relationship with the mysterious character. Capote relates to Smith as a man who is the victim of a troubled childhood. In a particularly illuminating moment in the film, Capote reflects to Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener), "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front."

The film and the book examine the line between good and evil and the murky place inbetween. How is it possible to feel for two people who committed such a heinous crime? Watching the film, you can't forget the horrific murders he committed, but you also can't help but feel the pity that Truman Capote felt toward Perry Smith. Perry draws sketches of his death row cellmates and of Truman, gives him his personal journals, and talks in a soft voice as his big brown eyes quiver with something close to fear.

In the end, however, Capote's need for a conclusion to his book wins over the possibility of saving his friend. In a scene near the end of the film, Truman laments to Lee, "I couldn't have done anything to save them" to which Lee replies, "Maybe not, Truman. But the truth is you didn't want to."

Hoffman told the AP: "Somebody said the other day, at the end of the movie, you feel like Capote committed a crime, and that's exactly right. That's why the film works so well. You really have this sense that he's the one who committed the crime, and I think deep down inside, that's how he felt, too. That's something he could never come to terms with."

For once, I'm happy to have an actor on the cover of the novel his movie has been based on. And like Philip Seymour Hoffman, the visual is far from gaudy. Instead of the big, glossy actor's mug we usually see on the jacket, we are presented with a small humble sticker off to the side showing Philip posing as Truman and the words "Tie-in to the Major Motion Picture."

Even if they wanted to put his face all over the cover, I don't think I'd mind. Because this is an excellent match: a film that examines a gifted writer at the peak of his profession played by a gifted actor at the peak of his own.

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