Truman Capote
Photo: Jack Mitchell | Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 | generative fill applied for horizontal positioning

Who Dare Portray Truman Capote?

Actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, and Tom Hollander have dared to portray Truman Capote to varying effect. Capote remains a complicated challenge.

Truman Capote‘s offbeat persona and distinctive mannerisms made him one of the 20th-century American literary canon’s most talked-about and controversial authors. Capote was the author of classics such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), and the emblematic nonfiction piece In Cold Blood (1965), while his work has been adapted into cinema more than 20 times.

A prodigy child raised in the American South during the 1930s, Capote famously scored 215 on IQ tests and started writing fiction at the tender age of 11. A literary genius in the making, Capote made his breakthrough with the 1945 short story “Miriam“, published in the June 1945 issue of “Mademoiselle”. The story earned him a Random House contract for his following 1948 novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

In his early work, the late American author, with the characteristic piping voice of a little girl, mingled the fictional and the autobiographical, allowing the reader to get a glimpse into the workings of a brilliant – though set in a perpetual mode of procrastinated self-destruction – mind. His relationship with his mother was complicated, to say at least, and he largely grew up on his own, even learning to read and write before he went to school. Regarding his childhood days, Capote said: “I was writing really sort of serious when I was about 11. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day, and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it.”

Truman Capote is notorious for his witticisms and sharp sense of sarcasm. When talking about his short stature, he remarked that he may not have been tall, but he was as compact and noisy as a little handgun. According to the historian Amy Henderson: “He was only 5′ 3″, he was a little elfin creature. But he was very amusing, and he liked being that social butterfly.” However, despite his fondness for socializing, especially with female New York elite aristocracy members, Capote remains infamous for his vendettas with other eminent figures of the American literary scene.

The most tense and high-profile case was his long-standing brush with Gore Vidal, also a combative man who thrived on admonishing his contemporary peers for what he saw as bad or lazy writing. Both men were openly gay at a difficult historical period for homosexuals when “coming out” was perceived more as an eccentricity rather than a declaration of identity. However, this did nothing to reduce the simmering tension between them manifested through acrimonious quotes and gestures of explicit antipathy the few times they met in social situations.

Many claim that the real reason behind the feud was that Truman Capote and Gore Vidal were on the pedestal of American literature at the same time. The year 1948, when Capote published his first novel (Other Voices, Other Rooms), and Vidal delivered his breakthrough masterpiece, The City and the Pillar. Their success put them on a collision course, both contending for the crown of the best writer in post-war America.

It makes sense that biographers would find a major source of inspiration in Truman Capote’s life, and onscreen media wouldn’t be an exception. Bennett Miller directed 2005’s Capote, casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as the outré author. Miller’s biopic is loosely based on Gerald Clarke’s 1988 book Capote: A Biography. Its narrative focuses on the author’s painstaking research to write his archetypal true crime novel, In Cold Blood. This work established Capote’s reputation as one of the greatest American writers of the previous century.

To complete the film, Miller spent six years traveling back and forth to Kansas to conduct personal interviews with all involved in the investigation of the atrocious crime committed in Holcomb in 1958. Bennett focuses on the relationship between Capote and one of the two alleged killers, Perry Smith, played in brooding perfection by Clifton Collins Jr. The author gradually earned the criminal’s trust and manipulated Smith in various ways to extract the necessary information that would allow him to finish the book. His longtime friend Harper Lee, Pulitzer-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), helped him throughout the strenuous process.

Seymour Hoffman’s extraordinary performance set the bar high for those who would later attempt to provide a faithful onscreen depiction of Truman Capote. For this role, Hoffman won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, a well-deserved award for the subtle, nuanced representation of the complex author. Indeed, Hoffman absorbed every quirk and eccentricity Capote exhibited through his particular body language and gestures and brought forth his pervading queerness and individuality in an authentic way. His acting tour de force would remain a point of reference for future biopics.

The late American actor spent a vast amount of time researching Truman Capote’s voice patterns and body stance to produce a spitting image of the idiosyncratic character, eventually delivering one of his most memorable career performances. The seemingly inexhaustible gamut of his expressions never ceases to amaze the viewers who overlook the physical mismatch between Hoffman and Capote. Hoffman’s untimely death in February 2014 left a vacuum in American cinema and deprived the audiences of the chance to witness more of his outstanding skills. 

Two years after the release of Miller’s Capote, another biography of Truman Capote hit the silver screen. Infamous, directed by Douglas McGrath, revolves around the same story and time period chronicled in Capote. For this reason, the two films are perceived by critics as “twins”. Toby Jones incarnates Capote, but despite the consensus regarding his closer proximity to his character’s physique compared to Hoffman’s, his acting is overshadowed by Hoffman.

Infamous garnered mixed reviews, and the reception by both the audiences and the critics was lukewarm. In his New York Times review of the film, A. O. Scott described it as “thinner and shower” than its predecessor, while David Rooney in Variety aptly summarizes Hoffman’s performance superiority: “In the central role, British thesp Toby Jones is a good physical match for Capote, getting his flamboyant mannerisms and creepy, nasal voice down. But unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn, there’s no texture, no under-the-skin sense of the conflict between Capote’s ambition for his book and his compassion for, and attraction to, Perry …”

Thus, Ryan Murphy’s second season of Feud (first aired in 2017) is centered around the later stages of Truman Capote’s career and his decline, chiefly from his immersion in alcohol and drugs, which led to his premature death in August 1984. The announcement of the production created a wave of expectations from the viewers who wondered if Tom Hollander’s portrayal would finally outshine Hoffman’s.

Hollander is an Oxford-born and Cambridge-bred actor with a prolific career boasting over 100 titles. Some of the most well-known are Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005), Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), and Bryan Singer’s films Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), and Valkyrie (2008). His extensive oeuvre indicates a versatile talent who would see the role of Truman Capote as a career challenge and an opportunity to prove that he is worthy of standing up there along with the cream of the crop of his peers.

For those who are not familiar with Feud‘s second season storyline, it revolves around an act of social suicide on behalf of Truman Capote, which took place when he had become an inextricable part of New York’s celebrity life. As a member of the city’s upper echelons, Capote befriended a group of young women whom he liked to call his “Swans”, and their bond was significant enough for them to confide in the author their innermost thoughts and secrets.

However, Truman Capote was, above all, a writer. Thus, he dared the unimaginable: betray his upscale friends by blatantly exposing their personal lives on the page. The Swans should have known better, as Capote famously declared that “all literature is gossip.” A relentless battle ensues between Capote and the women, each striving to eradicate the other from the face of the earth.

Hollander said about emulating Truman Capote’s trademark accent: “Honestly, I just listened to it a lot. And I was helped enormously by the most brilliant voice coach called Jerome Butler, who was there with me every day.” Besides his research on Capote’s mannerisms, Hollander approached his role in Feud from another perspective. He embraced an acting method that wasn’t so concerned with producing a replica of the real-life character but focused more on his personal parallels with Capote in terms of spirit and soul: “Rather than become Truman Capote, I tried to find the bits of me that could be him, or the bits of him that were like me, and then you somehow try and meet the character somewhere in the middle.” 

In Feud, Capote’s flamboyancy is exaggerated in a character portrayal that Hollander describes as “mythical” in Feud’s season 2, as director Gus Van Sant instructed. In Bennett Miller’s Capote, however, the subject is present in almost every scene, and his persona never evades the focus of the screenplay and the camera. In Feud, Capote is but one of the main characters, with the Swans, played by distinguished actresses Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Demi Moore, Chloë Sevigny, and Calista Flockhart, sharing the screen time.

Whether Tom Hollander’s acting brilliance will eventually match – or even surpass – that of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance of Truman Capote remains to be seen. It must be said, though, that the divergent approaches to the role may render the comparison irrelevant. Hoffman was selected to reenact a version of Capote solidly founded upon reality and fact. On the other hand, Hollander’s interpretation of the role is looser and doesn’t seem to care much about staying as faithful as possible to historical facts. It may be true that Truman Capote’s renowned extravagance provides fertile ground for others to showcase the depth of their talent. However, the remains reserved for the selected few who would dare to embark on such a risky endeavor. 

Works Cited

Craig, David. “Tom Hollander on transforming into ‘mythical’ Truman Capote for Feud“. 30 January 2024

Oakes, Elizabeth. American Writers. Facts on File, Inc. April 2004.

Rooney, David. “Infamous”. Variety Magazine. 31 August 2006.

Scott, A. O. “Truman Capote’s Journey on ‘In Cold Blood,’ Again“. The New York Times. 13 October 2006.

Stromberg, Joseph. “Truman Capote, America’s Author-Celebrity“. Smithsonian Magazine. 25 August 2011.