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Capote and "In Cold Blood" [Updated]

    As Bill Booth tells us, Philip Seymour Hoffman will win Best Actor on Sunday for his portrayal (more than a mere impersonation) of Truman Capote. Having three names is certainly a huge boost for Hoffman's chances -- "Heath Ledger" just doesn't have enough letters. The movie itself is not exactly a laff-a-minute, but it has the requisite Oscar-worthy themes of life and death, trust and betrayal, insiderness and outsiderness, urban and rural. We watch Capote make his Faustian bargain in quest of the Great American Non-Fiction Novel. The idea of journalism-as-betrayal is straight out of the Janet Malcolm playbook. Capote exploits two killers for the sake of literature. The narrative arc and publication schedule of the book require an intimate acquaintance with these men on death row and, the sooner the better, their execution.

  Gerald Clarke, in the biography that is the basis of the movie, writes that there are moments in a person's life that mark the beginning of a dramatic rise or decline. In Capote's case, the same day -- the publication of In Cold Blood -- marked both. He hit a tremendous professional peak, but had been hollowed out over five and a half years of research and writing. The New Yorker serialized the tale in four consecutive issues, provoking a literary sensation (Clarke notes that the magazine dispatched only five copies to western Kansas, and even those were lost in transit).

   But Clarke is too honest a writer to claim that the book alone caused Capote's disintegration. Too often, when analyzing someone's life, we succumb to the fallacy of this-because-that. Capote had serious problems with alcohol, pills and his own ego (a friend said of Capote's drinking, "He would start with a double martini, have another with lunch, then a stinger afterward," a quote that raises the question of whether there is still such a thing as a "stinger"). Clarke writes about Capote's furious, wounded reaction when he failed to win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, and other writers, such as Norman Mailer, began stealing (he thought) his non-fiction novel concept:

  "His need for admiration had become insatiable; all the prizes in the world could not have filled it. In Cold Blood may have started his slide, but if it had not, something else almost certainly would have. As he entered middle age, the demons he thought he had exorcised long ago, the desperate fears of his lonely childhood, returned to tug at his elbow and whisper in his ear."   

    [The Lawrence Journal-World has quite a splash of stories about Capote and In Cold Blood, written by journalism students at the University of Nebraska. The articles include a story on allegations that Capote exaggerated the importance of detective Alvin Dewey and ignored one of the real heroes. For more on journalism-as-betrayal, check out this excerpt of Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer." As for Hoffman's Capote performance, check out Ann Hornaday essay on acting vs. impersonating. Meanwhile, Hunter says stodgy old Academy voters won't even watch Brokeback. Desson Thomson, meanwhile, explains how "Capote" captures a pivotal time in American culture:

   "It was a time when urbanization and suburbanization were redefining the existential topography of the country, when rural living -- and its code of tight-lipped faith and stoic, self-governed responsibility -- was going the way of the cowboy. When drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock executed farmer Herb Clutter and his family in cold blood, it was new America killing old America. This also marked the new era of grisly fame, when soulless, random violence would become the subject of tabloids, television and books, and the era of fame for fame's sake, when Capote and others would live off their celebrity as though it were a trust fund."]

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 27, 2006; 8:12 AM ET
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