When Douglas McGrath completed his screenplay about Truman Capote, he phoned Bingham Ray, the head of United Artists, and offered to send it over. Ray responded, “It’s on my desk.” This surprised McGrath, since he thought the work hadn’t yet left his own desk. Ray insisted, “I’m looking at it right now. Capote by Dan…”
In the awkward pause that followed, an unlikely coincidence became apparent: two gifted screenwriters had separately hit on the idea of telling the story of Truman Capote and the writing of his 1965 book, In Cold Blood. McGrath held his project back, and Dan Futterman’s screenplay, directed by Bennett Miller, went on to draw well-deserved applause last year. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s terrific portrayal of the title role in Capote won him a 2006 Oscar for Best Actor.
Despite the similarities, Infamous is quite a different movie. Capote was tough on Capote’s flaws: his self-absorption, his unending vanity, his flippancy, his capacity to wound. In one of many memorable scenes, Capote complains that delays in the execution of the two killers are holding back publication of his masterpiece. This comes as a shock, because we’ve seen him ingratiate himself with Perry Smith, the more confused and vulnerable criminal, gradually persuading him to open up. Perry really believes Capote is a friend, but in reality, the author is chafing for him to die.
Capote kept such punches coming. People who prefer Infamous will say that it is funnier (that’s true) as well as warmer, but to my mind it misses its goal, and the warmth comes across as gushing affection. In addition to writing the screenplay, McGrath also directed, and under his hand characters turn into big, fat caricatures. They’re often engaging (particularly Juliet Stevenson as Diana Vreeland), but so cartoonishly mannered that they have little credibility.
The contrast between high-society Manhattan and humble Holcomb, Kansas is played hard for laughs, providing absurdities such as the sight of Capote searching the town’s grocery store in vain for any cheese besides Velveeta. But folks living in the Breadbasket of America forty years ago did not subsist on processed foods. My friend who runs a terrific bookstore in Wichita (yes, they can read out there) writes that very little research turned up a dairy plant not far from Holcomb that, in 1942, was producing 7,000 pounds of cheese a day. And the film even shows us lots of farms, and tells us that the murdered family’s father was a rancher. It’s reasonable for a director to ask an audience to suspend disbelief, but don’t make the job so tough.
Compared to last year’s film, this one gives a simplified, novelized version of the story. The surprise is that it’s a romance novel. Here the complex tensions between Capote (Toby Jones) and Perry (Daniel Craig) has been sorted out into a coy and poignant boy-meets-boy story.
Throughout the early part of the film Capote is depicted as witty and winning, a success in every situation, and also big of heart. He has a surprising ability at arm wrestling, but while at Christmas dinner at the home of detective Dewey (Jeff Daniels), he thoughtfully allows their son to beat him. When he subsequently wins a bout with Dewey, he explains that “When you’re tiny” you have to be strong because “the world is not kind to little things.”
If this were a Harlequin Romance, Capote would be the saucy, bright-eyed princess who’s always mocking her straitlaced suitors and exasperating her proper parents. And Perry is the lowly born stable hand, or rather, the son of a failed rodeo-riding couple. In flashback he’s a wide-eyed boy, watching his drunken mom roll out into the front yard waving a bottle and get socked in the jaw by his dad. (This brief scene is a perfect miniature of the stagey, melodramatic style pervading Infamous.) Little Perry was heartbroken when his dad abandoned him (when the boy spots his dad in the distance on a rare visit, he murmurs repeatedly, “Please be real”), but the relationship got a fresh start when, as an adult, he was invited to join him in running a bar. Perry threw himself into the project, decorating the place with his paintings and crooning to a guitar every night. Dad, however, blamed the lack of business on Perry, and called him “a sissy” — words that we see provoke a near-homicidal rage.
Well, you’re starting to get the picture. Tormented, brooding, muscular Perry has a secret that he can’t quite face. During a visit from Capote, Perry is mocked by the prisoner in the next cell. Capote leads Perry to a corner saying quietly, “This can be our little tree house. Trust me. Close your eyes. Imagine the most beautiful place you know.” As strong, sad Perry stands in the wan light, Capote stands very near, whispering, “Feel the breeze, the sensual breeze from heaven. Just let go, relax every muscle.” And with that, Capote breathes on him.
If this story represents the hopes and hungers that undergird gay romance, it’s touching to see how strongly they resemble those in the pink paperbacks that women write and read. The object of desire is big and strong, but his eyes are troubled. He’s lonely, misunderstood; he needs tenderness. Under the radiant warmth of a ministering angel’s light, he opens like a flower. Soon the rescuer is receiving hesitant but deeply heartfelt pledges. The big guy, to his surprise, has fallen in everlasting love, and for the first time in his life feels truly alive.
So it happens that in Infamous the cell conversation soon turns to “It’s so hard, thinking there’s someone for you, and after years of waiting you meet him, and you can’t have him,” and “We really connected, didn’t we?,” and “You’re the only person I feel real with.” What comes next, of course, is a kiss — one that is intensely felt, but hardly lurid.
If this film is any indication, it looks like women and gay men both want the same thing from the men they desire: tender emotional connection. But, unfortunately, what straight men want is Angelina Jolie holding a gun.
So Infamous has heart, but little subtlety. The moment mentioned in Capote above, where the author reflects on how delaying the executions blocks release of his book, is reframed. Now Capote says, “To get an ending for the book means an ending for…” and trails off in tears. He attends the execution but can’t bear to watch, and stumbles out into the night in tears, where (inevitably) a thunderstorm is raging.
Capote’s friend, author Harper Lee (a nicely understated Sandra Bullock), sums things up: “There were three deaths on the gallows that day.” Capote was never able to complete a book after that, she says, because the pressure of expectation is too great in America. “It’s not a country like France, where charm or something light or effervescent can survive.”
But this is not the reason Capote failed to produce after In Cold Blood. Frustratingly enough, McGrath knows that, and knows what story he set out to tell. In a “Note” distributed to the press, McGrath writes that Capote’s life story shifts “from light to dark, from comic to tragic.” He explains that the author’s early success was followed by “later years of bitterness, a failure to produce the work he promised, a break with friends, reckless and ill-chosen love affairs, and a debilitating taste for drink and pills that only hastened his decline.”
That’s accurate, and we got a glimpse of the tragic process in last year’s Capote. But it’s not in Infamous. I wish it had been; that could have been a pretty good movie.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.