Screens The indefensible defendant

Capote, the fey, intrepid, and self-aggrandizing gossip, is on trial in Bennett Miller's film

Like Madame Bovary and An American Tragedy, In Cold Blood was instigated by a newspaper article. While reading The New York Times in November 1959, Truman Capote came across an account of four murders in Holcomb, Kansas. Accompanied by his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee, he immediately departed New York for the scene of the crime. Despite - or because of - the fact that Capote, a short, squat dandy with a whiny voice and a grandiose manner, was like nothing else in Kansas, he managed to gain the confidence of the local folks, as well as the pair of drifters who killed the Clutter family in cold blood. Their escapade netted them $40-50 and a hanging. It gave Capote "the book I was always meant to write."

Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a turn as Truman Capote, an American legend lauded and reviled in equal parts.

Confining itself to five years in the life of its title character, Capote is the story of the making of a book, and the breaking of its author. As played by the dazzling Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote is a marvel of panache and a bundle of pathos. Already a society pet, the literary lion who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's, he immediately understands that he is flirting with greatness by going to Kansas. Capote's hyperbolic boast that, "I'm inventing an entirely new form - the nonfiction novel" ignores predecessors going at least as far back as Daniel Defoe, but he accurately senses that if he can pull off this project neither his life nor American prose will ever be the same. One of the two murderers, a gimpy, polysyllabic misfit named Perry Smith (Collins), is Capote's homicidal doppelganger, and the narcissistic author is smitten with this darker version of himself. "We're not so different as you might think," he tells Smith. But Capote, attracted to Smith out of boundless self-love, is even more enamored of the chance to make literature out of the other man's misery. "He's a gold mine," says Capote, who proceeds to dig. The way in which the author pries a story out of Smith by manipulating his trust seems a gloss on Janet Malcolm's infamous observation: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

Dir. Bennett Miller; writ. Dan Futterman, from the biography by Gerald Clarke; feat. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper (R)

Capote does suffer remorse, but not until ambition has already trumped empathy. Once director Bennett Miller makes his cynical, painful point about the lonely amorality of the literary calling, he seems to lose interest in much else. We are given glimpses of the flat expanses of Kansas and stagy shots of New York's glittery literary world. But what enables the film to transcend Capote's voracious ego is the image of another sort of writer: Catherine Keener's unobtrusive Harper Lee. Quietly, efficiently, she tends to her famous, anxious friend while seeing through his pretensions of beneficence. A dynamo of self-promotion, Capote is too absorbed in his own story to pay attention to the book that Lee happens to be creating. It is called To Kill a Mockingbird.

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