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Hollywood warms to Capote

Hollywood warms to Capote

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More than 20 years after Truman Capote's death, the diminutive gadfly who became the most celebrated writer of his generation is back in the place he cherished: the spotlight.

Capote is the subject of two upcoming Hollywood films, both centered on his seminal book In Cold Blood. And a pair of new paperbacks about his letters and short stories are in bookstores.

The attention, friends and scholars say, would have pleased the man known as much for his celebrity as his writing style.

"He was a true showman," says friend and author Gay Talese, who lived and chronicled the sexual revolution in Thy Neighbor's Wife. "He had not only the talent, but he had the ability to promote that talent. That's one reason why I think he's still relevant after all these years."

Two movies will try to capture that flair. Capote, which opens Friday, his birthday, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the openly gay author who stumbles upon a crime story that would change his life and the landscape of non-fiction. Catherine Keener plays his friend, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Next year, Have You Heard?, with Toby Jones as Capote and Sandra Bullock as Lee, hits screens. That film also examines Capote's obsession with the mass murderers he helped make famous -- and his impatience to see their death row cases concluded.

Although In Cold Blood turns 40 this year, Capote biographer Gerald Clarke says the influence Capote's work had on journalism and on the nation's fixation with true crime resonates to this day.

"Before Truman, journalism and non-fiction weren't taken very seriously," says Clarke, author of Capote: A Biography, the basis for Capote. "Journalism was seen as a hack profession that had very little style, very little grace. After In Cold Blood, people saw real-life stories in a different way."

But can Capote see similar success in today's Hollywood? Few commercial movies are made about writers, and even fewer do well at the box office.

From 1959's Beloved Infidel, about F. Scott Fitzgerald, to 2003's Sylvia, the story of poet Sylvia Plath, movies about writers aren't big draws. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the story of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, took in a measly $10.7 million in 1998. Oscar-nominated Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, made only $51.7 million last year.

"I know literary figures aren't necessarily an easy sell for mainstream audiences," Capote director Bennett Miller says. "But he represents something bigger than himself. He's an American triumph and tragedy."

The first modern celebrity

On Nov. 6, 1959, Capote stumbled upon a one-column story in The New York Times, buried on page 39, about the shotgun slayings of a wheat farmer, his wife and two of their children in rural Kansas.

Engrossed by the article, Capote, then 35, clipped the story and persuaded The New Yorker to send him to the Midwest to do a piece on how the tiny community of Holcomb was grappling with the grisly, unsolved murders.

Capote already was something of a celebrity when he and childhood friend Harper Lee arrived in Kansas. In 1948, he became a fixture of the New York literati with Other Voices, Other Rooms, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that drew more headlines for its pose than for its prose. Capote, then only 23, wrote openly about homosexuality and gave a come-hither pose for the book's jacket.

Unlike, say, a Paris Hilton, "who is famous for the sake of being famous, Truman had the goods," says Nick Ravo, a professor of media studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and a former New York Times reporter.

"He remains one of our finest writers. But he also knew how to work a party, and he chose the right, influential friends," Ravo says. "He knew the importance of marketing."

His 1958 book Breakfast at Tiffany's, about a struggling New York writer befriended by an ambitious party girl -- and the Audrey Hepburn film that followed -- cemented Capote's fame.

But nothing prepared him for his 5 1/2-year investigation of the Clutter family murders and the hunt for and execution of the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.

Even reporting the story was a challenge. Standing 5-foot-4 and possessing the wispy voice of a 9-year-old, Capote hardly blended in with Holcomb locals.

"He was this small, strange man who had managed to take the New York social scene by storm," says Capote star Hoffman. "But when he got to Kansas, he couldn't have stood out more."

To prepare for the role, the 5-foot-10 Hoffman lost 45 pounds and spent five months studying footage of Capote's fey mannerisms and cadence. After In Cold Blood's publication, Capote was a regular on television talk shows, including Johnny Carson's. But Hoffman limited himself to documents and TV clips before the book was released.

"Everything changed after that," Hoffman says. "He became consumed with the story, with success. He was never the same. Writing was never the same."

Six weeks after Holcomb detectives found the bound bodies of Herbert, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter, they caught Smith and Hickock. Authorities described Smith and Hickock as heartless killers who had believed the wealthy farmer had $10,000 hidden in his home, then executed the family when they learned the Clutters had less than $50.

Capote saw different men, particularly in Smith. The writer saw a man much like himself: slight, misunderstood, artistic and the child of a broken, alcoholic home. Rumors flew that Capote fell in love with Smith and even that the two became lovers. Neither Clarke's book nor Capote broaches the idea of a physical relationship.

"I don't think Capote loved Smith," Clarke says. "But he did make a deep connection. It upset some people, because that had never been the approach to journalistic crime writing, to look into the mind of the killer."

Indeed, Capote worried authorities and some Clutter family members, who feared that his book would be too sympathetic to the convicts and perhaps aid them in their death row appeals.

But scholars and Capote filmmakers say there also was deep deception at work. The film, which takes a sometimes-searing look at the author, posits that Capote secretly wished for the deaths of Hickock and Smith to give his book a climactic ending. He courted their friendship largely to extract a juicy confession.

"He was enormously manipulative, very ambitious and not always truthful," says Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman. "I didn't want a biography that worships the title character. I wanted a movie that portrays the truth."

In one scene, Capote tells Smith he has no title for his book, even though he had decided on In Cold Blood before he had written a word.

"That did happen," says Clarke, a friend of Capote's. "He may have made a connection with Perry, but Truman was ultimately a writer. A writer trying to get the story."

Few debate he got the story of a lifetime. Capote, who witnessed Smith and Hickock's hangings in 1965, boasted that he had written the first "non-fiction" novel.

Scholars tend to agree. Capote used a dramatic, narrative style usually reserved for fiction. He wrote from the perspective of killers and victims, cops and criminals.

Rise and fall

The book was an instant smash and made Capote the most famous writer in the world. On Nov. 28, 1966, he threw himself one of the most celebrated parties of the era, the masked ball at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. The bash drew, among others, Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Henry Fonda and John Steinbeck.

Capote would go on to grace magazine covers and jet-set parties. He watched his book become a hit 1967 film.

But Capote would never be the same. He did not finish another novel (though The Complete Stories of Truman Capote and Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote are new in paperback). He began the autobiographical Answered Prayers, a book that he claimed would spill intimate secrets of his high-profile friends. But when the first chapter, La Cote Basque, 1965 ran in Esquire, it turned his friends into enemies. He struggled with alcohol and drug abuse until he died at 59 of complications from them on Aug. 25, 1984.

A life and a legacy

His influence, however, is hard to underestimate, some scholars say. They credit Capote with paving the way for "new journalism" and such narrative non-fiction crime books as Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song and Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision.

"He did something few other reporters did," Ravo says. "He soaked up the atmosphere. He wrote lyrically. He was way ahead of the true-crime wave of the 1980s."

Others are less moved. "I write non-fiction, and he didn't influence me," Talese says. "He was one of the great writers, but I don't know that he influenced a generation."

Capote director Miller says he's less concerned with the legacy of the man's writing than of his life.

"I still think he's very contemporary but not necessarily for the book," he says. "Truman Capote is a lesson about doing anything for success. He's a lesson about what happens when you get everything you've asked for."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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