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Film focuses on pivotal period in `In Cold Blood' author's life

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SAN FRANCISCO - Truman Capote's spectacular rise and terrible fall would have made one terrific "nonfiction novel," as he would have called it. And no one could have written it better.

The curious-looking fellow whose lispy voice sounded like it was running low on batteries laid bare the hearts and souls of some of the past century's most lively characters, both real and imagined.

Whether it was freewheeling party girl Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," or hardhearted killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock from "In Cold Blood," Capote's cleaverlike observations cut to the bone.

And no wonder the New Orleans-born author's books were so bold and dramatic - Capote suffered through a miserable childhood, and was ultimately undone by a flaw worthy of Shakespeare. His was an insatiable, often insufferable ego, and it eventually devoured him whole.

Like the fate meted out to some of literature's greatest creations, Truman Capote's life and career serve as a parable, a very American tragedy.

Even now, more than 20 years after his death, the eccentric author continues to fascinate, educate and entertain. "Capote," a film that focuses on the writing of "In Cold Blood," is beginning to open in theaters, with another film about the writer due out in 2006.

The director of "Capote," 38-year-old Bennett Miller, was in San Francisco recently to talk about both the film and its compelling subject.

"It's a tragedy, it's a classic tragedy," Miller said. "In a way, he's got a character flaw that is going to cause his destruction, and it's not going to come from the outside, it's going to come from the inside of him."

Miller's stark and powerful movie stars Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") as the ill-fated writer and Catherine Keener ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") as "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee. It reveals Capote as a temperamental, talented and complicated man; an egomaniac who manipulated to get what he wanted and found out later it bore a terrible toll.

As often happens in Hollywood, another movie about Capote is in the works. It draws its inspiration from a biography written by George Plimpton that pieces together interviews with friends, rivals and the writer himself. The tentatively titled "Have You Heard?" is slated to come out next fall and stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, Sigourney Weaver and Toby Jones.

It will be tough to follow "Capote," one of this year's great films. Miller's first full-length feature zeroes in on one of the most pivotal periods in Capote's life, the writing of his classic 1966 "nonfiction novel," "In Cold Blood." That disturbing masterwork shaped the future of nonfiction with its melding of literature and reporting.

Ostensibly, the film focuses on how Capote, with the aid of childhood friend Lee, gained the confidence of two killers and members of a small Kansas community so he could write the chilling book about the senseless murders of the Clutter family. Like Capote himself, though, the film seeks much more, foreshadowing how the author's ambition led to his demise.

Already a popular personality due to his short stories, film adaptations, plays and slim novels, Capote's decision to leave New York and travel to Kansas would forever alter the literary landscape, not to mention the author himself.

"It was the most dramatic and probably the most important period in his life, and it changed him radically in all sorts of ways," said biographer Gerald Clarke, whose book, "Capote," is the basis of the film.

Yet Capote's life was such that nearly any chapter could be the basis for a film. His childhood seems lifted from a Dickens novel.

His parents divorced soon after he was born, and his disinterested mother pursued other men. She remarried and later drowned her despair in alcohol, committing suicide when he was 29. His father chased after get-rich-quick ideas that were barely legal. The task of raising Capote eventually fell on three spinsterlike cousins and their unmarried brother.

Early in life, Capote demonstrated a magician's ability to weave spells with his stories. Lee, who was his neighbor, later modeled one of her "Mockingbird" characters on him, the bookish and fussy Dill.

Capote went to work as a copy boy at the New Yorker in 1942, but editors balked at publishing his twisted tales. It was his dark story "Miriam," published in 1945 in Mademoiselle magazine, that made the literary world realize it wasn't just this author's appearance that was distinctive. Random House signed him on, and he wrote the semi-autobiographical novel "Other Voices, Other Rooms."

The book's publication, in 1948, drew waves of praise and offers, ushering Capote into literary and Hollywood circles that included such A-listers as Tennessee Williams and Marilyn Monroe. He relished holding court at any party, a master in the art of gossip.

He was openly gay, and most of his male lovers, some of whom became long-term companions, tended to be more reserved.

A string of accomplishments, including the 1958 publication of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a lauded screen adaptation of Henry James' "Turn of the Screw" and stabs at stage productions simply were not enough though. At 35, Capote sought the grand slam; the one work that would make the world bow at his feet.

He stumbled upon it in the New York Times: an article wedged inside about four members of a small-town Kansas family killed in their home.

The result was "In Cold Blood," a book Capote loftily declared would change the course of nonfiction writing. Using literary devices, including re-creations of key events, Capote crafted a page-turner of crime nonfiction, a masterpiece. The book was released in 1966 and it riveted the nation.

Those who have read it recall the experience vividly, Miller said. "It's one of those books where people tell you where they were in their lives when they read that book. It's very unusual, really, like people telling you where they were on 9-11."

Capote claimed to have invented a new art form, but as was often the case, the capricious author was exaggerating. Biographer Clarke pointed to other authors, such as Cornelius Ryan, who wove literary devices into his 1959 D-Day epic "The Longest Day."

"What Truman claims is he created the nonfiction novel," said Clarke. "Writers had always been trying to write as well as they could. What Truman was saying is that real writers of fiction had never tried nonfiction."

Critics and public alike devoured the book, and it gave Capote the superstar status he sought. He celebrated by throwing a Manhattan costume ball that became the party of the decade. Among those on the guest list: Rose Kennedy, Candice Bergen (who wore rabbit ears), Frank Sinatra and Tallulah Bankhead.

"In Cold Blood" made Capote wealthy, and writers and journalists took notice. But the book was not without controversy. It later led to concerns about journalistic license, where style trumped substance, specifically the fabrication of two scenes, one at the book's end. The best-seller also exploited a family's tragedy for the author's gain - a precursor to today's tabloid media (think Scott Peterson), said Miller.

"It made him a very rich man and a very famous person, and probably altered the course of culture," the director said. "He certainly crossed the line when he did it, and nowadays you don't see much hesitation by people aspiring to capitalize in some ways off those real-life dramas."

Capote also blurred the ethical lines between journalist and subject by befriending the killers. Whether it was interviewing murderers or publicity-shy celebrities, he was a master at parceling out bits of information about his life to gain their confidence.

He admitted he "trapped" Marlon Brando for a 1957 New Yorker profile that found the enigmatic star divulging details about his alcoholic mother and how he disliked acting, among other things. Brando responded with a blistering letter.

"(Capote) was so disarming that he gave the impression to people within moments of meeting him that he understood them better than their spouses did," Miller said. "People would reveal themselves to him and trusted him, and the truth of the matter was that his allegiance was to nobody but his writing. A lot of people got seriously burned."

Sometimes what he learned haunted him, as was the case with the two "In Cold Blood" killers. The writer developed an intense friendship, some say attraction, to Smith, with whom Capote said he identified because of their similar abandoned childhoods and small size.

"When Capote was asked to explain his intense relationship with Perry Smith after the book was published," said Miller, "he said, and this is a quote, `It was his total aloneness.'"

Much to Capote's dismay, other writers deployed similar literary devices to tell their tales. Norman Mailer did so with the 1979 nonfiction novel "The Executioner's Song" about killer Gary Gilmore. Unlike "In Cold Blood," it went on to win its author a Pulitzer Prize.

In later years, bitter rivalries and spurned friendships consumed Capote's life. Hostile reactions from the society that once adored him proved crushing for the author who, with his unfinished book "Answered Prayers," fancied himself an American Marcel Proust, illuminating privileged class in America. His dearest friends spotted themselves in the fiction, and turned on him.

The emotional toll from that, combined with the ghosts of "In Cold Blood," were too much, and Capote retreated into a haze of pills and alcohol, Clarke said.

He died at the home of his dear friend Joanna Carson, ex-wife of entertainer Johnny Carson, just a month from turning 60.

In the end, Capote did get his prayers answered, living in the spotlight of critical and public acclaim. But by attaining that greatness, he became lost.

"(Capote) got everything he wanted," Miller said. "He got absolutely everything he wanted, and in so doing, he destroyed himself."


(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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