Sunday, March 13, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

One of my favorite lines from a movie comes from this 2005 film directed by Bennett Miller. It not only illuminates the connection between the two main characters but also points to the duality in what author Truman Capote saw existing in America. In the quote, Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance) responds to his life-long friend, author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) about his feelings for convicted killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). He says, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” Although Capote steered away from the criminal possibilities inherent in that house that Smith could not escape, they both retained the potential for redemption and perdition.
Capote originally was just going to do a New Yorker piece about the effect on the townspeople following the killing of the Clutter family in Holcomb Kansas by two men. But when he sees Perry, his focus centers on the criminal himself, and the quote above shows how he sees similarities between the two. He says he wanted to write about the horrific murders because, “two worlds exist in this country: the quiet conservative life, and the life of those two men - the underbelly, the criminally violent. Those two worlds converged that bloody night.” But there is a convergence of these two worlds within both Perry and Capote, too. On the surface, Perry appears vulnerable (he has painful legs), almost sensitive with a quiet voice, and a victim. He uses words like “effectuate,” “mendacious,” and “exacerbate,” in an attempt to show that he is an intellectual. But these words sound pretentious and forced in the contexts of his situation. His history does not allow him to gain social acceptance. Perry is part Cherokee, so at that time, he is an outsider. His mother was an alcoholic. One of his sisters and a brother committed suicide. Capote, an acclaimed writer who associates with celebrities and dresses fashionably, has his underside. He confesses that his mother wandered around with him as a child, chasing men. She locked him in a hotel room in their travels. His mother eventually abandoned him, and later killed herself. His aunts in Alabama raised him, and that is where he met Lee. He, too, is an outsider, because of his short stature, high-pitched voice, and the fact that he is gay. 
These traumatic histories behind their facades create dark undersides in these two people and engender deadly behaviors. When Capote first meets Perry, he is in a holding cell. The criminal asks for aspirin for his legs. As the author hands him the pain killer, he says if Capote came too close, he could kill him. Perry’s other sister later tells Capote not to be taken in by Perry’s surface sensitivity and hurt looks. She says he would as easily kill someone as shake hands with him. When Perry finally tells Capote about the night of the killings, his duality is evident when he describes his actions. He says that he stopped his partner, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) from raping the Clutter daughter. He also says that he tried to make Mr. Clutter more comfortable, and even though Hickock said there should be no witnesses, Perry hoped that they could just leave the family tied up. But, he says that he saw in Mr. Clutter’s eyes that there was fear there, and Perry could not be redeemed. So he played out what was to him his destined role. He reveals his conflicting personality when he says, “I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.” Capote, while looking at photos of the victims, saw that there was a pillow placed under the boy’s head, and the young girl was tucked in while in her bed, as if there was a gentleness existing in the midst of the terror. But, Perry then went through the house and shot the rest of the family, almost in anger that he could never be part of the legitimate world, and wished to obliterate these members of a society that judged him unworthy.
Capote, too, has an egotistical, self-serving, manipulative, and in the end, destructive personality. He says in a story about writer James Baldwin that one should just be honest. He says to Lee that he doesn’t lie. But, he is constantly deceitful. He bribes a train porter to say how great a writer he is. He acts like he cares about the people of Holcomb, but is only there for his book, whose prime purpose is to garner him more fame. He is able to ingratiate himself with the Holcomb residents, changing his clothes to fit in, bringing gifts and flattering those who can help him in his research. He uses his celebrity to get close to the investigator of the case, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) through the man’s wife. Lee and Capote’s lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) are the moral chorus in the film, calling Capote on his lies. She realizes that he bribed the porter. When he says that there wasn’t anything he could have done to save the convicts, Lee says, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to.” She knows that that their executions supplied a dramatic ending for his book, which he wanted finished so he could gain literary success. Capote didn’t want the two to die before he could get his information to write his book. So, he pretends to care about the killers’ defense to gain favor with Perry by finding him a good lawyer. After he tells Jack that he wants to find the two inmates the lawyer, his insightful life companion responds by saying, “You’re finding yourself a lawyer.”
The person Capote is most untruthful with is Perry. He acts like his friend, feeding him baby food when Perry is starving himself in jail. Of course, Capote doesn’t want him to die before he can get the story from him for his book. He says to Perry he doesn’t have a title for the book, when he already has told Dewey that it will be “In Cold Blood,” (a title which can refer to capital punishment as well as the acts of the killers) because he wants to continue to have Perry think that he is writing the story to champion the convict’s cause. When Perry asks if he can read what he has written, Capote again lies because he doesn’t want Perry to know its content. He tells him that he hasn’t written hardly anything, even though at that point it is two-thirds finished. He tries to get Perry to open up about the night of the killings by acting like he is forging a reconciliation with his sister. He brings family photos and says that his sister misses him – another lie. When he wants the closure needed to end his book which result from the executions of the criminals, he stays away from Perry, and doesn’t provide any legal help in their appeal, writing to Perry that he couldn’t find another lawyer. At an earlier point when Capote visits him, Perry says that Hickock is not to be trusted. But, it is the man right in front of him that he should realize is untrustworthy.
Those that lie usually do so for selfish reasons. And this film depicts Capote of having a self-centered, egotistical nature. He loves holding court for all his admirers. When he does a reading he wants to know why he hasn’t heard praise from someone, and wants to be assured that Tennessee Williams liked what he wrote. He says he wants to return the Clutter son to the realm of humanity through his writing, which sounds praiseworthy, but it also shows that he sees himself as being God-like, capable of resurrection. He brags about having a 94% recall of spoken conversation, which Lee mocks at point because of the times he brings this boast up. When she asks him if he liked the movie version of her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, he says out loud to himself “I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” which shows how he can’t even be happy for his friend, who helped him research his book, but who is now a literary competitor. He is so wrapped up himself he forgets that Lee is visiting him and Jack in Spain right after she has become famous, and he neglects Jack, who is supposed to be the love of his life. His selfishness eclipses the misery of others. He at first says to Dewey that he doesn’t care about who they arrest for the murders, to which Dewey replies, “I care.” When he relates to Jack about seeing the bodies of the victims, he emphasizes only how it will always affect him. As the two on death row wait for their deaths, Capote says how he is being “tortured,” waiting for their deaths so he can finish his book.
But, there is that other civilized, human part of Capote that made him walk out that front door. He breaks down in tears when he visits the two at the time of the execution, after Perry humiliated him by forgiving the writer for being out of touch for so long. There is a sequence earlier in the movie where Capote brought in photographer to take stills of the convicts. One of the pictures is of Perry on the left and Capote on the right, (symbolic of their back and front door paths?) Miller’s shot emphasizes the connection between these two seemingly different people. That empathy with Perry and the experiences of his literary journey took an enormous toll on Capote’s conscience, and he never finished another book. The epigram that was to appear at the beginning of his unfinished work was, “More tears are shed for answered prayers than for answered ones.” That sounds very much like be careful what you wish for, you may get it. In Cold Blood brought its author enormous fame and critical acceptance. Just as he hoped, it changed how people write, and it still does. But, Truman Capote paid for his sins and his success by dying of complications of alcoholism in 1984.
The next movie is Lawrence of Arabia.

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