Capote: Full of the write stuff

Capote is an improbable project, Philip Seymour Hoffman its unlikely star. But Oscars may follow, says Geoffrey Macnab
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Few films are made about great writers. If they're Charles Bukowski-like bums or campaigners like Emile Zola, or romantic figures with complicated love lives, Hollywood might take an interest. On the whole, though, the studios see no mileage in films about querulous loners sitting at desks. You can't really blame them. Where is the drama in writers' lives?

So it's surprising that Truman Capote is exercising such fascination in the film world. Last year, two movies were announced about the troubled, flamboyant American novelist who died in 1984, aged 59. One was to star Toby Jones as the writer; the other, directed by the newcomer Bennett Miller, boasts Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role.

The latter film, Capote, was released this autumn in the US. On the face of it, this is a perverse endeavour. Watch any footage of Capote - say, in the Maysles brothers' 1966 documentary With Love from Truman - and you'll see a fey, elfin figure with a high, lilting voice. Seymour Hoffman is a great character actor, but tiny he is not. He looks nothing like the real Capote.

But Capote turns out to be an extraordinary film. Somehow, Seymour Hoffman offers a moving, credible portrait. Miller says: "We drew confidence from the knowledge that the movie was really about the guy's character and condition." The key was not necessarily for Seymour Hoffman to look or behave like Capote. "What does it matter how small he was? What mattered was understanding how growing up small and odd affected Capote's psychology. Understanding what that complex was all about was more important than getting the physicality exactly right."

Miller's film is set during the period Capote was researching and rewriting his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. The doyen of the New York literary world hauled himself off to the Midwest to report on the killing of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in November 1959. His book about the killings took him six years to complete. It was published in 1966, after the drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who murdered the Clutters, were executed.

Miller's film brilliantly captures the utter incongruity of Capote in the Midwest. The writer was exotic even in Manhattan; to the local detective Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), Capote really did seem like a Martian.

The writer Dan Futterman based his screenplay primarily on Gerald Clarke's biography of Capote. But Capote is not really a biopic; in essence, it is an updating of the Faust story. The reason Capote is a writer worth making a film about is that his story provokes questions about morality, wealth and celebrity. Capote wanted Smith and Hickock dead so that he could publish his book. His desire for approval outweighed his loyalty to the men who, during their long stay on Death Row, had begun to regard him as a protector and (in Perry's case) even a friend.

"What brought Capote down was not that he was a bad or immoral or evil person," Miller suggests. "He was a very desperate person. What a person is capable of doing when made desperate is very hard to know."

The director argues that the writer was ultimately a victim of his own vanity, and his own desire to see his book in print. "He [Capote] required praise and acknowledgement at such a deep level that it could sicken him. If he could have pulled the lever on the scaffold himself, he would have. He became sick with the desire for these guys to die - he was desperate for it. Why?

"The more you understand about Capote, you more you realise he came out of a situation where he was abandoned as a child and grew up as a real outsider - a freak, short and odd and gay - and couldn't conceal it, even."

One of the great strengths of Capote is what it leaves out. Miller doesn't chronicle Capote's slow decline in the wake of In Cold Blood or show how he turned to drink and drugs. Capote was shot quickly, on a small budget. It is an intimate portrait. "We were trying to get at something beneath the surface, which was Capote's inner experience of this tragic course he takes."

Capote has received rave reviews in the US, and many are tipping Seymour Hoffman for Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. It remains to be seen whether its success will spark other movies about the private lives of great writers.

'Capote' is released in the UK in March next year