There seems to be an unwritten rule in major motion pictures
that similar topics should be avoided at all costs. Perhaps it's merely
a function of economics, although in past years we've had dueling
movies about volcanic eruptions (VOLCANO, DANTE'S PEAK),
asteroids headed for the Earth (ARMAGEDDON, DEEP IMPACT), even
dissolute French aristocrats (DANGEROUS LIAISONS, VALMONT).
Usually television networks try to get into the act and milk something
as well -- hence we get treated to a public television profile of the
French queen Marie Antoinette just prior to the opening of a full-scale
motion picture, not to mention the DVD release of the 1938 vehicle for
Norma Shearer. The TV networks are not immune to competition either,
recall how each network rushed an Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuco movie
into production and there were two miniseries dealing with socialite
Frances Schreuder who plotted her father's murder. Still, there was a
lot of ink spilled over the decision to shoot more than one film about
author Truman Capote, especially since both would focus on the early
1960s when he spent time in Kansas researching what would become
his magnum opus -- IN COLD BLOOD.
Even now, many critics are saying that comparisons are required
between 2005's overpraised CAPOTE and INFAMOUS. Interestingly,
both films find their sources in competing biographies. The former,
which has the imprimatur of the Motion Picture Academy having earned
several nominations and a statue for lead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman,
was adapted from Gerold Frank's straightforward biography. The latter
anchored by an impressive turn by British actor Tobey Jones, is drawn
from George Plimpton's impressionistic biography (a technique he also
employed for his book on Edie Sedgwick). Plimpton interviewed
numerous people who knew Capote and often got conflicting opinions.
(I'm immediately reminded of the witnesses in Warren Beatty's epic
REDS who also provide differing views on the events and the characters
depicted. Having also worked with an author on an authorized biography,
I have personal knowledge of just how difficult it is to get the "real"
story. Often writers have to make suppositions and conclusions based
on the facts and the evidence collected. Sometimes, it later gets
discredited when additional or previously unknown material surfaces.)
INFAMOUS was written and directed by Douglas McGrath, who
has made several impressive films drawn from classic literature
(EMMA, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY) and he has taken an entirely different
tack on Capote's life. McGrath opens his movie with the author and
one of his "Swans," elegant New York Society women, Babe Paley
(Sigourney Weaver), attending a nightclub to hear a singer named
Kitty Dean (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has clearly been modeled on
Miss Peggy Lee. Kitty performs a devastating rendition of Cole Porter's
"What Is This Thing Called Love?" and the scene captures what is
to unfold on screen, the unspeakable effect of heartbreak. That is
McGrath's thematic approach to Capote's life (as it was in CAPOTE
as well.) The writer decided to pursue a story that ended up having
profound and inchoate influences on his life and career. One might
even argue that it destroyed him. Where McGrath differs from the
makers of the other film is that they make claims that Capote was
more than just attracted to one of the killers, Perry Smith (here
portrayed by Daniel Craig). They posit that more than anyone else,
Smith became the love of Capote's life and in order for the author
to succeed, he had to destroy the very person he loved the most.
It's that tragedy that is an undercurrent to INFAMOUS and makes
it a deeper and richer experience than the other film.
McGrath has cast his movie with expert attention to detail.
Weaver is an inspired choice to portray Babe Paley since her own
mother, as the wife of NBC executive Pat Weaver, is a counterpart
to the wife of CBS executive Bill Paley. Hope Davis is wonderful as
the circumspect Slim Keith, who enjoys gossiping with Capote but
knows enough not to disclose her secrets. Jeff Daniels is great
as Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey, the man who headed the local
investigation into the murders at the heart of the story. Peter
Bogdanovich -- who knew Capote -- offers a fine Bennett Cerf. Lee
Pace fleshes out killer Dick Hickock and makes the character
more of a vibrant presence than in the other film. Juliet Stevenson
clearly has a ball as Diana Vreeland and Michael Panes makes the
most of his small role as Capote nemesis Gore Vidal.
At the heart of the film are a trio of outstanding portrayals.
Daniel Craig turns Perry Smith into a fascinating character, at once
slyly sexy and flirtatious, then menacing and venal. He's a volatile
screen presence and he makes Smith both sympathetic and loathsome.
Sandra Bullock is outstanding in the role of Nelle Harper Lee, Capote's
childhood friend and confidante who agrees to travel to Kansas with
him. Bullock offers a no-nonsense character who brooks no guff from
her buddy. She's strong, but supportive and she has terrific chemistry
with the actor playing Capote, Toby Jones who delivers a superlative
portrait of the author.
One of the biggest difficulties I had with Hoffman's portray
of the author was that I did not buy the character's sexuality.
(I felt the same way about Hoffman's other "gay" characterizations
in BOOGIE NIGHTS and the execrable FLAWLESS; he always seemed
to me to be commenting on his performance. The 'look at me, I'm
playing a homosexual' sort of thing.) I was vaguely aware of some of
Jones' previous film work, but nothing prepared me for his take on
"the Tiny Terror" as Capote had been nicknamed. He perfectly captured
the voice, the mannerisms and the presence of the author in a
richer and deeper manner than I felt Hoffman had in CAPOTE.
McGrath's approach juxtaposes the gossipy Café Society world
with the more plainspoken values of the Midwest. At first, Jones'
Capote is like an alien being in the latter world, but gradually he
reveals himself to be as much of that world as the other. As an actor,
Jones works well with the entire cast, showing the various sides
to the writer. There's a wonderfully moving moment near the film's
end that sums up McGrath's take and echoes Paltrow's mid-song
breakdown, when Capote opens a trunk of Smith's belongings and
the mask slips ever so slightly. At that moment, the film's themes
converge and we see the impact love can have.
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence and some sexuality
Running time: 110 mins.
Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.