How he got that story

'Capote' focuses on the methods and motives of the fame-hungry author, and shines a light on the darker side of journalism

Truman Capote was a talented, if not great, writer, whose writing made him famous. He was also a great, if not talented, performer, whose performing kept him famous. His best-known book, ''In Cold Blood," lies (note the ambiguity of the verb) at the intersection of those two activities. The making of that book is what concerns director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman in ''Capote," which opens Friday and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role.

Although derived from Gerald Clarke's 1988 biography, ''Capote" is less biopic than morality play. It might more accurately be called ''In Cold Truman." Other than the occasional shot of Capote pounding away at his typewriter, the movie can't show the actual writing of ''In Cold Blood," nor do Miller and Futterman want it to. What ''Capote" emphasizes, with a vengeance, is the performance that enabled the book. It also firmly places him within a long Hollywood tradition of journalists who play fast and loose with their sources.

It's hard to imagine today the sensation ''In Cold Blood" caused in 1965 when it was serialized in The New Yorker, then published as a book in 1966. The material itself was shocking enough: the murder of a Kansas farm family by two drifters in 1959. But so, too, was Capote's unprecedented approach. He wrote the book as a ''true-life novel," combining factual content with fictional techniques. The result was a founding text of the New Journalism. Finally, there was the fact of it being Capote, the high-living author of ''Breakfast at Tiffany's," who had written such a book. How had a flamboyantly gay ornament of New York society managed to earn the trust of Kansas law-enforcement officials, not to mention the murderers themselves? That's where Capote the performer came in.

Capote's knack for performance was there from the beginning. Anyone who doubts that should look at his author photos. Sitting for the likes of Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Capote more than held his own. The camera blinked before he ever did. The most memorable portrait is the one Harold Halma took for the dust jacket of Capote's first book, ''Other Voices, Other Rooms," in 1948. Looking as much like a satyr as waif, the 23-year-old author lies (that verb again) on a divan and regards the camera with eyes older than Caligula's. The term ''literary pinup" verges on oxymoron, but Capote comes unnervingly close to bringing it off.

That must sound preposterous to anyone familiar with Capote only from his television heyday, after the publication of ''In Cold Blood." Halma's faun had gotten too plump, unmistakably bald, and even more unmistakably smug. The lisp and high-pitched voice had become a kind of shtick, as useful (and predictable) as George Burns's cigar or Tiny Tim's ukulele. Long before Robert Morse won a Tony and an Emmy for playing him in ''Tru," Capote was playing himself in a one-man play of his own making.

He was a fixture on ''The Tonight Show" in the 1960s. (Capote and Johnny Carson were neighbors at the United Nations Plaza.) After substance abuse began to undo him, in the '70s, he was a fixture on any talk show that would have him. Capote attained show-biz Valhalla in 1974: his very own ''Dean Martin Roast." Two years later, he became a movie star, of sorts, playing a lead part in a Neil Simon comedy, ''Murder by Death."

Of course, the movies had long contributed to Capote's glamour. He wrote the script for John Huston's ''Beat the Devil." He famously (and obtusely) profiled Marlon Brando for The New Yorker. And in creating Holly Golightly, for ''Breakfast at Tiffany's," he provided Audrey Hepburn with her most memorable role.

In ''Capote," we see Hoffman using the Hollywood connection to impress the chief investigator (Chris Cooper) and his wife. He charms them, of course, as he charms other locals. And when he doesn't, he can rely on the calm manner and patent goodness of his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) to get the job done. Better known as Harper Lee, she is the author of ''To Kill a Mockingbird" -- and the moral center of the movie.

Capote is the amoral center. Although Lee serves, in effect, as Capote's researcher, he knows better than to assign her the task of sneaking into a funeral home to peek into the coffins of the murder victims. He does that himself. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Then there are Capote's dealings with the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock (Clifton Collins Jr. and Mark Pellegrino). ''The world will see you as a monster, always," Capote laments to Smith. ''I don't want that." What he wants is access -- and he gets it, from Smith especially, with a blend of sympathy, guile, and threat. Describing Smith to Lee, Capote says, ''He wants the world to hold him in esteem." ''Do you?" she asks. ''Well, he's a gold mine," Capote replies.

It's all in how you define ''esteem," and such cynicism places Capote in a long and darkly lustrous journalistic tradition on the big screen. More often than not, Hollywood has lionized the press. The most recent example is George Clooney's just-opened ''Good Night, and Good Luck," which pays tribute to CBS's Edward R. Murrow. Many more such instances precede it. Recall films like ''All the President's Men" or ''Deadline -- U.S.A." (directed, as it happens, by Richard Brooks, who did the 1967 film adaptation of ''In Cold Blood").

But even when journalists are heroes, as in ''Salvador" or ''The Front Page," they often behave less than heroically. And then there are the journalists who are flat-out heels: everyone from Hayden Christensen, playing disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, in ''Shattered Glass" to Dustin Hoffman's at-any-costs television reporter in ''Mad City" to Burt Lancaster's Walter Winchell-like gossip columnist in ''Sweet Smell of Success" (who surely had Truman Capote as a bold-face name in his gossip column).

Yet even though Capote is writing on assignment for The New Yorker, part of the fascination of the film lies in its title character being far more than just a journalist. It's not a scoop he's after. It's a literary masterpiece. Sweetheart, get me rewrite? Sweetheart, get me Parnassus. No one is as aware of this as Capote himself. ''Sometimes when I think how good my book is I can hardly breathe," he confesses at one point.

Seen in that light, Capote doesn't so much recall Kirk Douglas's ruthless reporter in ''Ace in the Hole" as another famous author who had his own tangled history with Hollywood. ''If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate," William Faulkner once declared: ''The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." ''In Cold Blood" isn't Keats, but neither was Perry Smith a nice little elderly female.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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