On the one hand, the impersonation of a historical figure is the most attention-grabbing and prestigious job any movie actor can undertake. Trying to fit into a well-known persona will always attract more buzz than creating a character from scratch. And from the beginning, the Oscars have been happy to reward performances that revivify great men and women — from George Arliss’s Benjamin Disraeli to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, from Jennifer Jones’s Saint Bernadette Soubirous to Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher (British Prime Ministers are a particular favorite, it would seem). There’s an assumption of importance to this work, a built-in seriousness that fiction is asked to earn. On the other hand, “impersonation” can demand so much focus from an actor that the qualities which truly make a great performance become an afterthought, or worse. Getting the appearance and voice “right” is just about the most superficial achievement imaginable. Underneath the prestige that comes from mimicking a famous person is a certain neediness, each role acting as a shortcut to appreciation. If the biopic star doesn’t do a great job, they become a cautionary tale, a modern Icarus. Often, their best hope is to be remembered as the most memorable part of a boring movie.
With all that said, it’s my contention that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote is a great performance, despite its not really avoiding any of the above-named pitfalls. How can this be?
The role is a textbook biopic showcase. Just by itself, recreating Capote’s eminently imitable voice would attract plenty of attention — especially for Hoffman, whose natural speaking voice was so far from it. Consistently mastering this voice, while pulling off the fish-out-of-water quality of an effete New Yorker investigating a quadruple homicide in rural Kansas, would be enough to earn the paycheck and probably some acclaim. Dan Futterman’s script provides Hoffman a chance to read excerpts from Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, and even throws in an emotional scene toward the end. For anyone only half-watching the movie, it can all seem pleasantly respectable and stuffily accurate. But anyone who pays sufficient attention to Hoffman will not be able to stop at half-watching.
The moment that the voice sinks into the character, transcending an affectation or exercise, comes very early. On a train bound for Holcomb, Kansas, Capote sits down next to his friend, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). He’s followed by a porter with his luggage, who comments about how much he loves Capote’s books. After the porter leaves, Lee turns to Capote and accuses him of paying the man to compliment him. After an open-mouthed pause feigning outrage, he replies, “How did you know?” A simple description of the scene can’t do it justice. Hoffman’s comfort in the role is infectious, and a little joke like that conveys the comfort a lot more effectively than an earlier party scene, with its references to “Jimmy” Baldwin and the writing life. Throughout, it’s the little moments that do the heavy lifting. The script emphasizes Capote’s “94 percent recall” more than once, but such parlor tricks add little to the movie besides making the writer’s creative process even more internal and mysterious than it would be anyway. The film mostly elides Capote’s research skills, focusing instead on the personal impact that putting together In Cold Blood has on him. Hoffman, who was incredibly gifted at making an impression in a scene without saying a word, knew exactly how to work toward this goal. A close-up of Capote looking down at crime-scene photos on a detective’s desk — Hoffman’s eyes hidden behind big glasses, his brow pinched — instantly marks this previously jocular man with the full horror of his chosen subject. Paradoxically, Hoffman never looks more like Truman Capote than he does in this shot. Nailing the emotion is the first priority; the rest will follow.
Bennett Miller’s direction of Capote is an important part of both Hoffman’s and the movie’s overall success. First of all, he surrounds Hoffman with one of the better supporting casts in a biopic from this century. In addition to Keener’s Harper Lee, a strong and sympathetic performance, there’s Bruce Greenwood doing typically solid work as Capote’s significant other, Jack Dunphy. Keener and Greenwood’s roles both tether the main character to his responsibilities without ever coming across as scolds or stereotypes. Clifton Collins Jr. takes on the role of Perry Smith, one of the murderers, with a quiet intensity that plays well opposite Hoffman. Their sublimated and conflicted relationship is the main interest of the latter half of the film. Finally, there’s Detective Alvin Dewey, played by Chris Cooper with true integrity. In a story that devotes itself to a big city writer and the killers he interviews, it would be all too easy to make the upright Midwestern lawman something of a joke. But Dewey is easily as sympathetic as anyone else in the film. Cooper conveys a weariness in conducting the fight against evil that is very moving.
Indeed, between the New York literati and the Kansan farmers, Miller clearly has more fascination for the latter. One of his film’s greatest qualities is its gently critical attitude toward its protagonist. Over the course of the film, Capote writes a truly groundbreaking book, but the tone is never triumphant in the least. Instead, the emphasis is on the compromises and duplicity of a man who befriends two death-row inmates for the purpose of picking their brains. He tries to get them a better lawyer to appeal their sentence, but at the same time, in some sense, he needs them to die so that the story he’s writing can finally end. The idea here is that fitting real life into a fictional structure (the novel) requires some uncomfortable contortions. It’s an interesting idea to put into a biopic, to say the least.
In short, Hoffman’s performance, and the film in which it resides, thread a series of needles. He credibly mimics an iconic figure without being rote, he’s emotional without being turgid, he’s critical of his subject without becoming a parody. In a movie that, one could argue, is restrained to a fault, he inhabits his role with a full-bodied commitment. While the biopic genre is designed for Oscar highlight reels, Capote is at its best in much subtler moments. The two crucial scenes between Capote and Smith occur just a couple minutes apart. In the first, the writer storms off in frustration after asking straight out for information about the murders. In the second, he reassures the condemned man that they really are friends and that he’s trying to help him, and Smith finally confides in him. Separating these scenes is yet another moment of Hoffman looking down at a photograph — this time, the picture is of Smith as a young boy. The writer’s there-but-for-the-grace-of-God empathy is awakened, and from that point on, he’s determined to see the story through to the end.