If you must see only one Truman Capote movie in your life, let it be this one
Do I really want to see a movie about Truman Capote leaving Manhattan to cover the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, every year? Well, why not? It’s true that I cuffed around both Capote the movie and Truman himself last year, but Truman’s a tough kid, he bounces back, and he is back in Infamous,1 and it’s not half bad. And getting a new director’s take on late fifties Manhattan and late fifties Holcomb — heavy on the Manhattan, please — is more pleasing than yet another round with the X-Men, or Spiderman, and the rest of the spandex-clad neurotics that Hollywood insists on shoving down our throats every summer.
Written and directed by Doug McGrath2 and starring Toby Jones, Infamous starts good, gets cute, straightens out, gets cute again, and ends pretty well, helped along greatly by Sandra Bullock as Nelle Harper Lee, who makes us forget all about Speed 2.3 We begin with Gwyneth Paltrow, doing a nice job as Peggy Lee,4 working the crowd at El Morocco with Cole Porter’s “This Can’t Be Love.” She shifts to a downbeat tune about love’s sorrows, and then falters, overcome by emotion. The crowd, including Truman, stirs, uneasily at first, and then angrily. Entertain us, bitch! We came here to escape our troubles, not to have to deal with someone else’s! After agonizing for an ungodly length of time, Peggy picks it up, back on track with Cole. The crowd relaxes, and goes back to gabbing, smoking, and drinking — the good life!
At this point I was getting as restless as the crowd at El Mo’s, but the mood passes. McGrath gives us a lot of the people in Truman’s life — his “swans” Babe Paley and Slim Keith, his editor Bennett Cerf,5 his lover Jack Dunphy, and his boyhood pal and fellow author Nelle — talking directly to the camera in their own words, lifted from the George Plimpton bio of Capote.6 It’s not terribly original or dramatic, but these fancy fifties folk, reeking of unfiltered cigarettes and dry martinis, are a lot of fun and they do move the plot along and tell us what’s what. One thing I didn’t like about Capote was the affected flatness of it all. We had to figure out that Dunphy was Truman’s lover, that Nelle wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, that she and Truman grew up in the same town, godawful Monroeville, Alabama,7 that she’s a lesbian. In Infamous, everything is pretty much laid out for us, which is fine by me.
In Cold Blood,Capote, and Infamous are pretty much three of a kind in their disregard for “truth.” When Nelle and Truman head out to Kansas, we see them getting off some ancient Atchison, Topeka, and Sante Fe cars at Holcomb, a town so small it doesn’t even have a station — just a wooden platform set out in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Truman and Nelle went from Manhattan to Manhattan — Manhattan, Kansas, home of Kansas State University, where they were entertained by the president of the university, a pal of Bennett’s. They rented a car and drove to Holcomb, because, as Truman tells it, no trains stopped at Holcomb.
The film shows us Tru pancing around Holcomb (certainly true), helping the police solve the case (not true), getting caviar from Babe Paley (true), and beating Kansas cop Alvin Dewey at arm-wrestling (not true).8 Eventually, the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, are caught (no thanks to Truman9 ). When they’re brought to town and through the frightened staring crowd to the town jail, Smith exchanges a seriously fraught glance with Truman (which never happened, of course.)
The basic conceit of Capote, about which I loudly complained, was that Truman exploited and sold out Hickock and Smith, longing for their execution, which could and would finish his book, with a bang, letting them die when he could have prevented their execution, or at least could have tried to.10 The basic conceit of Infamous, about which I will also loudly complain, is that Capote and Smith fell deeply in love, a love that Capote denied rather than offend his la-di-da Park Avenue friends, a denial that left him suffused with guilt and shame and poisoned his later years.
There’s no doubt that Capote was fascinated with Smith. The first time he saw him, in court, he murmured to Nelle “Why, his legs don’t even reach the floor.” As Nelle tells it, she thought to herself “It’s the beginning of a great romance.”
“It’s as if we grew up in the same house together and I walked out the front door and he walked out the back,” Capote explained. Both men were fascinated by their mothers, though Capote surely more than Smith. Smith’s mother, “Flo Buckskin,” a full-blooded Cherokee who worked as a bronc-rider in a rodeo, had exactly the tawdry romance that would appeal to Capote: “a lean, Cherokee girl rode a wild horse, a ‘bucking bronc,’ and her loosened hair whipped back and forth, flew about like a flamenco dancer’s.”
Injuries forced Smith’s parents to retire from the rodeo, and the marriage soon fell apart. Flo drank herself to death. Two of the four children committed suicide. Perry Smith was in a severe motorcycle accident that shattered both his legs in several places, leaving them stunted and twisted. Smith was only five foot four, a compulsive dreamer who collected hundreds of maps of exotic places he might go, learned to play a variety of instruments, and fantasized about a career as the “One Man Symphony” in Las Vegas. He also drew and painted. He taught himself to write in an elegant, cursive hand, memorized big words, and prided himself on his grammar.
Due both to his small stature, and, it is likely, his own preference, Smith was often pushed into exploitive sexual relationships in harsh masculine environments like the navy and the Merchant Marine, where he served before his motorcycle accident.11 Smith admired Hickock because he was “totally masculine” and could pass hundreds of dollars of bad checks without batting an eye.12
But there were other aspects of Smith’s personality that Capote did not find romantic, in particular his capacity for self-pity. “Oh, the man I might have been!” Capote, who desperately needed Smith’s cooperation, would nevertheless tell him to put a sock in it.
Capote also felt no reason to “understand” Smith’s guilt.13 Once Hickock and Smith were convicted and sentenced to death, their defense team, composed of anti-death penalty volunteer lawyers, dreamed of winning complete acquittals for both men, which disgusted Capote. Hickock and Smith were murderers and they were right where they belonged.
Infamous presents Smith as a “romantic” convict, tall, dark, and handsome, though in fact Smith was only an inch taller than Capote. Smith angrily critiques Capote’s work, accusing him of condescending to his characters (didn’t happen),14 recorded a song for him (didn’t happen), and gives him a passionate kiss in prison (didn’t happen, but on the plus side it’s the one all-male kiss I’ve seen on-screen that does convey passion). For the first time in his life, Capote stops being a rich woman’s playtoy and starts being a man.
Naturally, he can’t handle it. Back home in Manhattan he’s entertaining the gang with a riff on the square folks in flatland and spooking them with tales of the murders when suddenly he stops. He’s thinking of Perry, the man he loves, the man whose tragedy he’s witnessing. He should speak, he should witness, but instead he falls silent. The gang, of course, is upset. Where’s the funny, Truman? Entertain us, damn it! More chartreuse! More chartreuse!15
And of course Truman does come through. He covers up his wounds, he covers up the truth, and gives the shallow, hollow crowd the empty chatter they crave.
For my money, the wounds that rankled Truman Capote were the wounds he received from his relationship with his mother, who tormented him in endless ways as long as she was alive. He never wanted anything but surface. His swans were nothing more than women who had achieved everything Nina Capote dreamed of. Holly Golightly, the sweet, fragile girl from the stix, looking for that rich man who would give her everything she ever dreamed of, who was that?
Capote kept his demons at bay, and achieved the glittering life he wanted, until the twin monsters of overwhelming success and middle age brought him down.
Despite the ersatz romance between Truman and Perry, there’s lots of good things in Infamous — the execution of Hickock and Smith is brutal and straightforward. The final commentary by Nelle — “America is not a country for small gestures” — has very much the flavor of the fifties, when artistic folk liked to believe that in another country — in France, surely — they would be recognized for the special people they are without any demands or pressure, where the Bill and Babe Paleys of the world would be forgotten and the Truman Capotes and Nelle Harper Lees would always be foremost.16
- Who is “infamous”? Apparently, it’s Truman, because he won’t confess his (alleged) love for four-time murderer Perry Smith to his high-class Manhattan friends. Infamous isn’t perfect. [↩]
- McGrath used George Plimpton’s “biography” Truman, a collection of reminiscences about Capote from a variety of people who knew him. Plimpton was the master of the nonwritten book. [↩]
- OK, Speed 2: Cruise Control, if you insist on being precise. [↩]
- If she’s actually identified as Peggy Lee, it was by me. I’m relying on the Internet Movie Database, which burned me bad on The Ant Bully. [↩]
- Cerf was a certifiable man about town in the fifties, appearing on TV chat shows like What’s My Line, chatting endlessly. His prominence on the airwaves was a complete mystery to me. The dude had less talent than Hoot Gibson, and was almost as fat. [↩]
- Babe Paley = Sigourney Weaver, Slim Keith = Hope Davis, Bennett Cerf = Peter “Oy! Why won’t he die?” Bogdanovich, Jack Dunphy = John Benjamin Hickey, and Nelle you know. [↩]
- Capote was abandoned by both his parents, and lived with three unmarried aunts and an unmarried uncle. He wanted desperately to be with his mother Nina, who wanted desperately to marry a man who would take her to live on Park Avenue, a task that, amazingly, she accomplished when she married Joe Capote. Eventually, Joe ran out of cash and started embezzling. He got caught and Nina was thrown back into poverty. Capote, famous but not very rich as a young man, spent a great deal of his money supporting them, until his mother committed suicide. [↩]
- The match is set up by Truman’s brag that he beat Humphrey Bogart in arm wrestling on the set of Beat the Devil. Neither contest is in Gerald Clarke’s authorized bio of Capote. On the other hand, in 1953, Truman was 29 and Bogie was 54, and way ahead of Tru when it came to drinking. As a young man Capote was quite athletic and loved to swim. [↩]
- No thanks to Truman or any of the Kansas cops he’s hanging with. The murders of the Clutter family were set in motion by a chance remark by Herbert Clutter to farmhand Floyd Wells that “I must have gone through ten thousand today.” Wells took that to mean that Clutter paid out $10,000 in cash in various transactions every day and therefore kept a safe filled with money. Several years later, Wells told fellow Kansas State Prison inmate Richard Hickock of the supposed cache. Hickock, looking for a big score with “no witnesses,” ultimately recruited another inmate, Perry Smith, to do the job with him. Wells, still in prison when the murders occurred, instantly realized that Hickock was behind them. A thousand-dollar reward ultimately tempted him to inform on Hickock. When apprehended, Hickock and Smith obligingly confessed. Despite the endless police work that Capote describes, the local police and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation had gotten nowhere with the case. However, they were tracking down and interviewing everyone who had ever worked for Clutter, so presumably they would have gotten to Wells eventually. [↩]
- He was accused of this at the time by Kenneth Tyman, who I thought then was motivated by jealousy, or at least a desire to have something to say about In Cold Blood other than “a masterpiece!” The enormous acclaim, and cash, that descended on Capote after the book came out was quite a burden to just about every other writer in the English-speaking world. [↩]
- This is exactly the sort of detail Capote loved to place before stolid, middle-class America back in the day. Throughout the book he collects all homosexual and homoerotic information he could find about Smith and carefully lays it out without comment in fine New Yorker “no affect” style. [↩]
- Hickock was so good at this that it seems strange that he did not do it “for a living,” a la Frank Abagnale, whose story is told in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. But neither Hickock nor Smith seemed to show any interest in pursuing any course of action for any length of time. They would come into a small stake, spend it, drift around, get another small stake, and spend that, shifting from relative comfort to complete destitution without a second thought. [↩]
- Smith, in fact, committed all four murders, although he also prevented Hickock from raping Nancy Clutter. [↩]
- When Capote sent Smith a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Smith complained, not of Capote’s treatment of Holly Golightly, but of the inscription that Capote wrote to Smith, which Perry felt was insufficiently effusive. [↩]
- This scene is the exact (too exact, of course) counterpart to the opening scene at El Morocco. [↩]
- Nelle was surely thinking of herself as much as Truman. Her one, famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird, though it supported her for decades, never had a successor. [↩]