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Mirror, Mirror: How Douglas McGrath’s Messy Infamous Improves Upon Capote

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Mirror, Mirror: How Douglas McGrath’s Messy <em>Infamous</em> Improves Upon <em>Capote</em>

In classical music criticism, differentiating between two conductors’ interpretations of one particular work—especially a canonical one—can be as revealing as discussing the work itself. Usually, when one conductor’s interpretation is praised, it’s because a critic believes that the conductor has shed some kind of new insight into a familiar work, or at least provided a fresh way of hearing and understanding it. Infamous, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, has a similar value, especially when compared to last year’s Capote: it provides an intriguingly different way of understanding the underlying anguish that gripped novelist-turned-journalist Truman Capote as he researched and wrote his bestselling, groundbreaking true-crime novel In Cold Blood, and it goes into areas that Capote only hinted at. The films are two sides of the same interpretive coin; viewed together, they get us closer to the full story of what led to Capote’s downfall as he worked on his “nonfiction novel” than either film could have managed on its own.

Capote—based on portions of Gerald Clarke’s official biography of the writer—played out like a Greek tragedy in which the hero, for all his literary and repertorial gifts, was eventually undone by vanity and opportunism while creating his career-defining work. There wasn’t much doubt as to what director Bennett Miller, screenwriter Dan Futterman and Oscar-winning lead Philip Seymour Hoffman thought of their subject. One could admire Capote’s ability to empathize with his subjects and thereby put them at ease, but according to the film, he ultimately manipulated his subjects to satisfy his own outsize ego, and it led to his moral ruin and creative decline.

Infamous takes a more complex approach to exploring Capote’s disintegration. For starters, it’s a hell of a lot less grim than Miller’s film. Capote starts out on a somber note—Laura Kinney going to her friend Nancy Clutter’s house and finding the Clutter family’s corpses the morning after they were murdered—and played variations on that note for about two hours. Even in the film’s early scenes—when Capote doesn’t quite know what he’s gotten himself into by deciding to write about the Clutter murders—the pall of tragedy hangs over everything. McGrath, however, gradually shifts his film’s tone as the story unfolds, so that the film itself mirrors Capote’s downward spiral. The first half of Infamous plays, for the most part, like a lighthearted culture-clash romp in which an elite New York celebrity (impressively played here by Toby Jones, who is made to look more like the real Capote than Hoffman did) descends upon the working-class milieu of Holcomb, Kansas with his sumptuous fur coats, effeminate mannerisms, and true Hollywood stories, all the while remaining largely oblivious to how the other half lives.

McGrath’s essentially comic setup yields several running gags, including the townspeople frequently thinking he’s a woman, and Capote’s insistence on referring to serious, reserved Holcomb police chief Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) as “Foxy.” There is the suggestion—barely touched upon in Capote – that it was his stories about Hollywood celebrities—especially the one in which he beat Humphrey Bogart in arm-wrestling on the set of Beat the Devil—rather than any special journalistic prowess that allowed certain key Holcomb residents to open up to him more readily. Also intriguing is the film’s characterization of Capote’s research assistant, childhood friend and fellow writer Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock, a standout); where Capote depicted Lee mainly as a mostly loyal childhood friend, McGrath makes her tough-minded straight man (or woman) to the bumbling, fumbling Capote.

All of this is more or less based on fact, and all of it works pretty darn well as a comedy. But an intrusion of seriousness occurs in the first half when Capote visits the Clutter household, and while the remainder of Infamous explores some of the same issues as Capote, in a similarly (though arguably less oppressively) somber style, the films’ implications are sometimes startlingly different.

One of the film’s more provocative implications has to do with Capote’s bond with Perry Smith (played by a commandingly intense Daniel Craig). It’s true that Capote developed an odd kind of love relationship toward Perry, finding a kindred soul of sorts—both men had troubled childhoods, both men had an affection towards literature, etc. But where Capote left the implicit homoeroticism of their relationship as an undercurrent, Infamous puts it right there on the surface, to the point of showing Capote and Perry sharing a kiss after the latter has lost his final appeal. Whether this actually happened, I can’t say for sure; as far as I know, the source material for Infamous, George Plimpton’s Truman Capote: By Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, doesn’t make such an event at all explicit. But by dramatizing the romanticism between them so pointedly, Infamous suggests that Capote’s downfall resulted from the fact that he really did love Smith and was genuinely shaken to see him die.

McGrath seems to see their relationship as a kind of escape hatch for Capote: a way to set aside his public persona and from the suffocating superficiality and emptiness of the New York’s socialite universe. At one point, the film juxtaposes Capote’s conversations with socialite Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and Perry. Babe complains about how she thinks her husband (NBC head honcho William S. Paley) is cheating on him; Perry complains about the family problems in his past. Compared to Perry’s depth of despair, the problems of Babe and fellow jetsetters Slim Keith (Hope Davis), Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson) and others, to paraphrase a classic movie quote, don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is the world Capote has operated in for years, and Infamous suggests that his attachment to Smith was born of a desire to rediscover his true self. “I don’t have to act like a little winding toy with you,” Capote tells Perry in one particularly vulnerable moment.

Infamous offers other fascinating insights into this story, and ultimately takes a kinder, more sympathetic, more ambivalent view of the writer during this critical time in his creative and personal life than Capote . Though I wouldn’t accuse Miller’s film of absolute condescension toward its subject—Philip Seymour Hoffman brings such uncanny empathy and sensitivity to his portrayal that it’s hard to view his character with total contempt—nevertheless it is a film that seems to have made up its mind about Capote right from its doom-laden beginning. Infamous is not only a much more searching take, but also at time a more visually imaginative one, too. Capote doesn’t have an image quite as disturbing as one in which an angry Perry forces Capote to look at his frightened, distorted reflection in a mirror—a startling image that reveals how far Capote has gone in order to extract this story from him.

After seeing Infamous, my initial instinct was to declare that Capote—one of my favorite films of last year—had not been outdone. Perhaps one can legitimately accuse Infamous of being much less focused than its predecessor, seeming to flail around in search of explanations and conclusions, whereas Capote not only had a relentlessly-focused trajectory from start to finish, but also made its points with admirable economy. But for all its unwieldy qualities, Infamous is ultimately the richer movie: a film that offers a lot of possible explanations for why Capote never finished another novel after In Cold Blood but never presumes to offer definitive answers. Capote may be more deeply troubling overall, and I’m not crazy about the way McGrath tries to suggest a love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name between Capote and Smith—it’s rather banal, and much less interesting than Capote’s serious attempt at a journalistic ethical inquiry. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for a messy, fitfully powerful film that leaves things balanced: it gives the viewer room to draw his or her own conclusions. And now that there are two good films on the same subject, that task becomes more satisfying when one considers how each film enriches the other.

Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.