Truman and Nelle and Cold Blood

Add me to the list of people calling for Philip Seymour Hoffman to win the Best Actor Oscar this spring. Capote is good stuff, and the film leaves me unable to remember Truman Capote except through Hoffman’s portrait of him. (I used to see this eccentric conversational darling on The Tonight Show. He was one of Carson’s favourite guests in the ‘70s, and imagine this: a writer regularly appearing on the top talk show; an effeminate, flamboyantly dressed man on TV with no mention of homosexuality; he and Johnny were likely smoking, too.) Hoffman has the lisp, the languidly mannered way of speaking, the physical movements, but on top of that he gives an affecting performance and not merely as impersonation. Catherine Keener was a revelation to me as Capote’s childhood friend, assistant and fellow writer Nelle Harper Lee.

Having taught To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve admired Harper Lee as a writer and been mystified by her; how does one write a Pulitzer Prize-winner as her first novel and never publish another? I’d also taught In Cold Blood, Capote’s famously successful attempt to bring literary method and sensibility to the writing of non-fiction. (It is magnificent because, among many other reasons, it can be brought to largely male English classes of mainly non-reading future farmers and plumbers and it can work. Salvation for the English teacher.) When I realized that Capote was going to not only give me Truman but also a glimpse of Harper Lee, I was pumped. When I read that TC had been a childhood friend of Lee’s, that he was the model for the character Dill from her one and wonderful novel, I was fascinated. (What are the odds of two iconic American writers sharing a neighbourhood as kids?)

So I was fascinated going in, and remained so afterward. My hopes were mountain-high walking into the Bytowne last night, and they were topped by the film. Clifton Collins Jr. was broodingly watchable as Perry, one of the “cold-blooded” killers of the Clutter family in rural Kansas in 1959, and an interesting companion to Robert Blake’s portrayal (yes, that Robert Blake) of Perry in the film version of Capote’s book. There is so much more to be understood here. Watch Hoffman’s Capote and his profoundly graceless (non) acceptance of the tremendous reception for Lee’s novel. Not long before her sudden fame arising from Mockingbird, she had been Capote’s assistant, a friend who knew him, could challenge him and especially act as a bridge between the foppish writer and the rural Kansas community for which he was so exotic. Here are two writers and lifelong friends, each of whom produces in this period the book from which they cannot recover, the book that ends (and, for Lee, begins) their publishing careers with a bang and, I think, a whimper as well.

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