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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006 08:50 am

The examined life

Going to Decatur to see acclaimed movie about Truman Capote

Last week I drove to the Avon Theater in Decatur to see Capote. I shouldn’t have to do that, but here we are, a few years into the 21st century, and the local theaters still avoid running films with gay content. Most of the films that the folks at Kerasotes run are Hollywood blockbusters such as King Kong. I enjoy the blockbusters, but whose brain can subsist on a steady diet of entertainment that requires absolutely no thinking and teaches us nothing? All right, one might say, if Kerasotes doesn’t play the movies you want to see, then go to one of its competitors. The problem with that is, in Springfield, Kerasotes has no competition and means to keep it that way. The old Esquire Theatre is for sale, but Kerasotes will only sell on the condition that the buyer doesn’t open a theater there. The irony is that Capote isn’t a movie about homosexuality. Although Philip Seymour Hoffman does a great job of imitating Truman Capote’s affect and mannerisms, there’s not a single same-sex kiss in the whole film. There’s little doubt that Truman Capote was a genius as a writer, but he also had his demons. Repeatedly abandoned by his mother in his early childhood, Capote was raised by relatives. When the film opens, we see Capote in New York, entertaining his friends, drinking, and telling colorful stories. What we don’t see until much later is Capote’s need to be the center of attention, his need for admiration and praise from all of those people. In the mid-1960s, while trying to find a topic for an article for The New Yorker, he stumbles across a story about the murder of a Midwestern family. Capote travels to rural Kansas where he suffers several insults as he battles (with amazing dignity) small-town homophobia. His editor and traveling companion, Nell Harper Lee (a childhood friend and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird), finally paves the way for him. Lee gets Capote the interviews, but Capote earns the trust of the people. Capote stays in Kansas for several months, researching the story, learning about life far from Manhattan, and developing a vision of a book about ordinary Midwesterners and two pathetic, heartless killers and what happened when these very different worlds met. When Capote first meets the alleged murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, he is quite interested in them, and, after their conviction and sentence of death by hanging, Capote finds the two a better lawyer for an appeal. Then he bribes the warden at Leavenworth to give him unlimited access to the killers. By this time, the prisoners think of Capote as a friend. During interviews with Smith, Capote learns that Smith’s childhood was not so different from his own. Both were mistreated and passed around as children, had issues with distant and remote mothers, and harbored secret fantasies. When Lee, who plays the role of Capote’s truth-teller and conscience, asks him whether he is in love with Smith, Capote slowly responds, “It’s like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front door.”
Truman Capote’s flaws are important to this story. Deceptive and unforgivably self-centered, he does what he has to do to survive in an often-hostile culture, and he does what he has to do to get what he needs for his book. When Perry Smith finally divulges the details of the murders, the senselessness of the crime is gut-wrenching. When Capote has all he needs, there is nothing for him to do but wait for the men to be executed, and he carries out his worst betrayal: He stops all support for Hickock and Smith’s appeals and ends all communication with them. Only a last-minute phone call from Lee persuades Capote to visit the two one last time. Capote is allowed five minutes with them as they sit bound and strapped, ready for the hanging that will follow. Smith asks Capote to witness the execution because he “wants a friend there.” This Capote does, even though he is devastated by the experience. In a phone conversation with Lee after the executions, Capote says, “There wasn’t anything I could do to save them.” Lee replies, “Maybe, but, the fact is, you didn’t want to.” In Cold Blood consumed its author. The novel would make him rich and famous, yet at the same time it emotionally destroyed him. Capote saw the book as a goldmine and as a way to ensure his place among literature’s great writers. Some speculate that the anguish Capote suffered during the creation of In Cold Blood ultimately hastened his own death. Recently the Chicago film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper released their lists of the best films of 2005. Capote was in each critic’s top 10. This movie is the story of a man whose gift becomes the catalyst for his descent into hell. Pretty good drama, I’d say. The Avon (stadium seating, by the way) was fairly crowded, considering that I was there on a Thursday night. Leaving the theater, I saw a group of people gathered in the lobby. They were talking about Capote and his other books. Try as I might, I can’t imagine that happening in a Springfield theater.
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