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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006 08:51 pm

Wily Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a revelatory performance as In Cold Blood author

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The 1965 “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood was Truman Capote’s masterpiece, changing journalism and, according to Bennett Miller’s unique biopic, undoing the author in the process. Working from an intelligent script by actor-turned-screenwriter Dan Futterman, the filmmaker crafts a spare, arresting portrait of Capote’s research and writing of the book and of the personal pitfalls inherent in his approach. Basking in the fame brought by Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his Hollywood screenplays, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote holds court at New York parties, entertaining social circles with provocative gossip and tales of celebrity encounters. But an article in the New York Times about a shocking multiple murder in a small town in Kansas sets him on a course for the Midwest. Right before To Kill a Mockingbird is published, he’s joined by his research assistant and childhood friend Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, here a dowdy force of common sense and the head of a stellar supporting cast). Together they charm Sheriff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), his wife, and several key players into sharing information about the case for a New Yorker article. Once killers Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) are caught, Capote works a similar effect on them. He realizes that he’s got all the ingredients in front of him for something amazing and unprecedented, if he can use them correctly. And use them Capote does, rewarding and manipulating Smith in equal measure in a strident effort to get him to recount the night of the murder. He puts up a front of hoping for exoneration, but, as the appeals continue, the writer grows impatient for a hanging so he can finish his book. In much the way that In Cold Blood both humanized and indicted Smith and Hickock, Capote does the same for its eponymous author, a figure remembered as much for his drinking, his high voice, and his fey mannerisms as for his remarkable work. Hoffman, giving a revelatory performance that earns all the Oscar buzz it’s building, fits his sizable frame into Capote’s persona, and adds both a hard edge and a quiet plea for sympathy. Palpably, he realizes too late what it would take to get the angle he wanted, how deeply he’d have to get involved while remaining objective, but he sees no other way to go. It’s Hoffman’s greatest performance to date, in one of 2005’s best films.
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