Capote: A Life For The Books

In this undated publicity photo released by Sony Pictures Classics, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays writer Truman Capote in a scene from the film, "Capote." (AP Photo/Attila Doroy, Sony Pictures Classics)
AP/Sony Pictures Classics
Truman Capote was the "It Boy" of 1947. He was the kid raised in small town Alabama who managed to get featured as an up-and-coming novelist in Life magazine before he'd ever published a book. When he finally got around to writing, one of his first novels, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," became a classic film starring Audrey Hepburn as the free spirited Holly Golightly.

In a way, that movie was a glimpse into the glamorous New York world Capote himself came to frequent. Over the course of a 40-year career, he became both a literary…and a social lion. In 1966, the eccentric author with the high-pitched voice made news when the ultimate A-list gathered for his masked black and white ball. Even CBS's Charles Kuralt came out to cover it.

Capote told Kuralt: "The reason we made it a masked dance was simply because, well, it's a completely free thing, and by the time the unmasking comes, you've made a lot of new friends. And that was the point."

Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrays the author in the new film "Capote."
"He stands for a lot of things that I think are very American. His level of ambition, his level of drive, the way he was able to come in and take over a room."

So it's no wonder that actor Hoffman relishes portraying the author, and he does it with dead-on precision.

But rather than focusing on the bon vivant, this movie centers on one of the most intense episodes in Truman Capote's life: the writing of the true crime novel "In Cold Blood."

"You learn all you need to know, all you would want to know really, about who this man is through one single story," said Hoffman.

The book grew out of an article Capote planned to write for the New Yorker magazine about the brutal slaying of farmer Herb Clutter and his family in Holcomb, Kansas.

But when Capote gets to Kansas, it's clear that he needs help relating to the locals. So his childhood chum, Harper Lee, comes to the rescue. Lee, played by Catherine Keener, of course, goes on to write her own major best seller, "To Kill A Mocking Bird."

Hoffman's performance and the film "Capote" already are getting rave reviews and Oscar buzz. That is especially sweet because the actor and first-time producer shares credit with two of his teenage buddies from theatre camp.

First-time screenwriter Dan Futterman came up with the idea for the movie, and director Bennett Miller, with one documentary to his name, signed on for his feature film debut.

Braver asked Hoffman if he was nervous making a movie with two unknowns.

"It's crazy, right?" Hoffman answered. "Then I read the script, and I saw what Bennett saw. It was something about what Danny was on to that had less to do just with telling a story about Truman Capote and more about bringing up themes that were universal."

The film is based in part on the best-selling book, "Capote," by Gerald Clarke. Clarke says Capote's view of the Kansas murders changed when the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were caught. Instead of a single New Yorker article, Capote decided that he would try to write a new type of true-crime novel.

"His theory was that non-fiction could be as artful as fiction," said Clarke.

But as Capote began to work on the book, he became especially fascinated, with one of the accused.

"He identified with Perry Smith," said Clarke. "Perry Smith had a terrible childhood. Perry's was much worse than Truman's. Perry was really, really miserable. Truman's was just really miserable. But the loneliness--both of them shared this loneliness."

"Capote had these dueling motivations for being involved with this guy," said Futterman. "He genuinely was fascinated with (Perry Smith), but he also saw him as a ticket to writing this great book."

The film shows how Capote pampered Smith and how he deceived him. Clarke says Capote even lied to Smith about the title of the book.

"Perry didn't want the title to be "In Cold Blood" because that implied he had deliberately killed those people," said Clarke.

Capote eventually got Smith to tell him all the gruesome details of how he and Hickock murdered the Clutter family. But there was something still needed for the book--a final chapter. How would the killers be punished?

"They were convicted almost immediately in March of 1960, but the appeals lasted five years. And it was hard on them, as you can imagine, and hard on Truman," said Clarke.

On April 15, 1965, five years after the murders, Hickock and Smith were executed, with Capote a reluctant witness. But within a few months, he published "In Cold Blood." It became an instant best seller that is still considered a major influence on generations of non-fiction writers.

Braver asked Hoffman how he came to feel about Capote as he was portraying the role.

"I do think you can argue both sides," said Hoffman. "You can argue the side that Truman manipulated, lied, deceived and ultimately compromised himself and committed a Faustian-type bargain. Or you can defend him, and say he was absolutely justified in what he did, because it created one of the great books of our time."

But it took a huge toll on capote:

"He did tell me that 'In Cold Blood' scraped him down to the marrow of his bones," recalled Clarke. "That's how he phrased it. He achieved fame, money, everything a writer ever, ever wants in the world, and it ruined his life."

After "In Cold Blood," Capote never published another book. He became an alcoholic, even showing up drunk on during a 1978 talk-show appearance.

Alcohol ultimately killed Truman Capote on August 25, 1984, just days short of his 60th birthday. But as tragically as his life ended, it's worth remembering the gifted writer, the fearless young man with the sparkle in his eye, who would have loved the fact that we're still talking about him.