At screenings of Infamous — or, as it is destined to be known, the other Truman Capote movie — you will hear something not often heard at screenings of last year’s Oscar-winning Capote: the sound of laughter filling the room. It’s a fine point, perhaps, but an important one, for part and parcel of Capote’s status as New York City’s premier social butterfly was his wit, his merciless gossip and the fact that people found him fun to be around. Yet there was precious little sense of that Truman — the life of the party, the late-show fixture — in the waxen Capote, which, whatever else you thought of it, regarded the author and his associates like specimens trapped in amber. Under Bennett Miller’s airless, ever-so-artful direction, even the scenes that were supposed to show us the “fun” Capote had a funereal cast, as if the Clutter family had been murdered before they were murdered. And so, to see Douglas McGrath’s Infamous barely a year later, with Capote’s cigarette smoke still lingering in the air, is akin to exiting a wake and entering a roast.
Or so it is for a while, especially in the early passages of the film, when we see Capote (here played by the diminutive British stage actor Toby Jones) holding court at lunches and cocktail parties with the likes of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Babe — wife of CBS honcho Bill — Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and the socialite Lady Slim Keith (Hope Davis). Effortless in his charms, Capote invites them in like cherished confidants, offering sisterly advice when needed, trading one salacious rumor for another. He’s funny and endearing, and he makes them feel alive in a way that all their moneyed privilege can’t. It’s the aspect of the adult Capote’s life most glossed over by Miller’s film, and by affording it greater emphasis, Infamous (which was adapted by McGrath from George Plimpton’s Capote biography) becomes the more telling portrait of Truman the emotional and psychological puppeteer, who could bend seemingly anyone to his will and leave them feeling as if he were the one doing them a favor.
In what has been a boom time for biopics, the phenomenon of the dueling Capote movies exudes a peculiar curiosity. Both Capote and Infamous focus on more or less the exact same period of Capote’s life: the six years he spent researching and writing In Cold Blood; his friendship with the novelist Harper Lee (a lovely, understated Sandra Bullock, stepping ably into Catherine Keener’s shoes); and the emotional bond he developed with one of his subjects, the death-row convict Perry Smith (an almost unrecognizable Daniel Craig, whose inky-black eyes are like great soulless chasms). As many have noted, Infamous is almost certain to play to a smaller audience than Capote, the market for screen biographies of gay 20th-century literary icons having already been effectively tapped out. But the makers of Infamous should rest assured that even under less competitive circumstances, they wouldn’t have had to worry about having a hit on their hands. Theirs is the better Capote film, yes, but also the less easily digestible one, the more eccentric one and — yes — the gayer one. It’s the one with the sharper sense of how writers exploit those around them — even those closest to them — for their own personal gain. And it’s the one closest in spirit to Capote himself, the fabulist whose very conception of In Cold Blood as a “nonfiction novel” stemmed from the wisdom that reality is rarely as tantalizing as fantasy.
That’s never truer than in the jailhouse scenes between Capote and Smith, which are bold and erotic and which transform Infamous into, of all things, a doomed romance. Maybe things didn’t really happen that way, but surely they did in Truman’s mind, where the sensitive, withdrawn Smith was a version of himself — the him he might have been but for a few twists of fate that worked out in his favor. In those moments, Jones (who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the real Capote) surpasses Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think, in his ability to see beyond Capote the charismatic dandy and unconscionable manipulator to find a fragile man-child loved by many but in love with only one. It is Craig, however, who comes to dominate the film, locating the tenderness and the menace of Smith the poet-murderer, and then negotiating terrifying hairpin turns between the one and the other.
Many have said that Capote’s failure to complete another literary work after In Cold Blood was simply the result of his fear of not being able to match past success. But in the final images of Infamous, when we see the author at work on the unfinished roman à clef Answered Prayers, a different thought occurs — that on the day Perry Smith swung from the gallows, a piece of Truman Capote died too.
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INFAMOUS | Written and directed by DOUGLAS McGRATH, based on the book Truman Capote by GEORGE PLIMPTON | Produced by CHRISTINE VACHON, JOCELYN HAYES and ANNE WALKER McBAY | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | Selected theaters