This morning, author Harper Lee died at 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. At the moment, writers everywhere are churning out think pieces about her woefully small body of work and her legacy, from Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird and its resultant film to its not-terribly-well-received follow-up, Go Set a Watchman.
I haven't read Lee since middle school, so news of her death instead made me think back to that weird two-year period in the mid-aughts when two nearly identical Truman Capote biopics were released, both of them about the period during which the author researched and wrote his true-crime opus In Cold Blood. In both Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006), Harper Lee — Nelle, to Capote — figures prominently as the friend and confidant who accompanies him to small-town Kansas, a soothing presence who keeps the flamboyant and emotionally vulnerable author grounded. Catherine Keener plays Lee in the first film; Sandra Bullock plays her in the latter.
Sandy Bullock is an Oscar winner and America's sweetheart, but Keener is my own personal sweetheart. I'm a Nicole Holofcener fanatic, and Keener has long been the director's muse and sort of onscreen avatar. But prejudices aside, Bullock is a great actress and I think it's fair to state her case despite that Capote is universally regarded as the better film.
So, let's start there: Bullock had to contend with the fact that she was performing in an inferior film. The consensus was basically that Infamous was good but felt thinner than Capote. As much as critics tried to do their jobs right and avoid comparing the two films, it was basically impossible. It proved especially challenging not to compare the two Capotes. Philip Seymour Hoffman set the bar impossibly high, so high that he won an Academy Award for his performance. Toby Jones was good, but he was hammy, and in scenes with Bullock he devours the scenery, requiring her to amp up her portrayal of Lee or be eaten alive. She's from Virginia, but Bullock's Southern accent has never been terribly convincing. Then again, she won an Oscar drawling it up in The Blind Side, so the Academy and I have to agree to disagree.
Keener affects a subtle Southern accent. In fact, everything about her performance is wonderfully understated, and it earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination — but of course she had the benefit of acting opposite Hoffman. (Oh, and she lost to Rachel Weisz, who won for The Constant Gardener, a movie I saw but couldn't tell you a thing about if you held a gun to my head.)
In his review of Infamous, Roger Ebert had some not-terribly-nice things to say about Bullock's performance: “Sandra Bullock is robotic. When she shifts her eyes at a key moment in a scene, you can almost read the programming code that dictates the maneuver.” In his review of Capote, Ebert didn't even get around to remarking on Keener's performance — so I guess we can assume he thought it was adequate.
Keener's performance was slightly better than Bullock's, but both actresses were great. If there's a lesson here, it's this: If two biopics are being made simultaneously, take a role in the one that comes out first.