A couple of years ago my friend Kevin gave me George Plimpton's oral biography of Truman. I've picked it up on several occasions and never let myself get involved in it, partly because it begins with his Alabama upbringing and people telling rather pedestrian stories of passing relationships with him in his youth. I think now I'll skip a chapter or two and get into the meat of his story a little more quickly.
After I saw the movie, I pulled out the book again and flipped to the index so I could find all the passages pertinent to In Cold Blood. What I found there was largely present in the film -- Truman's leading on of Smith, his near-breakdown around the time of the executions, Harper's phone call to the hotel, his last-minute decision to witness their hanging -- all these details were well-recorded by Plimpton and the people who were interviewed. But in these pages I found Truman's humanity, his terror, I really felt how conflicted he was about his relationship to the crimes. I have to say that I found Capote so icy, so mannered, and its Truman so consistently arrogant, deceitful, pompous, and condescending that I felt like I was watching a movie about a man selling his soul when it wasn't worth the change in my pocket. I could register little more than disgust at the fact that the filmmakers were asking us to be moved by his shedding tears as he lies to the killers and says "I did everything I could do." In fact, I never really believed a word the character said, even when he was plainly telling the truth.
Other things bothered me, too, like why in the world would Wallace Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, be taking Truman's calls while the man's lying in bed in his pajamas? I didn't buy that scene for a minute. Upon reading the bio, I discovered that it was Joe Fox, Truman's editor, who played that role; I'm sure the film's Shawn is a compilation of the two historical figures. It makes sense for the storytelling, but it's still hard to swallow. And then there's Harper Lee. I love Catherine Keener dearly, I do, but I wanted more of her. The role seems sadly underwritten.
It's funny; I had this nagging suspicion that I would find Capote problematic. I don't really know why...perhaps it was overexposure, or hearing and reading too much of the filmmakers' approach to the subject matter (which always sounded rather simplistic to me), or just the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman looks so much like Philip Seymour Hoffman trying really hard to do Capote. He is good, and I did get used to his performance far more quickly than I thought I would, but I never felt any kind of connection to the character, a character who happens to be a literary figure that I have a certain affection for. Perhaps I was unprepared for such a dark portrait of him, but I don't really think that's the case. It's not as if I was ignorant of the man's nasty qualities. I didn't even need to leave the movie liking the guy; I just wanted to get a rich, moving sense of his humanity. And I didn't get that.