Ebertfest 2014: Capote (2005)

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Friday afternoon, following the awesome screening of 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped (which I wrote up for Rogerebert.com) came the screening of Capote.

It is still hard to comprehend that Philip Seymour Hoffman is no longer with us. It is like living in a horrible alternate reality. That was made even more clear watching his brilliant Oscar-winning performance of Truman Capote. I had seen it before, of course, but not since its original release. Director Bennett Miller was attending as a guest (Capote was his first feature, a fact that boggles the mind), and he and Hoffman were friends, and you just could sense how difficult it was … in general … for him to be there. Yet this is what you do when you are an artist, you show up to pay tribute, you show up to honor. As hard as it is, it was important, and I really appreciated Miller’s recognition of that. Sad as it was, the day was a celebration of Hoffman’s talent. It really was. Many tears were shed, but that’s part of it.

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Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, was there (he was at Ebertfest last year as well), and he is also bringing out Bennett Miller’s next film, Foxcatcher. I loved Capote, but I loved Moneyball even more (Here’s my review at Capital New York). I really admire Bennett Miller’s stuff.

Hoffman’s performance in Capote is even better than I remembered. So much of it has to do with him thinking, pondering, looking, his mind twirling around inside, calculating, manipulating, a master chess player. But there’s this pain going on … pain that increases as the film moves on, as the years pass, as Capote is forced to basically wait for the killers to be executed so he can finish his book … There’s one shot of him sitting in a room, phone to his ear, and he’s talking about the agony he is in, and he has his head in his hands, his fingers splayed out wide, sort of cupping his forehead and crown of head … and it’s such an eloquent gesture. There are all these mixed feelings. The Clutter family is dead. I don’t feel for Perry Smith at all. Or Dick Hickock. I feel for the Clutter family who were unfortunate enough to meet those monsters. Miller found Clifton Collins Jr., who played Perry Smith, after an extensive casting search, and he walked in, nailed it, literally a couple of weeks before they started shooting. He was their guy. And Hickock was played by Mark Pellegrino, who is awesome, and awesome as Lucifer in Supernatural too: He is one HELL of an actor.

In researching his book, Capote felt a kinship to Perry Smith, yes … he felt that they grew up in the same house, almost, and Smith walked out the back door and Capote walked out the front. But at the same time, he recognizes that his interviews with Smith are going to MAKE his book (as indeed they did). “He’s a goldmine,” Capote says to Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). And yet that moment when Perry explains to Capote what “exacerbate” means and Capote says, “I know what exacerbate means.” I remember it as an ice-pick, the sudden steely side of Capote revealing itself. Because nobody could be steelier than Capote. Hoffman had all of that in his performance. It was deeply layered, deeply thought out.

There’s one huge closeup of Hoffman, talking on the phone with Harper Lee, and he says, so quietly you almost can’t hear him: “Sometimes when I think of how good my book is going to be, I can’t breathe.”

Michael Barker observed in his comments beforehand:

“No matter how sophisticated Truman Capote was, no matter how brilliant he was and how on top of the world he was, if you look deep in his eyes, the way Phil plays the part, you will notice the eyes of a man who was an abandoned child and never got over it.”

Watch the performance again with those words in mind.

You could feel the loss in that room. One woman took the mike, and started to say, “I just wanted to thank you both for being here …” and broke down in the middle of it. She had to stop for a second to get herself together.

Bennett Miller said quietly during the pause, “Thank you.”

It was that kind of day.

Rogerebert.com contributor Susan Wloszczyna wrote up the emotional screening and QA following for the site.

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5 Responses to Ebertfest 2014: Capote (2005)

  1. Jessie says:

    I vividly remember reading a great review of Capote back in 2005 that described the way Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tongue lolled in his mouth, fat and poking at the back of his teeth, the inside of his cheek, as he thought. My exposure to film criticism was the Saturday papers, fan write-ups, and ideological analysis. I remember thinking, wow, it can be that too? It can be so microscopic? It can be so lyrical? So tactile? It really stayed with me.

    I’m loving these Ebertfest essays. Young Adult was one of my favourites of that year too — its utter and continuous refusal. I found it hilarious and brutal.

  2. sheila says:

    Young Adult’s “utter and continuous refusal” – YES. Bold. It would have absolutely sucked if they had tried to make Mavis change and grow. I mean, you think it might be going that way … you get a glimpse of her realizing that maybe she has missed the boat … but then, nope, she “reverts to type”. That’s how it usually happens.

    I absolutely loved it. I love the date scene in the beginning – where the guy is talking about doing relief work in Vietnam, and she says, “Yikes” – obviously letting him know that she thinks that must have been super gross and disgusting work. HUGE laugh from the audience. It’s so inappropriate. Then you hear the guy saying, sort of hesitantly, “It was the most rewarding year of my life.” She hears him say that and then says flatly, “Why.”

    hahaha Awful.

    And wow, interesting about Hoffman’s tongue in Capote – that is a great observation. It really is such detailed character work. And he was nothing like Capote, physically. He was tall, Capote was short, he was bulky, Capote in 1959 was slight … but they did things through costuming and casting people who were taller than PSH (and putting Catherine Keener in heels) – to make him seem shorter, and he also did a lot of work on his posture, sort of hunching it inward – making him seem much slighter than he actually is. Pretty amazing.

  3. Susu says:

    I saw a press screening of this film recently, and was highly impressed by its moving account of the period in Truman Capote’s life during which he wrote ‘In Cold Blood’. The direction by the relatively unknown Bennett Miller is personal, evocative and affecting, but without being over-dramatic or saccharine. This is helped immensely by Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s incredible performance as Capote, as well as solid acting from Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., and Chris Cooper. Cooper plays K.B.I. Agent Alvin Dewey with perhaps a bit too much intensity, given his relatively small amount of screen time, but the portrayal nonetheless comes off as heart-felt.

    The cinematography by Adam Kimmel is suitably gray and moody, with many evocative views of the flat Kansas plains, but most of the screen time is spent with the camera focused on Hoffmann – all of it time well spent.

    While I haven’t read the biography by Gerald Clarke on which it’s based, the script seems to hit enough salient details to evoke Capote’s frame of mind, without inundating the audience with more than would fit in a feature-length film. I suppose one of my only complaints about the film would be that at times the conversations take on a sheen of Hollywood, saying things for dramatic impact that perhaps might not have been said in real life. But then again, I never met Capote, so who knows for sure.

    All in all, this was a deeply engrossing film, and one I would highly recommend, especially if you’re a fan of Truman Capote.

  4. Judith says:

    So, over a year later, I come across this discussion. I loved SHP also, as did so many. I liked the film, Capote, as well, but I have to say, I consider Douglas McGrath’s Infamousthe better film, with a better performance from Toby Jones. Infamous imo, gave a better picture of Capote’s life and friends in New York, which contrasted nicely with the Kansas expedition. In addition, the background and upbringing of Perry Smith gets more screen time and it was truly tragic.

    SHP, of course, was wonderful, but Toby Jones was Truman Capote. He also had the advantage of being much closer to Capote’s real physical size.

    The McGrath film was based on the George Plimpton book and I have no idea whether his or Gerald Clarke’s take is more accurate or insightful.

    As I was writing this, I looked on the IMDB board and there’s a fair amount of discussion of the two films with people fairly evenly split.

  5. Judith says:

    shoot – Philip Seymour Hoffman – PSH should be. bit of dyslexia tonight or something.

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