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Capote, the Movie

A Biographer's Story

"Truman, I've been asked to write your biography. Will you cooperate?"

From the other end of the telephone there was a short pause and an even shorter answer—"Sure." And so I began.

I thought my book would be relatively easy to write. I had, after all, written many profiles of famous and talented people for Time magazine—a list that eventually included everyone from Mae West and Claudette Colbert to Susan Sontag and Joseph Campbell, Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock to Laurence Olivier, Rex Harrison and John Gielgud. I had also done a series on writers for The Atlantic and Esquire. Gore Vidal. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet. Vladmir Nabokov, the creator of Lolita. P. G. Wodehouse, the comic genius behind Jeeves. And, finally, Truman Capote, who was then the most celebrated writer in America—the author of In Cold Blood, the publishing phenomenon of the sixties and a book that has influenced the writing of nonfiction writing ever since. It was that last article that prompted a call from a publisher and my own call to Truman.

I thought my book would take two years, three at most, and that writing it would be a lark, interviews at fancy restaurants and gallons of good vintage wine at the best table in the house. When Truman Capote walked through the door, headwaiters did everything but salaam in their desire to please. "You might say Truman Capote has become omnipotent," said one newspaper, and for a decade and more he very nearly was.

I was right about the interviews in fancy restaurants and the giddy gallons of Beaujolais. But I was wrong about everything else. If he had known how long In Cold Blood would take, and what it would take out of him, he would not have stopped in Kansas, Truman later said. He would have driven on—"like a bat out of hell." I sometimes said much the same. What I had not anticipated was the drama that surrounded every minute of Truman's life, dramas in which I sometimes also became a participant. As a result, my own book took more than thirteen years. Some lark! Writing it was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was also the most exhilarating.

In search of information I crisscrossed the United States and traveled several times to Europe. One of my destinations was of course, Kansas, the setting for In Cold Blood. I came to know all but two of the main characters in Capote, the movie. Harper Lee, who helped Truman with his research and who was soon to have her own hugely successful book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Alvin Dewey, the lead detective for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and his wife, Marie. William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. And Jack Dunphy, Truman's longtime companion.

The two I did not interview were the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. They were executed in 1965. But I got to know them—intimately, I thought—through the forty or so letters they wrote to Truman. Most of their letters run several pages, and they are unsparing windows into life on death row. Truman gave them to me, and Dan Futterman, who wrote the screenplay of Capote, is the only one I've ever let see them. Their dialogue in the movie reflects, almost word for word, what Perry and Dick actually said.

The movie's script is all Dan's—and a very good one it is—but I was happy to answer his questions, large and small. Would Truman have said this? Would he have done that? Bennett Miller, the film's director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Truman, came out to my house on Long Island and asked more questions. Did Truman wear his glasses all the time? was one of the questions Philip asked. (The answer: like a lot of other nearsighted people, Truman often took off his glasses when he was sitting down.) So he could reproduce Truman's odd, childish voice—Truman did not lisp, as some writers have inaccurately stated—I gave him audio tapes from some of my interviews. Philip did the rest, and through the alchemy a few very gifted actors possess, he has done more than impersonate Truman. For the length of the movie he has resurrected him.

Gerald Clarke on NPR, September 30, 2005

Truman Capote's Birthday

When he was writing the screenplay for his 1976 comedy, Murder by Death, Neil Simon wanted an unusual villain. A short, pudgy man with a high-pitched voice and a tongue as sharp as a stiletto. Someone just like Truman Capote, Simon said. To which a friend responded: instead of getting someone like Truman Capote, why not get Truman Capote? And they did.

Truman was thrilled. Every American wants to be a movie star. "Gore Vidal must be dying," he said. He and Vidal had been trading insults for years. But when I visited him on the set in Burbank, it was Truman who was miserable. Acting is hard work that requires getting up at dawn and sweating through take after take. And it requires acting talent, which Truman did not possess.

When he sat down with paper and pencil, Capote could write sentences that could make you laugh—or could pierce you to the heart. No one of his generation—today would have been his eighty-first birthday—had as good an ear for the music of the English language, its cadences and its rhythms. "The most perfect writer of my generation," Norman Mailer called Capote after reading Breakfast at Tiffany's.

In real life Truman's personality was so buoyant and expansive that it defied the laws of human gravity. He could be outrageous. He could be witty. Jack Kerouac's writing was not writing, he said. It was typewriting. He could also be generous. To me, his biographer, he gave acres of time and mountains of confidence. And when he was not drinking—the last decade of his life was wrecked by alcoholism—he was more fun than anyone else I've ever met. On screen, however, in Neil Simon's movie, Truman Capote was not a very good Truman Capote.

In Capote, a film that is reaching theaters today, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a very good Truman Capote. The movie, which was directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman, follows Capote through the five most dramatic years of his life. Those are the years he spent researching and writing In Cold Blood, a story of crime and punishment in a little town in Kansas. It is a book that set a new standard for the writing of non-fiction.

Many people can imitate Capote's odd, childish voice. It was so high, Gore Vidal once said, that only a dog could hear it. But Hoffman has done something different. Through the alchemy a few very gifted actors possess, he has done more than impersonate Truman. For the length of the movie he has resurrected him.

In the last week of June 1984—he died in August—I had lunch with Truman every day. "There's the one and only T.C.," he said at one point. "There was nobody like me before, and there ain't gonna be anybody like me after I'm gone." That's true—who could dispute it? For a couple of hours, however, Philip Seymour Hoffman comes close.

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