Saturday, October 14, 2006
Last year Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for playing Truman Capote. This year Capote is the subject of another Hollywood film, this one is from Douglas McGrath and is calledInfamous
(opening October 13 at Landmarks La Jolla Village Cinemas).
Theres probably nothing worse for a filmmaker than to make a film on the same subject at the same time as someone else. Baz Luhrman was planning to make a film about Alexander the Great but Oliver Stone beat him to the punch. Then when Stones film bombed at the box office, Baz tabled his project indefinitely. In the case of Infamous , filmmaker Douglas McGrath faced the dilemma of opening his Capote biopic after Bennett Miller delivered the highly acclaimed Capote . McGrath and the studio decided to put some distance between their project and the Oscar-winning Capote in the hopes that audiences would be more open to a second interpretation of events after a bit of a breather.
Both films do cover the same period of time and events, which is the late 1950s and early 60s when Capote was writing In Cold Blood , his non-fiction novel about the brutal killing of a Kansas family. But the films take radically different approaches, which end up making them interesting and complimentary companion pieces. They may cover the same basic material but its as if Capote provides the internal life of the writer and his craft whereas Infamous looks at the man from the outside. Capote was all about the process of writing In Cold Blood and it provided a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and conflicted artist who was as ruthless in pursuing his art as his subjects were in committing their murders. That film and Philip Seymour Hoffmans performance all looked internally into the character. McGraths portrait is more interested in the external elementshow Capote dressed, the people he socialized with, the way others perceived him. He delivers a portrait of Capote that captures the extroverted side of his personality.
McGrath is a former Saturday Night Live writer who displayed his affinity for literary adaptations with his film version of Jane Austens Emma . Now he turns to a story about a writer trying to create a great work of literature. But Capote was a writer who was also a personality and celebrity so McGrath creates a film in which Capote is the flamboyant star always waiting for his close up and ready with a quick barb. As he proved in Emma , McGrath has a quick wit himself and he delivers a script that crackles with smart dialogue.
Infamous, as its title implies has a delicious sense of gossip running through it. We see Capote with what he calls his swans, his highly connected, socially prominent women whom he would ply for information and scandal at every opportunity. When Capote leaves New York to arrive in Kansas, his celebrity name-dropping eventually wins over the conservative townsfolk who want to know more about Bogie, Ava and Frank Sinatra. In keeping with that spirit, McGrath loads his film with some familiar names: Sigourney Weaver, Gwenyth Paltrow, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Sandra Bullock, Peter Bogdanovich and Isabella Rossellini.
McGrath interrupts the narrative of his film with talking heads interviews of the characters in the film answering off screen questions about Capote. This device attempts to shed some insight into the man and into what made him tick. Nelle Harper Lee (a fine writer in her own right and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird ), the least gossipy, most down-to-earth of Capotes friends, seems on the surface an unlikely person for him to strike up a friendship. Yet the contrast she provides and the calm reason she offers seems like something he needs to return to now and again. In the interviews, she provides some of the most poignant comments.
Toby Jones is more physically suited to playing Capote than the taller, bigger Hoffman, and he conveys an image of Capote that is more in tune with what many may remember of the writer from his numerous talk show appearances. But again, the two performances reflect the differences in the films. Hoffmans portrait conveyed the inner workings of an artist and provided brilliant insight into the artistic process. Jones performance captures the external qualities in a way that rings true for the iconic pop culture figure that Capote became. Both performances work well in their respective films.
Infamous (rated R for language and mature content), though, does feel like the slighter film when compared to Capote , yet it can be enjoyed and appreciated on its own merits. It works best in the gossipy realm of the New York elite and tends to be less at home with the darker aspects of the story involving the murders.
Companion viewing: Capote , In Cold Blood , With Love From Truman