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The Capote Character

Truman Capote's <i>In Cold Blood</i> was the first of its kind—a true crime story written as beautifully as a novel. In contrast to his previous novels, Capote allowed his own character to slip into the background, to focus on murderer Perry Smith. But...

by James Franco
Feb 14 2014, 12:00pm

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is everything at once. It is a noir crime thriller, a character study, an existential nightmare, a metaphor for modern life, a struggle against the strictures of society, and a book about the futility of humanity's desire to control its outlaw nature.

In Cold Blood was the first of its kinda true crime story written as beautifully as a novel. Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song would follow. The movie adaptation, directed by Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Elmer Gantry) is a classic in its own right, starring Robert Blake ("Take that to the bank!Barettababy!) as murderer Perry Smith. Underneath a flat facade, Robert Blake played Perry so sensitively that you can’t help sympathizing with the dreamer-murderer with the bad legs and leather jacket.

It was shot like a poem of light and shadow by the legendary Conrad Hall (American Beauty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Day of the Locust, and Road to Perdition, for which he posthumously won his third Oscar). The movie culminates in Perry's ruminating about all he’s done while the reflection of rain outside his death-row window plays like tears down his face—allowing the actor to avoid sentimental melodrama while still delivering the interior state of his character. It is a metaphor and a literal symbol simultaneously, and a brilliant moment in film history, studied in film schools across the globe.

Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood film is a study in adaptation. It takes a book that roams around all aspects of a crime and creates a tale of men turned bad despite the better sides of themselves. The way the murder is suggested and then eclipsed in the beginning of the film, only to be told in flashback toward the end, is structuring genius. It's a structure taken from the book, which keeps us from writing off the killers long enough to get to know them. We're brought into the horror of the murder night right as we’re about to emotionally jump on their train.

The only strange thing is the way the journalist (the Truman Capote character) is portrayed by an elderly, very straight, very conservative man. Was this a choice similar to the one in Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s adaptationin which the writer character (another surrogate for Capote in the book) becomes a hetero love interest for Holly Golightly in the movie?

Bennett Miller’s Capote—starring his old friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman—leaps out of In Cold Blood to show us the writer behind the book. In Capote’s other books—Other Voices, Other Rooms; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and the then-unpublished Summer Crossing—he always included a character who was a stand-in for himself. In In Cold Blood, he let himself slip into the background so we can focus on Perry Smith.

In the book Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote 'Answered Prayers,' William Todd Schultz makes two arguments that apply here. One, that Truman’s persona and literary career were designed to provoke, and two, that Perry Smith became an alter ego for Capote, precluding the need for a Capote character in this book.

I see Capote’s sharp departure from the kind of work and subject matter of Tiffany’s to the long road of researching and writing In Cold Blood as a product of his need to provoke—a position learned through a lifetime of ridicule: Get them before they get you. Capote wrote the nonfiction work like a novel just as he planned, capturing this sordid tale with the beautiful language of his prose, and elevating it from true crime to an intense examination of the ties that bind a community and those that bind the sanity of the human mind.

In Capote, the focus of In Cold Blood's story is shifted away from Perry Smith and onto Capote himself. It is a portrait of a genius wrestling with the invention of a new kind of writing and with his shadow self, Perry Smith. To borrow a line from Capote in the film, it’s as if they were raised in the same house but Smith went out the back door and Capote went out the front. 

In Capote’s struggle to capture Perry on the page, I see the perfect parallel to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s struggle to capture Capote on the screen. The looming heights of Capote’s books make me forget that he had a sad and too-short life. In that same way, I return to the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, because it helps me to not think about his too-soon exit. If I surround myself with the gifts he left behind, Philip lives a little longer for me.