As I sat in the darkened theater waiting for the screening of Infamous—the latest take on Truman Capote's time in Kansas, opening this week at the Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival—I reflected on one long evening I spent with the author toward the end of his life. I remembered my office phone ringing on a bleak December afternoon in the early 1980s in New York. Answering it, I listened incredulously as an assistant from the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers begged me to help round up an audience for a reading Capote was giving at the Lincoln Center. It was scheduled to open that very evening and didn't seem to be selling any tickets.
At the after-party, I observed both how frail the man had become and how carefully he listened to everyone around him, despite simultaneously holding court with his particular blend of anecdotes and bluster. Viewing Infamous, I was struck by how thoroughly Capote's true nature permeated the film, and was reminded again of the inaccuracies of its Oscar-honored predecessor, Capote.
As with Capote, Infamous follows the events surrounding Capote's writing of the classic In Cold Blood—the brutal murders that inspired Capote to travel to Kansas, the impact that the case had on the townspeople, and the personal relationship that subsequently developed between the author and one of the accused. Happily, Infamous is considerably more faithful to the facts of the case than was Capote. George Plimpton's interviews with those connected to the actual events inform the script with accuracy and immediacy—appropriately, the working title of the film was Every Word Is True.
The casting of Infamous is spot-on as well, from the diminutive, birdlike Toby Jones as Capote to the forceful honesty of Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee. Accepting uncharacteristically small roles are stars as varied as Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels and acclaimed film director Peter Bogdanovich. The direction is inventive and daring, establishing a glitzy tone evocative of the sensationalism that surrounded the story.
By comparison, Capote played fast and loose with the truth. Several significant errors stand out to the careful viewer: Capote didn't favor a typewriter, as was portrayed in the film, and his mother actually died several years prior to the events in question. Most egregiously, Capote did not in fact view the hanging of Perry Smith (he was being sick outside at the time).
Other mistakes abound in Capote, but perhaps the worst is the betrayal of the character himself. Whatever the Academy concluded about Philip Seymour Hoffman's sniveling performance, his take on the author completely sidesteps the ambiguity and depth of his intended subject. Toby Jones, on the other hand, manages to capture some of the paradoxical qualities of a persona that was capable of so many contradictory actions. It is ironic that, while Capote affects a gritty realism and Infamous adopts a glamorous veneer, it is the latter film that presents the most accurate picture of what actually happened.
As I gathered my things and left the movie theater, I took away a deeper sense of the poignancy and revelation that Capote both embodied at the end of his life and brought to in Kansas in 1959. At the very least, Infamous mines a rich vein of material that proves itself to be practically inexhaustible.
Jack Booch was the executive producer of the Theatre Guild in NYC from 1980-89, and the producing artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse from 1981-85.
screens as part of PLGFF at 7:30 pm Friday, Oct. 6. Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave. $8.
Visit plgff.org for a full schedule.