the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

I first saw the Academy Award festooned Capote when it was shown at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. A sumptuously beautiful film with captivating performances, Capote deserved the lavish praise it would later get in wide release. So it was that when I discovered another film about Truman Capote’s life — specifically the time period during which we wrote “In Cold Blood” — was being made at the exact same time, I was skeptical of its quality. I had no reason to be, of course. Just because Capote was the first of the two through the gate hardly made it the superior film. But those who come in second are always cursed with a certain amount of inferiority, and unfairly or not, I did not make the time or the effort to see Infamous when it hit theaters a few months later.

That was a mistake.

Sadly, director Douglas McGrath had the misfortune to become fascinated with precisely the same subject that informed last year's Oscar-lauded Capote. It's impossible to know how we might have reacted to McGrath's Infamous had there been no Capote. Those who saw the earlier movie will inevitably be watching the two simultaneously, perhaps trying to decide which movie trumps the other. As it turns out, there's room for both.

We know the story. Capote told it well. In the fall of 1959, famous author and Manhattan socialite extraordinaire, Truman Capote, reads a story in the New York Times about the brutal butchering of a Kansas farmer and his family. Thinking it sounds like a terrific story, he enlists the help of childhood friend and soon-to-be famous author herself, Nelle Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and travels to Kansas to poke into matters himself. Rural Kansas does not know what the make of the effeminate, flamboyant Capote and he finds himself shut out everywhere he goes, especially by the local law enforcement. Using his charms, Capote wriggles his way into their good graces, even getting permission to spend as much time as he wants with the accused killers, now in prison. Dick Hickock is brutish and vulgar and Capote dislikes him immediately, but Perry Smith, moody and introspective, fascinates him.

While Capote is surely using the men as fodder for his newly conceived true-fiction novel, he nonetheless cannot help falling in love with Smith. Capote becomes the master manipulator, writing his book in real time by guiding Perry’s actions and steering his decisions. In order to convince Perry to trust him, Truman must lay bare his soul. While he gets what he wants, it comes at a high price, perhaps the loss of his own soul. In the end, for his book to have a perfect ending, the two murderers must be executed. That the man he loves must die in order for this to happen is, in his tormented eyes, the way in which an artist must suffer for his craft. ("Life is painful," Capote tells a friend. "I suppose I'm able to endure it because I'm able to alchemize it into art.") Capote’s book is hailed as a masterpiece, and his personal life, so haunted by his reprehensible actions, is ruined. He will never write another thing of substance.

Despite Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Best Actor Oscar for Capote, Infamous easily has the higher profile cast with Daniel Craig, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Daniels in significant parts, and Sigourney Weaver, Peter Bogdanovich, Hope Davis, and Gwyneth Paltrow in cameos sprinkled throughout. To aid in the chronology of events, McGrath utilizes most of these cameo appearances in various “talking head” interviews. While he was no doubt shooting for something like Warren Beatty achieved in Reds, the interviews feel forced, out of place, and artificial.

Bullock is effective, but never rises to the level Catherine Keener's interpretation of the same character in Capote. She, like so many actors in this film, always appears to be acting instead of disappearing into her character. In fact, the British actors Toby Jones and Daniel Craig (aka, the new James Bond) are the only truly solid performances in the film. And boy are they solid. Craig offers a riveting, raw, powerful performance as the murderer Perry Smith, giving the role a far greater depth (to say nothing of sheer menace) than Clifton Collins Jr. did in Capote. It is unfortunate that Jones must forever live in Hoffman’s shadow for his portrayal of Capote. While Hoffman’s Oscar was well deserved, Jones’ performance is no less amazing. While elements border on caricature, especially early on, once Jones and the film find their stride, both are hypnotic. Bearing a far more startling resemblance to the real Capote, the diminutive Jones is more physically flamboyant than Hoffman. Rest assured, if Infamous had been the film that made it to our screen first, we’d all be talking about Jones’ portrayal, not Hoffman’s.

Infamous spends both more time in Capote’s New York social circles and in the prison cell with Perry, allowing us even greater insight into the two men and the worlds they inhabit. There is more comedy here than in Capote — not yuks, but the sort of genuine laughs that the real Capote no doubt inspired due to his mannerisms and tall-tales — but there is also a far greater dose of humanity. If Capote was a morality tale warning us of the perils of ambition, Infamous is a parable of love, loss, and the deals we make with the devil that come back to devour us in the end. It’s not guilt that ruined Capote in the end, Infamous argues, it’s grief.

Infamous doesn't feel like a remake. While it covers the same ground, the pitch is completely different. Where Capote was cool, distant and even antiseptic, Infamous is warmer and more emotionally fulfilling. It can easily be argued that Capote was the better overall film, but Infamous is easily more accessible. The two films do not eclipse, but rather complement each another. Both films are not only worth seeing, but also represent a fascinating glimpse into the creative pulse of Hollywood and the way in which that creativity is interpreted and constructed. Rarely do dueling productions result in equally remarkable films, but that's exactly what has happened here.

To read the full review, click here.


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