“Bad Timing,” or “Toby, Tell Me Tru”

29 Aug

The one and only, the original Tiny Terror: Truman Capote

At the 2005/2006 Oscars, Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor for playing writer Truman Capote in the biopic, Capote. More specifically, Hoffman won for playing the famously flamboyant author (pictured to the left) during the years in which he wrote his 1966 masterpiece  In Cold Blood, a novelized account of the 1959 senseless killing of a Kansas farm family, the subsequent hunt for the perpetrators, the ensuing trial, and the ultimate punishment: death by hanging.  Capote not only met the two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, in the course of his research, he reportedly befriended them, more so Smith than Hickock. Writing In Cold Blood took a considerable toll on Capote,  and he never completed another book in his life.  His story is fascinating, and, arguably, quite tragic. When Hoffman won his Oscar, he had long been a favorite of the critics, either for his standout work as a supporting player in high-profile features (Boogie Nights, Patch Adams, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Red Dragon), or as a leading man in below-the radar indie flicks (Flawless, Owning Mahowny, Love Liza). Despite years of acclaim, Hoffman had never been nominated for an Oscar prior to Capote, and the Academy responded favorably to the change-of-pace role in the prestigious offering, a project that was tailor made for him. The screenplay is based on the book by Gerald Clarke, and it was adapted with Hoffman in mind by actor-writer Dan Futterman; it was directed by Bennett Miller, another longtime Hoffman pal.  Capote was a relative box office hit, and Hoffman’s Academy Award, for which he competed against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, was a virtual certainty; however, most moviegoers probably do not realize that, per the New York Times, at the same time Hoffman and company were filming Capote in Canada in 2004, another feature covering the same period in Truman Capote’s life was being shot in Texas. Apparently, nobody films in Kansas anymore.

The “other” Capote film is entitled Infamous, and it stars a British actor by the name of Toby Jones as the colorful author. Prior to portraying Capote, Jones was arguably best known in this country for providing the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Infamous was adapted from George Plimpton’s book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1997). The film was written and directed by Midland’s own Douglas McGrath, the director of acclaimed adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma (1996), and Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby (2002); he was also Oscar nominated for co-writing Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Unfortunately, Infamous was not released until 2006 in order to avoid competing with the other author biopic. As such, it was hard for Jones and company to get any traction in the awards arena in light of Hoffman’s success. Nonetheless, my belief is that if Jones’s film had appeared on the scene before Hoffman’s did, the outcome of the Oscars would have been much different. I feel certain that Jones would have at least been nominated, and Hoffman might still be an Oscar hopeful rather than an Oscar winner.

Allow me to be perfectly frank: while I readily expected Hoffman to win the Oscar that year, he was in no way my personal pick. If I had been voting, I would have gone for Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Among the official nominees, my second choice would have been David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck; otherwise, I was also a great fan of Eric Bana’s taut, un-nominated performance in Best Picture contender, Munich as well as Nicolas Cage’s under-appreciated work in The Weatherman and/or Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener. For my money, Hoffman’s performance was too actorish and/or affected. I always felt like I was watching him putting on a show rather than inhabiting a role. Worse, and this is why Hoffman’s performances so often fail to impress this viewer, I just couldn’t escape the feeling that he was somehow judging his character.  My take has always been that Hoffman acts strictly from the head, and that he somehow believes he is better or smarter than the people he portrays. Coincidentally, this particular trait is often something about which Capote was accused regarding his own characters. Anyway, it was hard for me to feel anything for Capote as depicted by Hoffman.

British actor Toby Jones in Infamous

Toby Jones at least has the advantage of being more physically correct for the part of Truman Capote than is Hoffman. Of course, both actors have blondish hair, blue eyes, and bear a passable resemblance to the real Capote in close-ups, but Jones comes much closer to matching Truman Capote in the crucial area of height. Now, let me just state right here that I do not in any way think that Hoffman’s height should have been held against him as far as the Oscar goes; however, I also think it is important to understand that Truman Capote was not known as the “Tiny Terror” because he stood 5′ 9½” (which is Hoffman’s height, per the Internet Movie Database). No, Capote’s height–also per the IMDb–was a mere 5’3″; Jones’s height is officially recorded as 5’5″, which is still two inches taller than the real deal, but, believe me, he photographs–not only in this role, but almost everything in which I’ve seen him–as much, much smaller. There, I said it. If Toby Jones is 5’5″, I’m Julie Newmar. What is important is not so much that Jones is closer to Capote’s height than Hoffman is, but that Jones’ performance is rooted in Capote’s particular reality, that is, that Tru’s diminutive stature actually informed who he was as a person. In other words, he spent a lot of his life developing a scrappiness, and towering personality, to help compensate for what he lacked in heft. At the same time, he could just as easily use his shortness as a means of drawing attention to himself. Just think about all those times you saw Truman Capote on TV back in the 60s and 70s (maybe later…he died in 1984 at the age of 59). All that chutzpah is in Jones’s performance.

Beyond that particular consideration, there is the matter of the voice. In Infamous, “Gore Vidal” (meticulously played by Michael Payne) describes Capote’s voice, thusly: “To the lucky person who has never heard it, I can only say: imagine what a brussel sprout would sound like, if a brussel sprout could talk.” If that doesn’t work as a description for you, then try this. How about a lisping baby voice with a Southern drawl? Or maybe the love child of Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. Good enough?  Whatever is it is or was, it was uniquely Capote’s, and a voice one seldom hears in a grown man, and Jones pretty much nails it. Hoffman’s Capote voice had the effect of a stunt: it was inconsistent and the strain was apparent.  The voice that pours out of Jones seems organic. Of course, being a less familiar actor, he has a certain advantage of of having a less recognizable voice–but even I wasn’t prepared for the incredible difference between Jones’s actual voice and the one he uses in Infamous. (Please play the following clip from Hollywood One on One; btw, that should be Toby Jones, not Toby Keith–the famous country & western singer, lol.)

Of course, being able to replicate the voice–of anyone–could just as easily be the mark of a great impersonation rather than well rounded flesh and blood portrayal. Indeed, those in the pro-Hoffman camp insist that Jones’s performance works best as an impersonation, a party trick, and that Hoffman comes much closer to fully capturing Capote as both a man and a great  artist. I’m in the camp that sees the situation as nearly opposite.  Once again, I think everything Jones does seems to show exactly in what context Capote was received when he left his glittery New York social circle and plopped down in Holcomb, Kansas shortly after the November 1959 murders before any arrests had been made. At that time, the provincial community had just been rocked by a heinous crime, and neither the police nor the townspeople had any idea who the killer–or killers–might have been; therefore, they were quite likely to be reluctant, to say the least, to let down their guards and speak candidly to a strange little writer from New York City with a peculiar voice and an unorthodox flair for fashion. Through Jones’s scrupulous service to the material, McGrath is able to fully show what Capote was up against, in addition to how his determination and use of humor to disarm skeptics proved invaluable. After all, as the film initially demonstrates, Capote already had a knack for persuading his many socialite friends to open up and reveal their deepest secrets, thereby providing him endless sources of gossip. One of my favorite scenes in Infamous, rooted in fact, is a Christmas celebration in which Capote, accompanied by his longtime friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock–more on her later), cuts through all that midwestern reserve by dropping names (like Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, and Frank Sinatra) while spinning a wild yarn about his collection of shawls  and a dental emergency when working on a film in Italy.  Yes, y’all, it’s the real Truman show, all right.  In contrast, Hoffman’s Capote only comes across a tad off-center and even a little self conscious, but don’t take my word for it. Consider this quote from Rex Reed–who actually knew Capote–from the New York Observer: “They gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote. I do not begrudge the versatile, popular Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar for playing the tiny terror in Capote, but he was doing an impression. In Infamous, the second movie about the tortures that the literary sensation endured while writing his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a diminutive actor with a titanic talent named Toby Jones literally becomes the man himself. This is no lisping impersonation learned from watching old Johnny Carson shows: Mr. Jones moves into Truman’s skin, heart and brains. Infamous shows you the man’s soul. It is a monumental achievement of great artistry and depth. In some ways, the movie is better, too.”

Rex Reed writes of Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee: “…next to the shattering and sensitive central performance by Toby Jones, the biggest and most gratifying surprise in Infamous is Ms. Bullock.” He further adds that, “She paints a penetrating portrait of the ultimate loner, sharing so much with her idol while gallantly keeping her own sense and sensibility to herself.”

As fine as he is, Jones isn’t  the sole reason for seeing Infamous. McGrath has assembled a marvelous cast to stand-in for Capote’s famous coterie of friends. For example, Sigourney Weaver is just about perfect as Babe Paley. It’s not a showy role, but Weaver reportedly did her homework and incorporates some of Paley’s mannerisms into her characterization. Not only that, the statuesque Weaver seems an ideal choice to play the eternal and much rhapsodized over fashion plate, a 1958 inductee into the Fashion Hall of Fame; moreover, there is a certain irresistible symmetry in casting Weaver, daughter of  innovative NBC president Pat Weaver, to play the wife of longtime CBS president William S. Paley, n’est-ce pas? Even better is frequent McGrath player Juliet Stevenson as influential fashion editor Diana Vreeland (first at Harper’s Bazaar, then at Vogue).  Stevenson is an absolute howl when she delivers a monologue about how much she detests the word “eccentric,” and she evinces a mighty fine train wreck when dramatically yet awkwardly demonstrating the popular “Twist” dance craze. Perhaps best of all is Sandra Bullock  as Harper Lee, a brilliant author in her own right as well as Capote’s best friend from childhood. Indeed, Capote is well known as the inspiration for the character of Dil in Lee’s Pulitzer winner To Kill a Mockingbird, which is being prepped for publication when the film begins. Bullock’s Lee is, in a word, solid: warm, gracious, down-to-earth, and the ideal candidate to help keep Capote grounded in uncomfortable situations, such as his initial visit to Kansas. Bullock is glammed-down for the role, with a short unfussy “do” and clothes that seem drab compared to the likes of Vreeland and Paley, but she’s still recognizable as good ole Sandy Bullock, so there is relievedly no distracting transformation to sway focus. Furthermore, she wisely underplays this wonderfully written role–always there to tell Truman the truth no matter what–and the result is nothing but charming, seemingly effortlessly so, but it’s charm with substance. This is simply one of the most stunning things Bullock has ever done, and, here again, I say that Bullock’s interpretation of Harper Lee is unquestionably an improvement over the bitter sourpuss presented by Best Supporting Actress nominee Catherine Keener in Capote.  I can’t imagine that that woman could ever write two sentences anyone would want to read, let alone one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century. I also want to give a great big shout-out to Plano native and recent Tony winner John Benjamin Hickey* in the mostly thankless role of Capote’s longtime companion, Jack Dunphy.

The real Perry Smith (l) and Truman Capote (r) as photographed by Richard Avedon for a piece that eventually appeared in Life magazine.

Infamous is not without its shortcomings, the most notable being an obviously miscast Daniel Craig in the crucial role of Perry Smith. The problem is not so much that Craig is famously sandy haired and blue eyed, and that Smith was both dark haired and dark-eyed. Hair dye and colored contacts take care of all that, but Craig’s hair looks like it’s been shoe-polished more than anything else. There is also something wrong with Craig’s hunky hulking presence, the way the mere sight of him overwhelms tiny Truman even though all the evidence pretty well proves that Smith was much closer to Capote’s own diminutive size. On the DVD commentary, McGrath tries to explain away the discrepancy by pointing out that the role was originally to have been played by Mark Wahlberg (who would have been perfect), but a scheduling conflict forced the director to look elsewhere–and that elsewhere was no less than Mark Ruffalo (who also would have been perfect), but that also did not work, so Craig was a rather last minute choice. Well, good for him for coming on board so late in the game (before he was announced as the most recent James Bond). That noted, I do wish McGrath had at least taken a meeting with Giovanni Ribisi before allowing Craig to sign on the dotted line.  Certainly, hiring an actor with Craig’s imposing build provides a menacing touch, which is somewhat effective though misleading to those unfamiliar with the particulars of the case.  For example, in the 1967 adaptation of In Cold Blood, Smith was played by 5’4″ Robert Blake. Furthermore, Smith was played by Clifton Collins Jr. in Capote, and, for better or worse, he seemed more evenly matched with Hoffman. All those misgivings about Craig aside, the actor surely deserves props for being an incredibly game actor and trying hard in a role for which he is entirely unsuited. Interestingly, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in Infamous, which, surprisingly, is an honor that Collins cannot also claim.

I’ll leave it to the various bloggers, scholars, Wikipedians, and even Rex Reed to debate the historical accuracy of both Capote and Infamous. The former seems to take a rather cynical viewpoint, suggesting that Truman Capote was a manipulative bastard whose artistic ambitions got the best of him. Infamous is arguably much more forgiving though it has also been rebuked for taking liberties regarding the specific–intimate–nature of Capote’s relationship with Smith, including at least one ugly, unfortunate encounter. That noted, McGrath’s audio commentary provides a lot of insight into some of the choices he made, detailing his own research and explaining how many of the sequences in the film have at least some factual basis. One such example is the comic effect of seeing Jones’s Capote decked out in jeans and a ridiculous cowboy hat as a means to blend in with the Kansas folk and invite their trust, all of which McGrath insists is quite true. You’ll also have to draw your own conclusions about the opening scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a torchy nightclub singer who warbles “What is this Thing Called Love?” When McGrath describes the point he wants to make with the scene, it makes sense, but the work should really speak for itself.

Winning a Best Actor Oscar didn’t catapult Philip Seymour Hoffman into major league stardom. Oh sure, he works regularly, but his most acclaimed performances are mostly in secondary roles, hence his Best Supporting Actor nominations for 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War and 2008’s Doubt (though in the case of the latter, he could have just as easily been promoted as a leading player). Meanwhile, Jones’s sole honor for his outstanding work in Infamous was to be named British Actor of the Year via the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Definitely an honor. Definitely better than nothing. Likewise, Jones has landed some high profile gigs since Infamous, including playing Irving “Swifty” Lazar in Frost/Nixon and Karl Rove in W. Not bad. He can also be seen in this summer’s super hero pic, Captain America, and will appear in next year’s hot, hot, hot, The Hunger Games (based on the best selling novel series by Suzanne Collins), but why wait when you can watch Infamous now? If you haven’t seen either Capote biopic, start with Infamous. If you have seen only Capote, you owe it to yourself to watch Infamous. If you saw Capote after Hoffman won the Oscar, and you thought, “What the heck was that all about,” then you really need to watch Infamous. Really.

Thanks for your consideration…

For Rex Reed’s full review of Infamous, please click on the link below:

http://www.observer.com/2006/10/that-gal-from-speed-drives-truman-take-2/

To read more about Infamous in the New York Times, please click on the following link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/14/movies/14infa.html?ref=douglasmcgrath

To find Earl Steinbicker’s account of assisting Richard Avedon at the time of In Cold Blood, please click on this link:

http://assistingavedon.typepad.com/assisting-avedon/2009/09/in-cold-blood.html

* Hickey won Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured role for the 2011 revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

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