Just as you're bemoaning the lack of films about the writer Truman Capote, two come along… like buses. A year ago, we had Bennett Miller's Capote, which explores the writer's creative and personal trauma due to the composition of his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Now we have Douglas McGrath's Infamous, which explores the writer's creative and personal trauma due to etc, etc… In DVD reviews on this site we have a category 'similar releases', and there will probably never be a better example of congruency in this respect than Capote to Infamous. Not only are they both about Capote, but they also deal with exactly the same slice of his life.
But then again there are marked dissimilarities - at least to begin with. Whilst Capote gave us a taste of the man as raconteur and party animal, Infamous goes much deeper into this, with many scenes of celebrity New York socializing, gushings of bon mots and aphorisms, all delivered in an upbeat, frothy and colourful style. As we know, Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for Capote, with a portrayal that would seem definitive and unassailable. Not so. Toby Jones comes at the man from a very different angle to Hoffman, using the advantage of being five feet nothing like the real Capote, so that he looks striking in long shot, cowering below his fellow actors like a sweet-voiced overgrown baby. Jones' Capote is much more eccentric, more exuberant, more impulsive, more… gay. In fact, he reminds me of Damon Beesley in Extras, whom Andy Millman describes as 'too gay'.
This Capote is certainly too gay for Kansas. When he turns up in the blank, empty streets of Holcomb to report on the Clutter murders, wearing a fur-trimmed coat and a flowing scarf, the locals can't even believe he's male and mistake him for a woman. The outrageous campness he displays when he first meets straightlaced lawman Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) makes their eventual friendship seem implausible, and these same scenes are much better handled in Capote, where mutual respect between the two men is quickly established. In Infamous, Capote wins over the Dewey clan by spinning yarns of arm-wrestling matches with Humphrey Bogart. It kind of works in its own strange way.
Capote needs Dewey in order to gain access to those involved in the murders, and when the culprits - Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) - are captured, the story narrows and the two films inevitably converge much more. In Cold Blood is developing as a new kind of reportage, where events are seen from the inside, so Capote has to befriend the two killers so he can extract their points of view. Hickock opens up readily, but Smith is recalcitrant, and the way Capote teases him into co-operation becomes the central theme of Infamous… as indeed it is of Capote…
In this version, Capote uses a Hannibal Lecteresque quid pro quo method, trading stories of parental desertion and childhood unhappiness with Smith. Only hinted at in Capote, their amorous relationship is here made manifest. In these scenes, Daniel Craig's performance as Perry Smith is intriguing. He comes to the role full of Bond baggage, but makes good as it develops, convincingly showing Smith's intellectual seriousness and his well-founded suspicions of Capote's motives. Smith himself was small, like Capote, so the physical scenes between the burly Craig and diminutive Jones strike an odd note. And Craig's carefully honed body, so obviously the product of state-of-the-art workout techniques, at times seems as glaringly out of period as would silicone breasts.
Based on George Plimpton's book about the writer, which uses many celebrity interviews to create the portrait, Infamous has those same figures talking as if in interview, against a schematic Manhattan skyline, adding a montage element to the straight narrative. Amongst others, we see Harper Lee, very well realised by Sandra Bullock, Gore Vidal (Michael Panes) and Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver). The technique works well, and when we reach the endgame, and Capote is drained of his exuberance, it adds an extra edge. Finally Jones is as good as ever in showing Capote's deflation and pain, and the fact that this film is unequivocally a love story makes it perhaps more poignant in the last stages than Capote. Nominate him for an Oscar!
So is Infamous as good a film as Capote? Not quite, I'd say. But in the race for best Capote film, it certainly comes a very close and worthy second. I wonder whom we'll get next to play Capote…? Short actors with cherubic faces and high-pitched voices please form an orderly queue.