Program Notes: Infamous (2006)

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Within the space of 12 months in 2005 and 2006 we got two movies about writer Truman Capote and the infamous Clutter family murders in Kansas.

The first out of the gate was Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. He won the best actor Oscar for his work in the film. It was a big hit.

By the time Infamous hit screens a year later, we’d been there and done that. Infamous died a quick death at the box office.

Which is too bad, because it’s a pretty good movie with a performance by Brit actor Toby Jones as Capote that should have earned him an Oscar nomination. He’s as good as Hoffman ... maybe better.

Toss into the mix Sandra Bullock, giving the best work of her career as Capote confidante Nelle Harper Lee, plus several delicious supporting performances, and you have a very good movie.

Film Screening:
Infamous (2006)
Monday, Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

And, weirdly enough, a movie that is sort of a funhouse mirror reflection of the Hoffman film.

Written and directed by Douglas McGrath (the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma) Infamous begins with Capote listening to a New York nightclub chanteuse (a cameo by Paltrow) and getting all choked up by her emotional delivery. This sets up one of McGrath’s big themes, the superficial, backbiting, gossiping world that Capote left behind when he came to Kansas.

Then the film shifts to a series of talking-head interviews with the writer’s acquaintances.

Juliet Stevenson is hysterically affected as Park Avenue socialite Diana Vreeland. Bullock’s spotlight-shunning Lee relates to the camera a heartbreaking childhood story about the young Truman. Gore Vidal (Michael Panes) struggles to describe Capote’s voice, finally asking the unseen interviewer to imagine what a brussels sprout would sound like.

It’s interesting to compare the two Capotes. Hoffman is a big man who somehow made himself small and elfin for the role. Watching Hoffman, you were constantly amazed at how well he was pulling it off.

Jones, on the other hand, bears an uncanny resemblance to Capote. He sinks so completely into the character that you’re never aware you’re watching somebody act.

Infamous has a terrific first hour as the screamingly East Coast (and obviously gay) Truman struggles to fit in with the residents of a small Kansas town in the early ‘60s rocked by multiple murders.

In a bid to beef up his manliness quotient Capote begins dropping references to the time he arm-wrestled (and beat) Humphrey Bogart.

Kansas cop Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels, excellent as ever) is impressed by the boast but doesn’t quite believe it ... until Capote pins his arm to the table. After that moment of macho bonding a friendship is born and the bemused Dewey starts sharing police information with the cartoon-voiced writer.

These fish-out-of-water passages are often laugh-out-loud funny, providing an airy counterpoint to the horrible crime that has brought Capote and Lee to the windswept plains. But once the film moves into its second act with the arrests and convictions of killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, it loses momentum.

The Truman Capote of Capote was a scheming, Machiavellian manipulator who wormed his way into the graces of the condemned Smith and then found himself in writer’s limbo, unable to complete his book until the two killers went to the gallows.

McGrath and Jones give us a much less determined Capote, one who doesn’t so much make things happen as has things happen to him. This is nowhere clearer than in his relationship with Smith, portrayed by Daniel Craig (the film was released just a month before Craig made his debut as the latest James Bond).

The film suggests that Capote was pulled into a chaste love affair with Smith (they share a passionate/violent onscreen kiss) that ended only with the killer’s execution.

In Capote Smith was portrayed by Clifton Collins, Jr. as a naïve, artistically ambitious manchild. But Craig seems to have based his Perry Smith on two popular ’50s icons – the leather-jacketed, duck-tailed young hood and the sensitive, painfully misunderstood teen represented by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

But the writer’s moral dilemma, so sharply delineated in Capote, seems blurred in Infamous, leaving the latter stages of this film feeling tentative and unfocused.

Here’s a thought ... why not combine the first half of Infamous with the second half of Capote?

OK, that’s not going to happen.

But whatever minor quibbles one may have with this film, there is no getting around the excellence of Jones’ performance. It’s flabbergasting.

Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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