Rooting for the underdog. It’s a common practice in both life and fantasy. If we are indeed compassionate human beings, then seeing a person or group face insurmountable odds will make us stand up and cheer. Do it for me. Do it for yourself. A common complaint amongst cinephiles and movie buffs is the lack of advancement for character actors. Sure, many work steadily, more than a lot of legitimate movie stars, but as is often the case, many of these performers steal the show in their relatively few scenes. So why aren’t they headlining their own movies? Some of them get that opportunity, often in very low-budget indie films because financiers need a name to guarantee a return on their investment. They aren’t willing to put up great sums of money on movies starring Lili Taylor, Amy Madigan, 'famous character actress' Margo Martindale, M. Emmet Walsh, James Rebhorn, Harry Dean Stanton, or Charles Durning. These are/were great, great actors and there are too many others to name. It’s not often, but sometimes a character actor who is always wonderful in just about everything he/she does gets the chance to step up. This is their moment to shine and we don’t want them to blow it.
The raw power of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talent was undeniable. Although blessed and cursed with a pudgy frame and a pasty visage, he could play both vulnerable and sweet or harsh and malevolent. Even a glance at his mere 65 credits on IMDB reveal a plethora of varied roles that utilized his considerable ability to fully embody a character. One of his most unapologetic performances was in Todd Solondz’s masterpiece Happiness (1998). Even though he doesn’t deserve it, you want him to find some semblance of happiness. This was an ensemble piece (with Dylan Baker giving a career-best performance) for sure, but he always found a way to stick out in the best possible fashion. One thing is certain, he was distinctive and always a scene-stealer. I saw Hard Eight/Sidney (1996) before he had truly broken out, and while it’s not my favorite P.T. Anderson film, I remember thinking the scene between Philip Baker Hall and that crass craps player was really good. Like, who was that guy? There’s no need to list his resume, but my personal favorites include largely independent films like The Talented Mr. Ripley, 25th Hour, State and Main, Magnolia, and arguably the career-making Boogie Nights, with a performance that manages to stand apart even when most of the other actors are giving some of their best work. The Big Lebowski is certainly a big one now, but even in silly fare like Twister and Patch Adams, he simply could not NOT be good. Anyone who was even remotely interested in cool indie flicks knew that this guy was an awesome actor but didn’t necessarily know his name. For me, I knew who he was and always wanted him to succeed. That was the kind of sympathy he exuded. One thing in particular I wanted to see was a genuine starring role. Something that revolved around him. Sure, Owning Mahoney and Love Liza were good but they were dark dramas, something in which Hoffman excelled. I don’t want to sound as though these were easy roles, far from it, but Hoffman had the unique ability to play both drama and comedy equally well, often within the same scene. These films lacked a certain dynamism. His talent with comedy and drama would serve him quite well in the role that would change everything.
I remember hearing that back in their NYU Tisch days, the three main architects of Capote (2005): director Bennett Miller, writer Dan Futterman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, said if any of them ever won an Academy Award, their entire speech would be delivered in dog barks. Of course, if that had happened, Hoffman may have been remembered more as that wacko who barked into a microphone and not as one of the most sure thing Best Actor winners in Academy history. On the red carpet, when discussing the odds, one reporter said, “Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the performance of his career. He should win and he will win.” I was still nervous for him that night, but no need. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007), there was an inevitability to the Oscar win. There are way too many precursor awards, but the boatload of honors he received for playing Truman Capote during the years he researched his seminal book In Cold Blood was an indication that he should probably not skip the Oscar ceremony.
For Hoffman’s very first scene, you notice two very important things. His remarkably slimmed-down frame, but even more so, that voice. If you’ve ever heard Hoffman in an interview or more likely in almost any other movie, he has a deep, almost bass-like voice. His embodiment of Capote’s unforgettable nasal whine is nothing short of breathtaking. Watch Murder by Death (1976) or any of the myriad interviews Capote gave and you’ll see he possessed a voice like no other. There’s an artistry to doing an extreme voice that isn’t your own and there are absolutely zero moments in the movie where you don’t believe that this is indeed Truman Capote’s voice. The movie even dares to include a photo of the real Capote very briefly, but it’s no distraction from Hoffman’s mesmerizing work. To put it simply, you believe. Although Capote is a cold and often dark drama, it’s also immensely funny. Capote was a brilliant raconteur and Hoffman excels at being the center of attention, extolling on his writing philosophies and telling ribald and racy stories to the shock and delight of his hip New York circle of friends.
I’m sure I was told in high school that Harper Lee based the character of Dill Harris in To Kill A Mockingbird on her childhood friend Truman Capote, but I guess I wasn’t paying attention. This revelation was such a treat on my first watch. In their first scene together, it’s obvious that Hoffman and Catherine Keener (playing Lee) have great chemistry. She sees right through his ruse of bribing the baggage handler to compliment him on his fine literary work. They’re on their way to Holcomb, Kansas where Truman is writing a New Yorker piece on the murder of the Clutter family.
Hoffman’s Capote is a mess of contradictions. Deeply insecure but also wildly confident. He has a steely determination to get what he wants and very little regard for the feelings of others. Self-involved to the point of tuning other people’s voices out, he also has no qualms about lying, cheating, or manipulating his subjects to get what he needs. We witness firsthand his ability to read people and tell them what they need to hear, as in the case of the best friend of the Clutter's daughter, who gives Capote and Lee a diary after he explains that he also feels different and is an outsider. It’s a calculated move, one he repeats as he digs further into his investigation and subsequent interview with one of the family’s murderers. Near the end of the film, his own self-loathing bubbles to the surface, causing him to retreat into himself, a sharp contrast to the social butterfly from earlier in the narrative.
There’s a wonderful subtlety to the culture clash scenes when Truman arrives in Holcomb. Lead investigator Alvin Dewey (played by another Oscar-winning character actor who broke through, Chris Cooper), is at first bewildered by this odd little man. As his assistant stares, Capote indicates his scarf is from “Bergdorf’s.” Truman makes it very clear that he has no interest in the solving of the crime, leading the plain-spoken and gruff Dewey to say that he does care about solving the crime. Dewey has no patience for a hotshot reporter from New York and will not be extending any special treatment. They’re invited to the press conference with everyone else, allowing another officer to get a very amusing one-up on Capote by indicating his hat and saying, “Sears-Roebuck.”
If this was the role that catapulted Hoffman to the next level of stardom, this movie is also responsible for introducing Clifton Collins Jr. to the movie-going public as well. He had been in several big projects up to this point, including a memorable role as a filthy but very devious hit man in Traffic (2000). Although Keener was nominated for an Oscar, Collins Jr. is the other great performance of the film. As Perry Smith, previously played by (alleged) murderer Robert Blake in Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967, a fine film that is probably best remembered for Conrad Hall’s cinematography, particularly a rainy scene where the droplets reflect on Blake’s face, mimicking tears), he has a coiled, cobra-like intensity coupled with a soft voice and intelligent demeanor. A great deal of the movie is just Truman and Perry talking. Collins is so good at putting up an impenetrable wall that the cat-and-mouse game Hoffman plays in order to find out about the murders is fascinating.
Who would have thought Val Goldman was such a good writer? I only knew Dan Futterman from his work as Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s son in The Birdcage, but his Oscar-nominated script is masterful in its depiction of Capote’s reckoning with his own humanity. The film pulls no punches and doesn’t let Truman off the hook, either. The screenplay refuses to allow him any catharsis after the execution of Perry and his partner Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). When he tells Lee over the phone that “There wasn’t anything I could do to save them,” Lee replies, “Maybe not. The fact is you didn’t want to.” Earlier he tells both men that he “did everything I could.” The fact is, he didn’t. After Perry finally reveals how the murders were committed, Truman disappears to finish the book, although he claims to Perry that he’s hardly written a word. The script thankfully never spells this out, but now Capote is practically hoping that they are executed, experiencing extreme bouts of depression as they receive multiple stays of execution. He’s not worried whether they will die. He worries they’ll be freed or indefinitely incarcerated and he won’t be able to finish his book. Futterman’s greatest strength is portraying the dichotomy of Capote’s character. On the one hand, he presents himself as Perry’s friend and protector, but he also has zero interest in Perry once he’s gotten the goods. As he puts it, Perry Smith is “a gold mine.”
Director Bennett Miller had only directed one documentary prior to his Oscar-nominated work here. As he would prove later with Moneyball (2011) and Foxcatcher (2014), he’s adept at tackling complex stories about people who strive for something and ultimately face the risk of destroying themselves. His direction here is sure-handed, if somewhat static. There’s a spare use of handheld shots and he goes for a more muted look and tone, which could even come off as boring were it not for the performances and the compelling nature of the story. Using Harper Lee’s publication and subsequent movie adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird is a brilliant stroke that never feels lazily written or forced. His depiction of late 50’s/early 60’s New York is especially realistic and vibrant by not being overly stylish. Cigarettes turn to ash and drinks flow while people chatter on in tight hallways and corridors. One of the finest scenes is the public reading to a packed audience Truman gives in New York. The passages he reads are haunting and you can hear a pin drop. Backstage, it’s back to being the life of the party for Truman, as if he just read off the funny pages. A man comes in and states that his depiction of the Perry and Dick was “terrifying.” Truman happily takes it as a compliment as he holds court, then after the man leaves has great fun at his expense.
The brutality of the murders is shown in quick flashes. It’s actually unexpected since the movie has such a refined quality about it during the Holcomb scenes. Miller’s decision to allow just enough of the violence to be shown on-camera before cutting away heightens the impact and weight of what Smith did. In one of the final scenes, which was probably the linchpin for Hoffman’s Oscar win, he tearfully says goodbye to Perry and Dick. The hard reality comes crashing down when Truman, ever the talker, tries to speak further but is interrupted by the warden and taken out. This may be apocryphal, but I heard a story that this was the last scene to be shot and once it was completed, Hoffman never used the Capote voice again.
Miller surrounds Hoffman with some of the best character actors in the business. Chris Cooper is fine as usual, but there’s also great work from an unrecognizable Amy Ryan as Cooper’s wife, Bob Balaban as his publisher, the always reliable Marshall Bell as the warden, and Bruce Greenwood as Truman’s longtime partner. These actors provide an abundance of richness to the proceedings and lend an air of grounded reality to contrast nicely with Truman’s outsized personality.
The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman still boggles the mind. His output after Capote showed that he could reach even greater heights. He would receive three more Oscar nominations and most of his work up until his death reads as some of the best work of the new millennium. The only solace one can take is that he didn’t waste the time he had on this Earth and that film is, once again, forever.