OSCARS....more meaning and history
The Sunday Times
The Truman show
Ahead of Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated biopic, Bryan Appleyard explores the mythology surrounding the ‘nonfiction novelist’ Capote
“Anything becomes interesting,” said Gustave Flaubert, “if you look at it long enough.”
It could have been Truman Capote’s motto. He spent six years looking at the murder, in November 1959, of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, by two passing hoodlums, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Finally, as Smith and Hickock were executed in 1965, he published his account of the whole story, In Cold Blood. It sold, and still sells, millions. But Holcomb also seems to have passed a death sentence on Capote. His next book — the unfinished novel Answered Prayers — was minor in comparison and alienated all his New York friends with its lacerating description of their lives. He produced nothing further of substance. He died in 1984 of pills and alcohol. Possibly it was suicide.
Capote was short — 5ft 3in — and spoke in a strange, high-pitched Southern accent. He was a wildly camp gay who effortlessly held whole parties in thrall with his anecdotal brilliance and cool outrageousness. I have always remembered one story about him, which I hope is true. At the height of his fame, a lady spotted him in a restaurant, rushed over and asked him to autograph her breast. Capote did so. Her husband, incensed, strode over, took out his penis and suggested Capote might like to autograph that too.
“Well,” responded Capote, “perhaps I could initial it...”
Such a man invites myth. As with many, many modern literary outsiders — Wilde, Salinger, Kerouac, Burroughs, Pirsig — the mystery and meaning of the life seem to tower over the work.
In Capote’s case, the myth pivots on the strange, central contrast between the camp, New York party animal, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the macabre austerity of that Kansas killing in the midst of the kind of flat, empty landscape that makes coastal dwellers shudder.
“The village of Holcomb,” runs the famous first sentence of In Cold Blood, “stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.” This location is doubly remote. Kansas, to Capote’s prime readership, is already “out there”, but Holcomb is exiled yet further into the emptiness. And then there is the final “out there”, the ultimate badlands, the minds of Smith and Hickock: drifters, loners, killers.
Bennett Miller’s film Capote — up for five Oscars including best film, best director and best actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman — hinges on this contrast. It tells the story of the writing of In Cold Blood, showing Capote at New York parties and in Kansas, exploring the bleak badlands of the killers’ minds. It shows him as morally dubious — he wants the men to die so he can finish his book, but he pretends otherwise — and intellectually cold. But, equally, it is an admiring film. The sheer effort and focus of Capote at work is overpowering, and the greatness of the finished book is never questioned.
Oddly, this film seems to have temporarily buried another on the same subject. Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, with Toby Jones as Capote and Sandra Bullock as his friend Harper Lee, has been completed but has, as yet, no release date. Plainly Capote is on the agenda. Why?
Partly, I suspect, because the mythologising impulse has exhausted the 1960s and has taken one further step backwards in time. Dylan, for example, has been done and so we get Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Similarly, we have had Hunter S Thompson, so perhaps now it’s time for Jack Kerouac — and, indeed, Walter Salles’s film On the Road is due out next year. (Capote, incidentally, said Kerouac’s work was typing, not writing; to which one critic responded that Capote’s was not writing but research.EDITOR'S NOTE: GIRLS GIRLS...YOU'RE BOTH LOVELY!) The post-war era has begun to take on a distinct, self-contained reality, perhaps because it’s over; a series of apparently clear plot lines has begun to emerge and, in our imaginations, we are trying to make sense of them.
But Capote is not a line, he is a node, a crossing point. An outsider from the first, he arrived in New York from the South with his mother and stepfather in 1933. He was never anything but obviously gay and seldom less than brilliant.
A school IQ test is said to have registered a figure of 215, which is highly unlikely and probably impossible. His education was interrupted and incomplete, but, in later interviews, his list of literary heroes is prodigiously long and his critical awareness acute. Flaubert comes up again and again.
In the 1940s, he made his way to The New Yorker magazine and started producing admired fiction, which, with Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958 (filmed with Audrey Hepburn in 1961), also became popular fiction. He was already famous when he boarded the train to Kansas, having spotted the story of the Clutter killings in The New York Times.
In Cold Blood was a sensation, selling millions but also earning Capote fabulous literary acclaim. Norman Mailer called him “the most perfect writer of my generation” and went on to write his own In Cold Blood in the form of The Executioner’s Song (1979), about the execution of Gary Gilmore in another “out there” remote and alien American landscape, Utah. Capote didn’t return the compliment, regarding Mailer’s use of researchers to do the legwork with disdain. The reviews of In Cold Blood were largely raves and generally accepting of Capote’s own analysis that this “nonfiction novel” represented a major literary breakthrough, comparable to the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses.
“The motivating factor in my choice of material,” he said in an interview with George Plimpton, “that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case, was altogether literary. The decision was based upon a theory I’ve harboured since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel’, as I thought of it.” EDITOR'S NOTE: AND IN 2006, REPORTERS DON'T BOTHER WITH FACTS AT ALL. IS THIS FULL CIRCLE? CAPOTE'S THEORIES TAKEN TO THEIR ILLOGICAL EXTREME?
On the one hand, he suavely accepted the literary applause for this innovation and, in interviews, attempted to cement his place in world literature with strings of literary references. On the other hand, he also celebrated publication with what was said to be the party of the century, the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel.
The disjunction — between the high life and the life of the mind — is the same as that between Kansas and New York. Capote had introduced the provincial macabre, the contemporary American Gothic, into the salons and the suburbs. In doing this, he had taken the temperature of his age with superb acuity. Throughout the 1950s, unease had been growing beneath the glossy veneer of American affluence. Terrors, from nuclear war to communists and aliens, were thought to lurk beneath the manicured lawns of suburbia. Something was wrong. In Cold Blood condensed such anxieties into one image — a meaningless killing — and into one place, a part of America itself.
The effect of this idea, the frisson of contact with inexplicable evil and violence, can scarcely be overstated. Books and films about real crimes from the Boston Strangler to the Yorkshire Ripper are all descended from In Cold Blood. Andy Warhol’s images of car crashes and electric chairs emerged from the same impulse — and, indeed, this weirdly affected provincial gay had much in common with Capote.
In Cold Blood provided a new legitimation for our eternal fascination with the macabre. Like the medieval dance of death, it told us that beneath our comforts lay this other, darker world where all our vanities come to nothing. The contemporary belief — demonstrated in works such as American Psycho or any of the more serious serial-killer movies — that appalling violence tells us some truth about ourselves and who or what we are stems directly from Capote’s one masterpiece.
Furthermore, in elevating journalism to the level of literary fiction, the book was the supreme text of the New Journalism movement, which began with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and continues, in somewhat attenuated form, to this day in the interminably long, moody pieces that fill the smarter American magazines. Capote rightly pointed out that his own method of completely removing himself from the story and using fictional techniques was, in fact, quite different from the methods of the journalists. Nevertheless, the message that reality was potentially a better basis for extended prose narrative than fiction was to swell many a young hack’s chest.
All of which largely explains the potency of Capote as man and myth. He was himself disjunct, and he embodied the disjunctions of contemporary life. But a great writer? Well, he might have been. In Cold Blood is a brilliant piece of work, but it is not Ulysses, and, more to the point, it isn’t the Beckett trilogy, the Updike tetralogy, Herzog or Lolita, either. It may be among the top 50 post-war prose narratives, but it’s not among the top 10. EDITOR'S NOTE: ALWAYS NECESSARY TO WHIP EM OUT AND MEASURE EM, HUH?
It is the work of a brilliantly intelligent, hugely conscientious man with a great idea, but also of a man whose art had yet to mature. His cool, superbly detached, mandarin prose is beloved of reading groups and college courses, but it always gives you slightly less than you expect, rather than more. EDITOR'S NOTE: MAYBE THE FAULT IS YOUR EXPECTATIONS (HARUMPH). In Cold Blood leaves you bereft, as perhaps it should, but Capote repeats the same trick of a concluding emptiness a little too often. His 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando is often praised as one of the summits of his journalistic art, but, in truth, it’s wordy, it doesn’t really engage with Brando at all and ends with a patent cop-out — “A deity, yes; but, more than that, really, just a young man sitting on a pile of candy.” The smart, partytime giggle is just too close to the surface here.
My own theory about all this, for what it’s worth, is that Flaubert is the key. Capote is overwhelmingly known for one book, which, like Madame Bovary, took six years to write. Like Flaubert, he was obsessed with absolute realism and its expression in immaculate, high-style prose. Both writers regarded the provincial and the banal with fascinated dismay, and both loved to shock the bourgeoisie with the unblinking clarity of their gaze. Both moved on from their masterpieces to social comedies — Bouvard et Pécuchet and Answered Prayers. Both identified themselves with female heroines. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” said Flaubert, and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was, everybody agreed, plainly the young Capote in New York. EDITOR'S NOTE: I'D NEVER HEARD THAT. JUST A WEE BIT CREEPY?
Most importantly, both had a profound faith in the truth. For Capote, the facts of the Clutter killings served to provide a rigid frame for his words and his imagination. Similarly, for Flaubert, the minutely observed, suffocating facts of contemporary existence contained and fanned the flames of his prose. “Of all lies, art is the least untrue,” said Flaubert. It is exactly what Capote would have said. No, it is exactly what he meant.
Capote the myth is gigantic, undeniable. Capote the writer is a failed Flaubert. It’s not a bad thing to be — you could, at a pinch, say the same about all novelists except Tolstoy — yet it’s not what he’s thought to be. Looking at the life, however, I suspect that knowing he was not Flaubert explains a great deal more than is generally realised. EDITOR'S NOTE: BAH HUMBUG, TO YOU TOO, EBENEEZER!
Truman Capote loved movies - watching them and writing them, if not acting in them. What would he have made of the new film depicting the writing of In Cold Blood, asks his biographer Gerald Clarke
Saturday February 25, 2006
Like all American writers, Truman Capote loved the movies. But Capote's relationship with films was, from an early age, unusually intimate. It began in the years just before the second world war when he led his teenage friends on weekend expeditions to the Pickwick Theater in Greenwich, Connecticut. Emboldened - and perhaps inspired - by hidden bottles of sweet brandy, they took vigorous part in the on-screen drama, laughing when they were supposed to cry, crying when they were supposed to laugh, and, until they were kicked out by angry ushers, substituting their own dialogue for the words coming out of the actors' mouths.
A little over a decade later, in the early 1950s, Capote was the one putting the words into those mouths. Living in Italy with his companion, Jack Dunphy, he was recruited by David O Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind, to write some new lines for Montgomery Clift and Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones, to speak in Indiscretion of an American Wife, a film Selznick was making in Rome with Vittorio De Sica, one of the masters of Italian neo-realism.
Capote's contribution to that awkwardly titled film was small, but Selznick was so impressed by his innovative dialogue that he recommended him to John Huston, who was about to direct his own movie in Italy. "His is, in my opinion, one of the freshest and most original and most exciting writing talents of our time," Selznick wrote to Huston. "And what he would say through these characters, and how he would have them say it, would be so completely different from anything that has been heard from a motion picture theatre's sound box as to also give you something completely fresh - or so at least I think."
The making of Beat the Devil could make a movie itself - and someday probably will. The backdrop of the Amalfi coast in chilly February. A cast that includes Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida and Robert Morley. And Capote, wearing an overcoat that fell almost to his ankles, with a long lavender scarf flapping behind it, rushing down to the set every morning with dialogue he had spent the night writing. But Selznick was right. Capote did provide the movie's characters with words that were completely fresh. For me, and for many others, Beat the Devil is a small comic masterpiece, as original now as it was in 1953. EDITOR'S NOTE: I DON'T BELIEVE IT...A HUMPHREY BOGART FILM THAT I'VE NEVER SEEN! WOW! MUST GO OUT AND RENT THIS IMMEDIATELY!
In the years that followed, Capote wrote other screenplays, most notably The Innocents (1961), which was an adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. By the mid-1970s, Capote and his idiosyncrasies - his childlike voice and his flamboyant personality - were so famous that Neil Simon modelled a comic villain after him in his mystery farce, Murder by Death (1976). When the time came to cast the film, one of Simon's colleagues had an inspiration. Instead of getting someone like Truman Capote to play the villain, he asked, why not get Truman Capote himself?
Capote was thrilled. All American writers may love the movies, but how many of them are given a chance to star in one? The excitement soon evaporated, and, when I visited him on the set in Burbank, California, Capote was miserable - anxious and exhausted. Acting, as he should have known, requires unseemly early hours, hard work and a talent he did not possess. When the cameras rolled, Truman Capote was not a very good Truman Capote. EDITOR'S NOTE: A LESSON I LEARNED IN ONE OF MY FEW DIRECTORIAL ESCAPADES; SOME PEOPLE CAN'T ACT. NOT EVEN TO ACT AS THEMSELVES.
After Capote's death in 1984, a few more Capote-like characters wafted across the screen. He is an irresistible subject for scriptwriters, but few of them have looked beyond his peculiarities; until now they have turned him into a parody of the man I wrote about. The Truman Capote I knew was more than a collection of witticisms and effeminate gestures. He was, in fact, the most complicated and contradictory person I've ever met.
"I won't respect you unless you tell the whole truth," Capote told me when I began my biography, and I followed his directive as best I could, giving a full account of his faults as well as his virtues. The whole truth is what I wanted in any movie made of his life. And that was my chief concern when Danny Futterman first approached me with a draft of his script and introduced me to the team who were to create a movie based on my biography.
Futterman and Bennett Miller, Capote's director, have known each other since they were boys of 12 in the northern suburbs of New York. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Capote, became their friend a few years later at a summer drama camp. Until I met them I didn't know such institutions existed. When other boys were batting balls or shooting baskets, Futterman, Miller and Hoffman were learning how to be actors, directors, and scriptwriters - the Hardy Boys in search of adventure in Hollywood and on Broadway.
Nancy Drew joined the trio some years later in the form of Caroline Baron, Capote's producer. If I wanted the movie to tell the truth about Capote, so, I soon discovered, did they. By truth I don't mean a literal retelling of my biography, which covers Capote's entire life of nearly 60 years. Capote the film, by contrast, centres on only a few chapters of my book, those that tell the story of the five years he spent researching and writing In Cold Blood. But Futterman's instinct to concentrate on the In Cold Blood years was right and necessary.
Though the frame was thus reduced to only a few years of Capote's life, many elements, people and events still had to be left out, and time had to be compressed. In real life, for example, Capote and Harper Lee, who helped with his research, did not leave for Kansas until a few weeks after he read the report of the Clutter killings. In the movie, they board a train just a few hours after he puts down the newspaper. Complications were simplified, and dialogue, such as the interchange between Capote and Lee aboard the train, was invented.
All that was fine by me. A movie - a good movie, anyway - is a drama, not a documentary, and dramas are works of art that must be contained and shaped. The reality I wanted to convey was not a list of petty details. It was the real truth about Truman Capote: that beneath his sometimes frivolous exterior, he was an artist - one of the best writers of his generation.
My role, then, was to help this quartet of talented film-makers find the essence of Truman Capote. They had questions, and I had answers. I had questions, and they had answers. Futterman dubbed me the Consigliere. Miller called me the Enforcer. I like both titles, but I prefer to think of myself as the Guide, the man who led them through a tangled life and a time (the early 1960s) before they were born. One of my corrections was to inform them that in those days, profanity was less common than it is now. Back then, most people had a wider command of useful adjectives than they do today, and certain four-letter words, now heard on every street corner, were confined to army barracks. EDITOR'S NOTE: AHHH...THE &*% GOOD OLD DAYS.
What would Truman - Truman the movie-goer, Truman the movie scriptwriter, and Truman the movie actor - have thought about this movie that bears his name? I wonder myself. I do know, however, that those who made it have followed his instructions to me. They have done their very best to tell the truth.
EDITOR'S NOTE: SEGUE'ING FROM TRUMAN-SPECIFIC, TO TRUMAN-INCLUSIVE......
The pink vote
After the most homophobic presidential elections in US history, it warms the heart to note that we're about to get the Gayest Oscars Ever
Friday February 24, 2006
Time once again for Hollywood to parade itself on prime-time television before an unimpressed nation and make a collective fool of itself. That's my usual ho-hum feeling about Academy awards night whenever the annual feast of self-aggrandisement heaves into view. Every year, it looks more and more like some tired old variety show or a lodge meeting on acid, with naff musical numbers, hurried speeches and a ghoulish listing of the lately dead. EDITOR'S NOTE: SNIFFLE.....
Oscar night is a moment when main street America can catch its unvarnished glimpse of Sodom-by-the-Sea and shudder at its liberal politics, its sexual degeneracy, and its pernicious plans for our children.
Usually the nominees will include some flashpoint names, like Michael Moore or Tim Robbins, guaranteed to excite the right into ecstasies of denunciation. This year, the entire slate seems to have been coordinated, almost nomination by nomination, to provoke the maximum degree of outrage in nearly every major constituency of the establishment right. EDITOR'S NOTE: I DON'T THINK IT WAS COORIDINATED; BUT IT IS A HAPPY LITTLE ACCIDENT.
For starters, two years after the most (or was it just the first?) homophobic presidential election in US history, it warms the heart to note that these are officially the Gayest Oscars Ever. And what's most amusing is that the gay-themed movies actually take homosexuality directly into the red states. Brokeback Mountain really is the movie of the cultural moment, and gay cowboys are an irresistible metaphor for the state of gayness in the US. Religious right leaders decided not to dignify it with a boycott, aiming instead to let it rot in the multiplexes. It wouldn't have made a whit of difference - most Americans have passed their sort by. Brokeback Mountain's broad-based acceptance proves it, and in this instance Hollywood is far closer to the mainstream than the media gives it credit for.
Then there's Capote, featuring Phil Hoffman's eerie reincarnation of weird, whiny Truman, a decidedly foreign object arriving in 1959 Kansas - a state in thrall today to the religious right and intelligent design, and where one joke says the border signs read: "Welcome to Kansas: please put your clocks back 100 years" - to fall in love with a death row-bound murderer.
If that doesn't creep out the homophobes then TransAmerica, starring Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman in gender-hopping mode, ought to get the job done. I imagine some outraged plutocrat in his crony-filled boardroom wailing: "They took the name of a perfectly beautiful multinational insurance conglomerate and turned it into something DIRTY!"
The heartland thus outraged, the Academy turns its attention to the neo-cons, who made extensive pre-emptive strikes against Steven Spielberg's Munich, accusing it of political naivety and the dread sin of moral equivalency, before it was even released. Just for balance, the foreign film category includes Paradise Now, a portrait of Palestinian suicide bombers that actually won a Golden Globe.
And handsome pinko George Clooney, oft pilloried on Fox News for his amiable centrist decency, is everywhere. EDITOR'S NOTE: ONLY THE BRITS....'AMIABLE CENTRIST DECENCY'....WHAT A LOVELY TURN OF PHRASE, EH?! Over here he's bitchslapping the McCarthyite right, and by implication the corporate media of 2006, in Good Night, and Good Luck, and over there he's outlining the finer idiocies of US oil policy in lumbering Syriana. EDITOR'S NOTE: GO GEORGE! (BRINGING DIGNITY AND INTELLIGENCE BACK TO THE NAME OF 'GEORGE'). On the big night, he'll probably be hobnobbing with fellow betes noires of the right like Robert Altman (a son of Kansas) who's getting his lifetime achievement award, or with new host Jon Stewart, the foremost political satirist on the US left today.
The big irony is that the one red state movie of the bunch - the lightweight but enormously likable Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line - will probably walk away with the big statuettes, thus proving that Hollywood is no different from the rest of the country, after all.