Apr 1 2006

‘Capote’ vs. Capote

History, Hollywood and the mainstream media

About a year ago, in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, his journalistic account of a murder and its aftermath that he called a “non-fiction novel,” I began to do some research on the book and its author. I read just about everything published on Capote’s life and work, talked to some of the participants in the saga of the Clutter family murder and even visited the Holcomb, Kansas area, the scene of the crime.

Initially, I had no idea that not one but two motion pictures about In Cold Blood were in the works. Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, was released to generally positive reviews and glowing appraisals of Hoffman’s portrayal of the legendary and technically challenging literary figure. (Infamous, another movie based on Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood, is scheduled for release in October 2006.)

Unlike In Cold Blood, Capote is very much a work of fiction, with a plot dependent on incidents that were created for the film. The movie focuses on Capote’s inner struggle as he wrestles with writing a “great” work of literature. In the film, he comes to realize that for his work to succeed, he must manipulate, exploit and deceive the two murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.

Capote’s ambivalence about Smith and Hickock and the agonizing turmoil it wreaks on his life is the major plot line throughout the film. Several scenes dramatize his willingness to intercede on behalf of the killers. After their conviction, Capote is depicted as hiring lawyers to represent them in their appeals, angering his newly befriended law enforcement source, Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (played by Chris Cooper). When Smith goes on a hunger strike to try to die before facing the hangman, Capote spoons him baby food through the bars of his cell, telling him that he still must live so that Capote can reveal to the world that he is not a “monster.” Capote’s real motive, according to the film, is to keep Smith alive as a continued source of material for his epic.

The filmmakers explain Capote’s presence on death row with a scene in which he gives “Warden Krutch” a $10,000 cash payoff, which gains the writer unprecedented access to his two protagonists. Capote is shown spending months bonding with Smith, all the while hoping to get Smith to describe what happened and how he felt on the night of the crime. The film concludes with the hanging of Smith and Hickock, and a note stating that Capote never completed another book; the film suggests that the process was so personally scarring that it irretrievably shattered Capote as an artist.

There is nothing in Gerald Clarke’s book Capote: A Biography, on which the film is based, that claims that Capote attempted to secure legal representation for Smith and Hickock. Nor is this assertion included in any other nonfiction account that I have seen. Duane West, the county prosecutor at the time, told me that the initial appeal was handled by attorneys appointed and paid for by the state of Kansas. Subsequent appeals were taken up by members of the Kansas Legal Aid Society of the state bar association after they were contacted by Dick Hickock, a fact mentioned in In Cold Blood itself.

Capote’s extended prison sojourns in the film are likewise fictionalized. In five years, Capote personally visited his subjects no more than half a dozen times, though he did correspond with Hickock and Smith on a weekly basis. He placed a great value on access to information, but was less interested in dealing with the defendants as people. The baby food scene and other death row confrontations were likewise invented.

While the film’s Warden Krutch is an utterly venal and corrupt bureaucrat, the real-life Warden Sherman Crouse denied Capote access to death row because prison regulations restricted contact to immediate family and legal counsel. To overcome this, Capote retained the well-connected law firm of Saffels & Hope, who, at Capote’s request, approached the governor of the state and worked out a deal.

While an unattributed comment in Clarke’s biography suggests that money changed hands, there’s no evidence that it went to the warden. Charles McAtee, the recently deceased former department head of Kansas State penal institutions, described Crouse to me as a principled individual who remained in his position despite terminal cancer, determined not to leave the onerous task of executing Hickock and Smith (and two other inmates) to his successor.

While one can argue how much license makers of fictional films based on actual events have to alter known facts, journalists should be aware that such biopics often take liberties with events as they happened. Yet subsequent columns that used the film as a jumping-off point to discuss the real-life Capote’s work were surprisingly credulous in accepting the film’s plot devices as an accurate depiction of reality.

“As portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, the New Yorker’s Truman Capote was just as cunning and exploitative as any marauding paparazzi in the course of reporting In Cold Blood,” Patrick Goldstein wrote in a column in the Los Angeles Times (10/18/05). This understanding that Hoffman’s Capote was a movie character dropped out of Goldstein’s column, however, as he wrote of the “sobering” lessons of In Cold Blood, “now that the movie has allowed us to see its author at work”:

The man whose book influenced a generation of young journalists was a master of the black art of doing anything to get a story—lying and flattering, untruth and dissembling nearly every step of the way. When he couldn’t get access to Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, Capote handed the prison warden a $10,000 bribe. He wooed Smith relentlessly, bringing him Thoreau to read in jail. He helped the suspects get a new lawyer so they’d stay alive long enough for him to complete his interviews.

Goldstein made a tortuous comparison of Truman Capote to Edward R. Murrow —the subject of another recent film, Good Night and Good Luck—citing both as proof that “journalists once pursued greatness, not just ratings and ad linage.” Surely either reporter would have urged Goldstein not to rely on a Hollywood film as a factual account.

An op-ed by Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal (11/4/05) invoked Capote as an example of a nonjudgmental film, and its subject as someone who made an effort to interact positively and write genuinely about the “Red State” region. He bolsters his case with dubious evidence:

Early in the film, [Capote] becomes absorbed with the lives of the accused murderers, especially Perry Smith, whose undoubted intelligence and troubled early years seem to resemble his own. He tries to secure better lawyers for them. And indeed through these interventions, Capote produces stays of execution for years, partly out of sympathy but also to give him more time to collect material for his book.

Describing the film in the New York Review of Books (11/17/05), Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that “the film focuses on the . . . five-year period during which the killers, assisted at first by Capote, found better lawyers, made appeals and won stays of execution.”

Mendelsohn bought into the film’s premise that Capote was ambivalent, initially helpful to the murderers but ultimately eager to have them done in to pave his way to stardom. He accurately cited a 1965 letter from Capote, quoted in Clarke’s biography, in which he say he’s “keeping his fingers crossed” that all appeals will be denied and that the execution will swiftly ensue. But Mendelsohn failed to mention that Capote expressed exactly the same sentiments in published letters written two years earlier.

Mendelsohn also ascribed Capote’s addiction issues to the grueling creative process involved with In Cold Blood. In reality, Capote’s alcohol and prescription drug intake was at a serious level before, during and after the composition of In Cold Blood.

In the December 2005 Commentary, Terry Teachout’s analysis is initially promising in questioning the film’s bribery allegation. But then he drops the ball:

In fact, we know that Capote had no doubt of their guilt. Though he identifies himself emotionally with Smith, and assists both men in finding counsel to make their appeals, his real interest lies elsewhere: He cannot finish his book until they are executed, and once he realizes this, he abruptly breaks off contact with them.

Neither of these assertions is true, and Teachout, who provided some footnotes for this piece, didn’t provide any for these claims.

The L.A. Times’ Goldstein remarked in his column, “Capote isn’t the only journalist to cut corners getting his story.” That’s certainly true—an observation borne out by the shoddy research on evidence in commentary on Capote.