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Flirting with Controversy: Making Biopics about Truman Capote

Flirter avec la controverse : les biopics sur Truman Capote
Delphine Letort

Abstracts

Based on a close study of the biopics devoted to writer Truman Capote, this article questions the expectations raised by films that feed on the voyeuristic desire to see into the personal lives of famous people beyond their public image. While literary biopics usually recreate the image of an author by drawing on his/her literary creations as signifiers of their authorial identity, Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) and Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2007) exploit the celebrity status of the writer by promoting his controversial lifetime achievement, In Cold Blood. Highlighting Truman Capote’s social life as a source of entertainment, the two films marginalize an author whose popularity overshadowed his literary achievements (including as a screenwriter).

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  • 1 Deborah Davis, Party of the Century: the Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and his Black (...)
  • 2 Translation by Joanny Moulin from Pierre Bourdieu, “L’illusion biographique”, Actes RSS 62/63 (...)
  • 3 American historian Jill Lepore argues that: “If biography is largely founded on a belief in t (...)

1Written by investigative journalists (Gerald Clarke, Deborah Davis, Robert Emmet Long, George Plimpton), psychobiography scholar (William Todd Schultz) and literary academics (Tison Pugh, Liliane Kerjan, Ralph F. Voss),1 more than a dozen biographies have been devoted to literary celebrity Truman Capote. While these biographical essays ensure the enduring fame of the writer, they articulate different readings of Capote’s legacy and testify to the cultural imprint he has left across the media and literary landscape. Nearly every new biography adds its author’s particular understanding of the facts that enhanced the singularity of Capote’s life: Plimpton collected a series of interviews that portray the writer as the subject of much gossip; William Todd Schultz interprets his career choices through the prism of psychoanalysis; Liliane Kerjan enriches her biographical narrative with significant excerpts from his literary works in an attempt to challenge the prejudices levelled at the acclaimed and vilified public figure. The multiple versions of Capote’s life story may illustrate the “biographic illusion” denounced by Pierre Bourdieu, pointing out the fallacy of a genre that claims factual accuracy and truth. The French sociologist approaches life writing as a dynamic process marked by “the placements and displacements in the social space”, highlighting “the various successive states of the structure of the distribution of different species of capital that are at stake in the field under consideration”.2 Bourdieu does not extol the exemplarity of a life, considering that the value of the biographical endeavour resides in its power to reflect the social forces at play.3 In other words, biography should illuminate a life trajectory through an analysis of the public and the personal as expressive of social and cultural capital.

  • 4 Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, “Introduction: The Challenges of Biography Studies”, in Hans (...)
  • 5 Belén Vidal, “Introduction: the Biopic and its Critical Contexts”, in Tom Brown and Bel (...)
  • 6 George F. Custen, Bio/Pics, How Hollywood Constructed Public History, New Brunswick, New Jers (...)
  • 7 Judith Buchanan (ed.), “Introduction”, The Writer on Film, Screening Literary Authorship, New (...)

2Biography theorists Hans Renders and Binne de Haan contend that many biographers “profit from all the attention which exists for the genre”, drawing a sharp line between scholarly endeavours that rely on research and commercial projects that hinge around anecdotal evidence – citing for example “George W. Bush’s alleged drug use or the issue of Oprah Winfrey’s biological paternity”.4 Conceived as popular mass entertainment,5 biopics draw on the expectation of seeing the famous;6 their informative value may be questioned in light of this statement. More often than not, the historical subtext of biopics adds to the complexity of characters without offering a fully-fledged context, feeding on the voyeuristic desire to see into the personal lives of famous people beyond their public images. Film scholar Judith Buchanan nonetheless underlines the distinctive aspects of literary biopics that express a desire for the author on the part of readers who construct “a version of the work’s origins, seeking images and narratives to feed, supplement and refine an impression of knowledgeable intimacy with the work’s source”.7 Biopics recreate the image of an author, borrowing his/her literary devices to create visual and narrative tropes that serve as evocative signifiers of an authorial identity.

  • 8 Andrew Higson argues that some “films rework and reproduce a particular idea of the author, a (...)
  • 9 Judith Buchanan, “Introduction”, ibidem, 5.
  • 10 “I even feel guilty taking any money for it all and I resent people saying I just did i (...)
  • 11 William L. Nance, The Worlds of Truman Capote, New York: Stein & Day, 1970, 229.
  • 12 George Plimpton, op. cit., 204.

3Through focusing on the writing of In Cold Blood (1966) and eluding the screenwriter’s work on a diversity of films – including John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), the twin biopics Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) and Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2007) engage audiences with a glimpse of the writer enmeshed in the controversies of a book that brought the writer’s literary career to an end. By reducing Truman Capote’s literary authorship to a single novel that was further exploited “as a marketing tool, a promotional hook, a brand name”,8 the two films cast a disturbing light on Truman Capote while capitalizing on the marketing strategy that underlay the promotion of In Cold Blood (1966). Rather than delving into the synergy between life and work which is a staple of literary biopics, prompting viewers to reflect upon the “material, imaginative and commercial operations of literary processes”,9 the films invoke and circulate the singular distinctive name of the author as a notorious celebrity and gratify a voyeuristic instinct by indulging the vicious pleasure of watching the imagined doubts and worries behind Capote’s so-called lifetime achievement, In Cold Blood. Both films relate the background story of the nonfiction novel that earned Capote worldwide fame and the means to change his lifestyle, characterizing him as a socialite who welcomed his increased celebrity status by moving into an apartment overlooking Southern Manhattan in the newly built United Nations Plaza Building.10 Although he vehemently denied charges of greed levelled against him after garnering large sums of money from the sales of the ill-famed novel In Cold Blood, his reputation was tainted by accusations that portrayed him as a cynic; literary critic William L. Nance vitriolically denounced “the dedicated artist who writes only for money; the one who can witness a friend’s execution, mentally record it with cool precision, then cry for three days; the playboy who gives a party for a few ‘personal friends’ and invites Who’s Who in America; the eccentric youth who surprised the world into admiration”.11 Conceived at around the same time, which accounts for the delayed release of the second project, the two biopics feed on such controversy, plumbing the ambiguities of Capote’s actions behind the creation of In Cold Blood which he presented as proceeding from “a strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art”.12

  • 13 Tison Pugh, op. cit., 19.

4Rather than relate the life story of the man who explored writing to overcome the memories of an insecure childhood, both biopics portray Capote through his investigation into the Kansas murders of the Clutter family and focus on a limited time span from 1959 to 1966. In Cold Blood is a novel with a controversial legacy: Capote’s nonfiction novel sparked heated debates among critics who contested his claim for veracity and literary innovation. By highlighting Capote’s fascination with the killers who made headline news, including the intimate relationship the writer allegedly entertained with Perry Smith, one of the suspected murderers, the films capitalize on the celebrity of a writer who marketed his own fame across the mass media. The writing of In Cold Blood exposed the author’s vulnerability behind his theatrical performances as an openly gay man who, according to Tison Pugh, “enjoyed the role of gay clown […] to amuse his audiences”.13 This is the image which the biopics exploit while portraying an entertainer whose fame thrived on gossip, thus feeding on his notoriety to increase viewership.

5Typically enough, the biopics appeal to the viewers’ voyeuristic gaze at the character with titles that foreshadow a taste of scandal: Infamous evokes the inflamed discussions that arose from his provocative statements, whereas the eponymous Capote calls attention to a public figure whose private life became tabloid fodder. Through a close analysis of the processes of fictionalization at work within these films, this article aims to shed light on the power of characterization as the main narrative device of the biopic genre, exploring the interstices between the private and the public realms as a source of spectatorial pleasure. The writer’s fascination with a case that appealed to man’s darkest instinct reverberates throughout the films as it pervaded Capote’s life long after writing In Cold Blood, offering the viewers a vicarious experience of pain and suffering.

The celebrity writer

  • 14 Ralph L. Voss, op. cit., 26.
  • 15 Cathleen Medwick, “Truman Capote: Interview (1979)”, in Thomas Inge (ed.), Truman C (...)
  • 16 Capote described celebrity in the following words: “All it means is that you can cash a sma (...)

6Hailed as the “party of the century” in the title of Deborah Davis’s biography, Capote’s Black and White Ball crowned his career on November 28, 1966, gathering most of the glamorous figures of the day whom he had befriended since the publication of his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), the back cover of which displayed a photograph of Capote, posing as the emblematic author of an emerging gay literature.14 Cathleen Medwick recalls the image of “a delicately pale young man reclining on a chaise longue, his eyes leveled provocatively at the camera”.15 Capote’s seductive pose and gaze bespeak his longing for recognition and acceptance – a deep-felt desire that prompted him to accept many television engagements while navigating the social scene of New York’s trendy clubs in search of more visibility. Capote conspicuously aimed for the celebrity status which, however, notoriously turned against him in later life after he published disparaging pieces about his elite friends in Esquire. Excerpts from his unfinished saga Answered Prayers, including “La Côte basque”, were perceived as a betrayal by the wealthy acquaintances whose confessed secrets he had disclosed through fiction, thus making himself the target of celebrity ire.16 Appearing drunk on a talk show in 1978, Capote nonetheless remained a public curiosity whose name has continued to attract media attention – exemplified by the two biopics Capote and Infamous.

  • 17 Gore Vidal quoted in Fred Kaplan, Gore Vidal, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999, 700.
  • 18 Joe Moran, Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, London: Pluto Press, 2000, 3.

7The credit sequence of Infamous recreates the atmosphere of Capote’s party life: the instrumental jazz music of Mark Rubin Band, the popping of champagne corks and the buzzing of an invisible crowd open the film. Close-ups on cocktail glasses that are being filled with colourful mixtures connote the flashy lifestyle of the jet set characters Capote mixed with. The opening scene shows Capote (Toby Jones) and his female confidante Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) sitting at a table and watching the swinging performance of “What is this Thing Called Love” by a woman whose golden sheath dress and long gloves conjure up the image of Gilda in Charles Vidor’s 1946 film noir: the blonde femme fatale exhibits her body on stage to an audience of ogling spectators. Capote seems truly moved by the woman’s voice quivering with emotion as she briefly interrupts her a capella performance, which emphasizes the feminine nature of the man whose high-pitched voice generates gender ambiguity throughout the film. Drawing inspiration from George Plimpton’s biographical narrative which builds on a series of interviews with Capote’s contemporaries (fashion editor Diana Vreeland, writer Gore Vidal, New York socialites Slim Keith and Barbara Paley, author Jack Dunphy, publisher Bennett Cerf, novelist Nelle Harper Lee, detective Alvin Dewey), the biopic repeatedly cuts to a series of mock face-to-camera conversations with a set of characters who are talking about Capote. Infamous thus places the writer at the centre of gossip and concentrates on stories that are disseminated about him through the grapevine. His rival detractor Gore Vidal (Michael Panes) was not entranced with Capote’s sense of humour which he found quite as offensive as the tone of his voice: “To the lucky person who has never heard it, I can only say imagine what a Brussel sprout could sound like if a Brussel sprout could talk.” [Infamous, 05:50] Infamous underscores that interviews were instrumental to these characters’ fabricated image of themselves. Accusing Capote of “raising lying into an art – a minor art”17 through In Cold Blood, Vidal used derogatory comments to serve his own mediatisation. Both biopics illustrate the progress of commodity culture within the literary circles, highlighting “the turning of contemporary authors into public curiosities [that] serves them up as part of the meaningless ephemera of consumerism”.18

  • 19 The opening also reflects the narrator’s insistence on topographical details in In Cold Blo (...)
  • 20 John G. Cawelti, “The Writer as a Celebrity: some Aspects of American Literature as Popular (...)

8Capote opens with a sequence that replicates the beginning of Richard Brooks’s 1967 adaptation of In Cold Blood, including its lingering wide shots and long takes of desolate flat landscapes with the Clutter farm lying on the horizon.19 It then cuts to New York’s night skyline, underlining the distance between the trendy Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the murdered Kansan family. Capote first appears among his wealthy friends whom he entertains with a gossipy anecdote that involves African American gay writer James Baldwin and his latest ‘problem novel’: “Your novel is about a black homosexual who is having an affair with a Jew. Wouldn’t you call that a problem?” The sequence gives insight into Capote’s theatrical performance on the social scene of New York, basking in the attention lavished upon his persona. The unstable camera comes close to the faces of his listeners, intruding into the confidentiality of a private joke, before moving back to capture the circle of friends standing around Capote to underscore an act of representation on the part of the characters who belong to the so-called celebrity society – “a cultural elite that brings together certain members of the traditional aristocracy of wealth and high social position with certain individuals from the political, artistic, and mass communications spheres of society”.20

9Both films portray Capote as a celebrity – someone who craves for attention. Capote is characterized by his self-centred comments in Capote, including in a short train sequence where his traveling companion Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) accuses him of having bribed the luggage porter into flattery. His childhood friend recognizes Capote’s prose in the mouth of the obsequious man who declares that “your last book was even better than the first… I mean… just when you think they’ve gotten as good as they can get” [Capote, 06:46]. The sequence reveals the manipulative nature of Capote, which the biopic treats as an idiosyncratic feature. Both films indirectly echo some of the critiques that were levelled at In Cold Blood by endowing the writer with the same character traits reviewers have identified as his novel’s flaws.

The man behind In Cold Blood

10Both biopics insist on on the phenomenon of celebrity, which is “heavily dependent on the perpetual replication of image and the elision of public and private spheres which photography helps to produce”.21 The films delve into the intimate details of Capote’s personal life by mixing fact and fiction, exploiting an iconography that Capote himself helped shape and that blurs the boundaries between the public and the private realms. Strikingly enough, as a celebrity writer who utilized his private life for self-promotion, Capote offered himself as an image to be consumed. His biographer Gerald Clark contends that “photographs had always served him well […] and if that one made him both a target and a figure of fun, it did at least achieve its primary purpose: it gave him not only the literary, but also the public personality he had always wanted”.22 Capote invited an intrusive look into his lifestyle by adopting provocative pauses: the film directors invented scenes from the snapshots of Capote lying in silk pyjamas on his sofa. Slim Aaron’s 1958 coloured photograph of Capote sitting in his pyjamas with a book on his lap and a cigarette holder in his right hand arguably provides an intertextual reference to the colourful setting of Capote’s living room in Infamous.23

11Moving about in a dark red bathrobe before he reads about the Clutter murders in the newspaper, Capote is also portrayed through the visual references to Arnold Newman’s 1977 parody photograph of the 1948 print published on the back cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms.24 Newman offered a portrait of Capote lying on a double-seat sofa and looking at the camera, dressed in a bathrobe that hangs open above his lifted knee and reveals his provocative nakedness. The painting hanging on the wall shows a portrait of young Capote while the setting displays a collection of artistic objects – mainly paintings and sculptures.25 The staged photographs of Capote help imagine his private life in Infamous, which depicts Capote sitting in a similarly colourful décor. Every interior set of Infamous is replete with small objects that display Capote’s attention to details, thus reflecting his careful enumeration of everyday objects and moments in his novels. Capote sought documentary authenticity through an emphasis on details in In Cold Blood providing “the names of people and places, the full listing of the objects in a room or the contents of a suitcase, and much direct quotation”.26 Infamous builds characterization by referring to iconographic details associated with his persona as a celebrity.

  • 27 Moe Meyer, “Introduction”, The Politics and Poetics of Camp, London: Routledge, 1994, 5.

12Capote, however, departs from this flamboyant imagery as though the drab colours of Kansas had spread over his life even before his first visit. Although Capote is seen wearing the long flowing scarf that epitomized his style in the media, it is brown and dark – not the conspicuous adornment the writer wanted it to be. Several press photographs show that the writer used his scarf as a prop which Miller interprets as a signifier of class: Capote drops the name of “Bergdorf” (the luxury shop where he bought the scarf) as he snobbishly introduces himself to an officer at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation with a sense of despite. Capote wears several colourful scarves in Infamous, using the garment as a stylish prop that defines his sophisticated eccentricity. Along with his long coat and his high-pitched voice, the scarf is a marker of his femininity in the film, causing him to be mistaken for a woman in several instances. Capote’s props in the film underline his performance of “camp”, which Moe Meyer defines “as the total body of performative practices and strategies used to enact a queer identity” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp.27 The class discourse that prevails in Capote shifts to camp in Infamous; Capote’s serious and snobbish attitudes give way to a playful character that enjoys the artifice of camp as Susan Sontag understands it:

  • 28 Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), reprinted in Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, (...)

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. […] Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’. […] Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘a camp’, they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.28

13Infamous highlights the theatrical character of Capote’s behaviour by isolating his figure in long shots that point to his singularity; his clothes and demeanour make him stand out. When he first meets with Captain Dewey (Jeff Daniels) during a press conference, his sharp voice can be heard but he cannot be seen as he stands in the back of a crowd of journalists; however, his figure becomes conspicuous when the men dressed in black suits mistake him for a woman and ask if he is working for the Ladies’ Home Journal. Capote subdues the camp image associated with its gay character, using fictionalization to afford him more privacy with his male companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). While Infamous characterizes Capote as a social figure that discusses personal matters with his so-called “swans” – a word he used in reference to his gracious female confidantes, Capote dwells on moments of solitude by following his lonely travels to Kansas and depicting the writing process that undergirds In Cold Blood as triggering self-doubt and rumination.

14The biopics actually offer two distinct portrayals of Capote. Infamous characterizes him as naïve and extremely sensitive behind the clownish role he plays to fit in, whereas Capote complexifies the character by highlighting the contradictions he became entangled in when writing In Cold Blood. His contemptuous manners lay bare his calculative commitment to a murder case he fictionalizes in an attempt at self-promotion; his confession to Nelle that “he can hardly breathe when he thinks how good his book can be” [Capote, 52:00] points to his self-absorbed nature. However, his six-year dedication to writing about the Clutter case shatters Capote’s theatrical self-confidence. While Infamous spotlights Capote’s deep empathy for the personal plight of murderer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), explicitly referring to the homoerotic relationship that was rumoured to exist between the two, Capote draws attention to the destructive impact of In Cold Blood on the writer. Miller dramatizes the encounter between sophisticated Truman Capote and rural Kansans, thus heightening the oppressive power of a case that affected him deeply. The filmmaker deviates from the biopic to focus on how the experience of In Cold Blood transformed the writer, using invented scenes to delve into the intimate reactions the six-year time span produced on him. Capote himself told Plimpton how upset he was by the whole experience:

  • 29 George Plimpton, “Truman Capote: Interview (1966)” in Thomas Inge (ed.), op. cit., 66.

Of course the case changed me! How could anyone live through such an experience without it profoundly affecting him? I’ve always been almost overly aware of the precipice we all walk along, the ridge and the abyss on either side; the last six years have increased this awareness to an almost all-pervading point. […] Six years ago I had four more teeth and considerably more hair than is now the case, and furthermore, I lost 20 pounds.29

  • 30 Phyllis Frus, “The Figure in the Landscape: Capote and Infamous”, Journal of Popula (...)
  • 31 Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, Piscata (...)

15Film scholar Phyllis Frus astutely observes that the films present a dual portrait of the writer, characterized as “the tragic figure who illustrates the psychological conception of the essential self: monomaniacal, obsessive, and unable to empathize with others” in Capote, and as a “flighty poseur” in Infamous.30 Although Miller and McGrath capture different personality traits through their portrayals of Capote, illustrating Dennis Bingham’s understanding of the biopic as a “filmmaker’s own version of truth”,31 the two slice-of-life films are nonetheless concerned with showing the same efforts behind the gathering of materials for the writing of In Cold Blood. While the two biopics rely on a plurality of biographical sources, incorporating a variety of visual and written texts that are woven into the films’ intertextual fabric, their focus on the same period may well betray the filmmakers’ fascination with the writer’s dark side – serving the need to give the spectator a story.

A Life-Changing Story

16Both biopics flesh out the character of Capote by drawing from the author’s various declarations and the numerous comments made on his work. In a sense, the films convey a context to his writing In Cold Blood, anticipating some of the reviews that attacked both the nature of his work and the intent of his project, providing a fictional Capote with the opportunity to respond to those critiques.

  • 32 Eric Norden, “Truman Capote”, Playboy, 15 March, 1968.
  • 33 “My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling. All my res (...)
  • 34 Melissa W. Noel, “A Cold Manipulation of Language”, English Journal 100.4 (2011), 50–54.
  • 35 Jack De Bellis, “Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’”, Journal of Modern (...)
  • 36 Trenton Hickman “‘The Last to See Them Alive’: Panopticism, the Supervisory Gaze, and Catha (...)
  • 37 “Perry was a character that was also in my imagination…[he] could absolutely … [have steppe (...)

17Capote portrays the emotional dimension of what the writer originally thought to be considered as a unique writing experiment, delving into the interstices between art and life. In an interview to Playboy in 1968, Capote declared: “I was attempting to write a journalistic narrative that employed all the creative devices and techniques of fiction to tell a true story in a manner that would read precisely like a novel.”32 The film emphasizes this quest for precision by having the character practice his 94% memory recall in dramatized scenes of rehearsal. Although the writer gathered enough documents on the case to fill “a whole small room, up to the ceiling,”33 his objectivity might have been impaired by his emotional involvement with the implicated killers during the five-year-long trial that led to their death sentence. Melissa W. Noel thus contends that Capote’s concise descriptions encourage readers to visualize the characters, affecting our perception of the events. She observes that the narrative order impacts the readers’ mental approach to the killers; Perry Smith’s handicaps are mentioned before he is identified as a murderer, which she dubs a “cold manipulation of language”.34 Comparing different published versions of In Cold Blood, Jack de Bellis further uncovered a series of endless revisions in the narrative that he considers indicative of an artistic project rather than of a true account.35 The continuous rewriting of the same sentences not only reveals Capote’s obsession with words and details, they also seem to convey his confusion with the story he was writing. Literary critic Trenton Hickman blames Capote’s scopophilic and panoptic presence that interferes with his nonfiction project, for “Capote inserts himself into the ‘nonfiction’ of his text in ways that might seem imperceptible to the casual reader, but that lure the reader into certain, almost inescapable responses to the text”.36 Several of Capote’s reviewers contend that the writer builds sympathy for Smith as a marginal character that could have stepped right out of one of his stories.37

  • 38 Jane Howard, “A Five-Year Literary Vigil”, Life, January 7, 1966, 71.

18Such interpretations undergird the characterization of Capote in Miller’s film version which dramatizes the relationship between the writer and the killer by showing Capote torn between his affection for Smith and the need to finish his book. The pace of the film slows down as Capote is waiting for the court’s final verdict to write the end of his book, thus depriving him of any authorial power over the narrative he is patiently crafting. The film includes cliché scenes of Capote sitting in front of his typewriter, rejoicing his publisher’s enthusiastic response to the first chapter when it dawns on him that he is trapped in a catch-22 situation, for the end of his work signifies the death of the men he has become too intimate with to remain indifferent. Miller dramatizes such instances by zooming in on his face as he silently relishes his success during a public reading, suffering from the cruel understanding that the narrative of his book is tied to some people’s deaths [Capote, 01:00:00]. Life magazine reporter Jane Howard noted the irony of the situation in January 1966: “It is jarring to know that his present renown stems from his intimate knowledge of six atrocious deaths. It is hard to connect so whimsical and merry a spirit with horror, and especially hard to envision his fraternizing with the killers.”38

19 Capote lingers on this very contradiction by focusing on the mental torture that writing In Cold Blood represented for Capote, driving him away from long-term friends – including Nelle Harper Lee and Jack Dunphy. Several invented sequences are added to the narrative of his life story to show Capote expressing his doubts, and making him unable to share in the party festivities of Lee’s acclaimed success for To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). While Capote gleefully basks in the media spotlight, a sentiment aptly represented by the reporters’ flashes that illuminate his face as he walks up the red-carpeted steps to Lee’s Kill a Mockingbird party, Miller emphasizes the growing split between Capote’s fantasy of himself and his actual condition. By the end of the film, alcohol has become a prominent prop as the writing of In Cold Blood is presented as a traumatizing event the writer was never able to overcome.

20In his psychobiography entitled Tiny Terror, Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote ‘Answered Prayers’, William Todd Schultz underlines the self-induced pressure caused by his work:

  • 39 The author further adds: “Now the emotion most conspicuously present was dread. ‘It is so p (...)

Capote’s emotions were all over the place. One day he was ecstatic; the next, morose. He reported feeling “very excited”, “totally dedicated”, “emotionally involved in a sense that I have seldom been before.” Worried about sounding more than a little pretentious, he noted a sense of “great obligation”, to the material and the people in the book; to some degree he was writing for them, the book an act of empathy, an act of love. Capote worried for the work day and night, it never left his mind, it never left him alone; it became, almost from day one, a “monumental obsession”. The chaos of the information he had in hand was a colossal strain to craft; he compared the job to “doing the finest needlework”.39

21In Infamous, the montage of various conversation excerpts where the name of Perry keeps cropping up conveys Capote’s self-destructive obsession with the case. Capote, on the other hand, highlights the writer’s internal torment by showing the strain of typing up Perry’s confessed recollections. His voice-over narration suggests that Capote had little creative freedom, his character’s overwhelming presence haunts every stage of the writing process [Capote, 54:00]. As the film unfolds, Capote seems to turn into a shadow of himself – his reflection appears in a mirror and his backlit figure can be caught sight of in a doorway when he returns home from Kansas. In visual terms, he becomes an increasingly obscure persona. Although a brilliant speaker whose words are enthralling to hear, his silences add depth to the character. At one point, Capote is filmed during a phone conversation from behind a glass door that visually symbolizes the dead-end situation he is confronted with; the voice of his interlocutor remains unheard, which deepens the impression of his utter loneliness. The letters Capote exchanges with the killers twice a week progressively become a burden that revives the guilt of the author; the distance between art and life dissolves as Capote sympathizes with killer Perry Smith, recognizing his life story as reflecting his own: “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house and one day he stood up and went out the back door… while I went out the front” [Capote, 01:04:00].

Conclusion

  • 40 George Plimpton, op. cit., 68.

22Writing In Cold Blood had a traumatic effect on Capote, and he confessed to Plimpton that the experience kept haunting him for the rest of his life: “I’m still very much haunted by the whole thing. I have finished the book, but in a sense I haven’t finished it: it keeps churning around in my head. It particularizes itself now and then, but not in the sense that it brings about a total conclusion.”40 Both biopics highlight the destructive power of investigating and writing In Cold Blood by closing on Capote’s silent reading of Perry Smith’s final letter, recovered among the personal objects the hanged man bequeathed to Capote. The final fade-out of Capote expresses the writer’s block that prevented him from finishing another book.

  • 41 Dennis Bingham, “The Lives and Times of the Biopic”, in Robert Rosenstone and Const (...)
  • 42 George F. Custen, op. cit., 67.

23The biopics dedicated to Truman Capote retrace the transformation produced by the writer’s confrontation with crime, adumbrating his slow descent into alcoholism and depression. Both Capote and Infamous borrow from the female biopic which, according to Dennis Bingham, tends to follow “the downward trajectory, with female subjects victimized by their own ambitions.”41 The focus on the Kansan experience highlights those limitations placed on gay Capote, whose literary ambition to create an original work of nonfiction in many a sense doomed his career. The biopics reinforce the iconic status of In Cold Blood as a literary achievement that has endured beyond the author’s life, overshadowing Capote’s commitments to other projects that nonetheless marked his career. While George F. Custen notes that classical Hollywood biopics conventionally “commence just at the point of the narrative where the protagonists display the talent or behaviour that will make them famous”,42 Capote and Infamous soft-pedal the efforts undertaken by the young writer striving for recognition at a time when he was crafting short stories for publication in various magazines.

  • 43 Leo Löwental, “Biographies in Popular Magazines” in Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton (eds.), Radio (...)
  • 44 George Custen, op. cit., 25.

24Capote and Infamous eschew the intimate relationship many literary biopics aim for by delving into the creative process of literary composition, foregrounding instead the celebrity capital accrued by the notorious author. While the biopics’ focus on In Cold Blood underscores the pathological dimension of the writer’s attachment to Smith, thereby undermining Capote’s claim for truth and objectivity in his nonfiction novel, such perspective minimizes previous writing endeavours that account for his status as a writer of worldwide renown. While Leo Löwenthal used the phrase “idol of consumption” to signal the emergence of entertainers as famous figures in the 1940s’ magazine biographies,43 Custen argued that “the entertainer rather than the political leader became the paradigmatic famous figure” in the biopics made between 1941 and 1960.44 The biopics dedicated to Capote illustrate a new paradigm as they relate the celebrity’s slow fall from the limelight, offering the tragic story of a life as a cautionary tale that further marginalizes the notorious author.

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Bibliography

BINGHAM Dennis, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

BINGHAM Dennis, “The Lives and Times of the Biopic”, in Robert Rosenstone and Constantin Parvulesku (eds.), A Companion to the Historical Film, Malden MA and Oxford UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2013, 233-255.

BOURDIEU Pierre, “L’illusion biographique”, Actes RSS 62/63, juin 1986, 69-72.

BROWN Tom and Belén VIDAL (eds.), The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, New York and London: Routledge, 2014.

BUCHANAN Judith (ed.), The Writer on Film, Screening Literary Authorship, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

CAPOTE Truman, In Cold Blood, New York: Sphere Books Ltd, 1966.

CAWELTI John G., “The Writer as a Celebrity: some Aspects of American Literature as Popular Culture” [1977], Mystery, Violence and Popular Culture: Essays, Madison: Wisconsin, U. of Wisconsin Press, 2004, 46-60.

CLARKE Gerald, Capote: a Biography, New York: Rosetta Books, 1988.

CUSTEN George F., Bio/Pics, How Hollywood Constructed Public History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

DAVIS Deborah, Party of the Century: the Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball, Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2006.

DE BELLIS Jack, “Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’”, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 7, n° 3, Sept. 1979, 519-536.

FRUS Phyllis, “The Figure in the Landscape: Capote and Infamous”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, Summer 2008, vol. 36, Issue 2, 55.

HIGSON Andrew, “Brit-lit biopics, 1990-2010”, in Judith Buchanan (ed.), The Writer on Film, Screening Literary Authorship, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 106-120.

HICKMAN Trenton “‘The Last to See Them Alive’”: Panopticism, the Supervisory Gaze, and Catharsis in Capote’s In Cold Blood”, Studies in the Novel, vol. 37, n° 4, Winter 2005, 464-476.

HOWARD Jane, “A Five-Year Literary Vigil”, Life, January 7, 1966, 71.

INGE Thomas (ed.), Truman Capote Conversations, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

KAPLAN Fred, Gore Vidal, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.

KERJAN Liliane, Truman Capote, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2015.

LEPORE Jill, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography”, The Joumal of American History 88 (2001) 1, 129-144.

LONG Robert Emmet, Truman Capote – Enfant Terrible, New York: Continuum, 2008.

LÖWENTHAL Leo, “Biographies in Popular Magazines” in Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton (eds.), Radio Research: 1942-1943, New York: Duelle, Sloan and Pearce, 1944.

MEYER Moe, The Politics and Poetics of Camp, London: Routledge, 1994.

MORAN Joe, Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, London: Pluto Press, 2000.

MOULIN Joanny, “Introduction: Towards Biography Theory”, Cercles 35, 2015. <http://www.cercles.com/n35/moulin.pdf>, accessed on Nov. 3, 2015.

NANCE William L., The Worlds of Truman Capote, New York, Stein & Day, 1970.

PIZER Donald, “Documentary Narrative as Art: William Manchester and Truman Capote, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 2, n° 1, Sept. 1971, 105-118.

NOEL Melissa W., “A Cold Manipulation of Language”, English Journal 100.4, 2011, 50-54.

NORDEN Eric, “Truman Capote”, Playboy, 15 March, 1968.

PLIMPTON George, “The Story behind a Nonfiction Novel”, The New York Times, 16 January 1966. <https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html>, accessed on Nov. 24, 2015.

PUGH Tison, Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies, Athens: Georgia, University of Georgia Press, 2014.

RENDERS Hans and Binne de HAAN, “Introduction: The Challenges of Biography Studies”, in Hans Renders and Binne de Haan (eds.), Theoretical Discussions of Biography. Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing, Boston/Leiden: Brill, 2014, 1-8.

SCHULTZ William Todd, Tiny Terror, Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote ‘Answered Prayers’, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

SONTAG Susan, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, 275-92.

VOSS Ralph L., Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, Tuscaloosa: Alabama, U. of Alabama Press, 2011.

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Notes

1 Deborah Davis, Party of the Century: the Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2006; Gerald Clarke, Capote: a Biography, New York: Rosetta Books, 1988; Robert Emmet Long, Truman Capote – Enfant Terrible, New York: Continuum, 2008; William Todd Schultz, Tiny Terror, Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote ‘Answered Prayers’, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011; Tison Pugh, Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies, Athens: Georgia: U of Georgia Press, 2014; Liliane Kerjan, Truman Capote, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2015; Ralph L. Voss, Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, Tuscaloosa, Alabama: U. of Alabama Press, 2011.

2 Translation by Joanny Moulin from Pierre Bourdieu, “L’illusion biographique”, Actes RSS 62/63 (juin 1986): 69-72. <http://www.cercles.com/n35/moulin.pdf>, accessed on May 3, 2016. Italics in the original.

3 American historian Jill Lepore argues that: “If biography is largely founded on a belief in the singularity and significance of an individual’s life and his contribution to history, microhistory is founded upon almost the opposite assumption: however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies not in its uniqueness, but in its exemplariness, in how that individual’s life serves as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole.” Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography”, The Joumal of American History 88, 2001, 1, 129-144.

4 Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, “Introduction: The Challenges of Biography Studies”, in Hans Renders and Binne de Haan (eds.), Theoretical Discussions of Biography. Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing, Boston/Leiden: Brill, 2014, 1.

5 Belén Vidal, “Introduction: the Biopic and its Critical Contexts”, in Tom Brown and Belén Vidal (eds.), The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, New York and London: Routledge, 2014, 4.

6 George F. Custen, Bio/Pics, How Hollywood Constructed Public History, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992, 6.

7 Judith Buchanan (ed.), “Introduction”, The Writer on Film, Screening Literary Authorship, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 19.

8 Andrew Higson argues that some “films rework and reproduce a particular idea of the author, an idea that is shaped as much by her or his literary creations as by how those creations have themselves been adapted, reworked and represented as films and television programmes. And of course the commercial benefits of the adaptation process cross media in the other directions, as when film adaptations are used to remarket the books on which they are based.” Andrew Higson, “Brit-lit biopics, 1990-2010”, in Judith Buchanan (ed.), op. cit., 112.

9 Judith Buchanan, “Introduction”, ibidem, 5.

10 “I even feel guilty taking any money for it all and I resent people saying I just did it to get rich.” Truman Capote quoted in Life, January 7, 1966, 75.

11 William L. Nance, The Worlds of Truman Capote, New York: Stein & Day, 1970, 229.

12 George Plimpton, op. cit., 204.

13 Tison Pugh, op. cit., 19.

14 Ralph L. Voss, op. cit., 26.

15 Cathleen Medwick, “Truman Capote: Interview (1979)”, in Thomas Inge (ed.), Truman Capote Conversations (Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 1987), 339.

16 Capote described celebrity in the following words: “All it means is that you can cash a small check in a small town. Famous people sometime become like turtles turned over their backs. Everybody is picking at the turtle – the media, would-be loves, everybody – and he can’t defend himself. It takes an enormous effort for him to turn over.” Quoted in Gerald Clarke, op. cit., 499.

17 Gore Vidal quoted in Fred Kaplan, Gore Vidal, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999, 700.

18 Joe Moran, Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, London: Pluto Press, 2000, 3.

19 The opening also reflects the narrator’s insistence on topographical details in In Cold Blood, which brings a cinematic dimension to the landscape described in the opening lines of the novel: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’. Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.” Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, New York: Sphere Books Ltd, 1966, 1.

20 John G. Cawelti, “The Writer as a Celebrity: some Aspects of American Literature as Popular Culture” [1977], Mystery, Violence and Popular Culture: Essays, Madison: Wisconsin, U. of Wisconsin Press, 2004, 56.

21 Joe Moran, op. cit., 122.

22 Gerald Clarke, op. cit., 159.

23 Slim Aaron’s 1958 coloured photograph can be accessed at: <http://www.widewalls.ch/artist/slim-aarons/>, accessed on October 29, 2016.

24 The 1948 photograph published on the back cover of Other Voices, Other Room scan is available at: <https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/other-voices-other-rooms/>, accessed on October 28, 2016.

25 Arnold Newsman’s photograph can be seen at: <http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/12/truman-capote-answered-prayers>, accessed on October 28, 2016.

26 Donald Pizer, “Documentary Narrative as Art: William Manchester and Truman Capote, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 2, n° 1, Sept. 1971, 106.

27 Moe Meyer, “Introduction”, The Politics and Poetics of Camp, London: Routledge, 1994, 5.

28 Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), reprinted in Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, 291-292.

29 George Plimpton, “Truman Capote: Interview (1966)” in Thomas Inge (ed.), op. cit., 66.

30 Phyllis Frus, “The Figure in the Landscape: Capote and Infamous”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, Summer 2008, vol. 36, Issue 2, 55.

31 Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2010, 10.

32 Eric Norden, “Truman Capote”, Playboy, 15 March, 1968.

33 “My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling. All my research. Hundreds of letters. Newspaper clippings. Court records—the court records almost fill two trunks. There were so many Federal hearings on the case. One Federal hearing was twice as long as the original court trial. A huge assemblage of stuff. I have some of the personal belongings—all of Perry’s because he left me everything he owned; it was miserably little, his books, written in and annotated; the letters he received while in prison... not very many... his paintings and drawings.” George Plimpton, “The Story behind a Nonfiction Novel”, The New York Times, 16 January 1966. <https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html>, accessed on April 24, 2015.

34 Melissa W. Noel, “A Cold Manipulation of Language”, English Journal 100.4 (2011), 50–54.

35 Jack De Bellis, “Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’”, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 7, n° 3, Sept. 1979, 519-536.

36 Trenton Hickman “‘The Last to See Them Alive’: Panopticism, the Supervisory Gaze, and Catharsis in Capote’s In Cold Blood”, Studies in the Novel, vol. 37, n° 4, Winter 2005, 474.

37 “Perry was a character that was also in my imagination…[he] could absolutely … [have stepped] right out of one of my stories.”

38 Jane Howard, “A Five-Year Literary Vigil”, Life, January 7, 1966, 71.

39 The author further adds: “Now the emotion most conspicuously present was dread. ‘It is so painful,’ Capote said, that ‘I don’t know that I can live with it that long without having a crack-up.’ He felt more and more limp and numb and ‘horrified.’ He had awful dreams ‘every night’. He was depressed; again and again he wondered if he could endure mentally – ‘this sort of sustained creative work keeps one in a constant state of tension.’ The strain was too much. Every morning, Capote said, after nights of miserable dreams, he threw up.” William Todd Schultz, op. cit., 79.

40 George Plimpton, op. cit., 68.

41 Dennis Bingham, “The Lives and Times of the Biopic”, in Robert Rosenstone and Constantin Parvulesku (eds.), A Companion to the Historical Film, Malden MA and Oxford UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2013, 237.

42 George F. Custen, op. cit., 67.

43 Leo Löwental, “Biographies in Popular Magazines” in Paul Lazarsfeld and Frank Stanton (eds.), Radio Research: 1942-1943, New York: Duelle, Sloan and Pearce.

44 George Custen, op. cit., 25.

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References

Electronic reference

Delphine Letort, « Flirting with Controversy: Making Biopics about Truman Capote », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [Online], vol. XIV-n°2 | 2016, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 23 April 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/8973 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.8973

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About the author

Delphine Letort

Delphine Letort est maître de conférences habilitée à diriger des recherches en études anglophones à l’Université du Maine, où elle enseigne la civilisation américaine et les études filmiques. Elle a écrit de nombreux articles sur les adaptations cinématographiques, le documentaire et le cinéma afro-américain. Elle est l’auteur de plusieurs ouvrages : Du film noir au néo-noir : mythes et stéréotypes de l’Amérique 1941-2008 (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2010) et The Spike Lee Brand: a Study of Documentary Filmmaking (Albany, SUNY, 2015). Elle a également co-dirigé L’Adaptation cinématographique : premières pages, premiers plan ; La Culture de l’engagement au cinéma (avec Shannon Wells-Lassagne, 2014) et dirigé un numéro CinémAction (Panorama mondial du film noir, 2014). Elle est membre du comité éditorial de la revue Black Camera (Bloomington, Indiana) et directrice de la Revue Lisa/Lisa e-journal depuis le 1er octobre 2016.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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