Truman Capote’s next act

  • Themes: Culture, Film

Truman Capote often seemed more comfortable pretending to be characters rather than being himself. Recent television and film portrayals, however, suggest his life and legacy can now be assessed coolly and fairly.

Toby Jones and Isabella Rossellini in Infamous, 2006.
Toby Jones and Isabella Rossellini in Infamous, 2006. Credit: Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo

A century after his birth, the novelist, screenwriter and playwright Truman Capote is having a moment. He is the pivotal character in the new Ryan Murphy period drama Feud: Capote vs the Swans, based on the bestselling Laurence Leamer book, Capote’s Women. None other than the ever-excellent Tom Hollander has been cast as Capote, in the true story of how the writer managed to offend and alienate a coterie of the chicest women in New York by revealing their closely guarded confidences in a roman-à-clef called ‘La Côte Basque’, published in Esquire in 1965.

It made Capote the most talked-about man in high society, and also the most loathed. He lived for another two decades, but his ostracisation by his former friends led to his spiralling into drink and drug addiction, and he published little of any worth in the remaining years of his life, dying unhappily in 1984 of liver disease, hastened by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication. Gore Vidal – perhaps the only writer in America who could rival Capote for waspishness – commented that his rival’s death was ‘a wise career move’.

Certainly, this has proved true. Posthumously, Capote has been portrayed by numerous different actors in various films and television series made about his life. The most notable presentation of him, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in the 2005 biopic Capote, was also one of the most perplexing. The film, which followed the events leading to the creation of his ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, was highly accomplished, with fine turns from Hoffman, Catherine Keener as Capote’s childhood friend and confidante Harper Lee, and the ever-excellent Chris Cooper as lawman Alvin Dewey. Yet what Bennett Miller and his screenwriter Dan Futterman did was to remove virtually every trace of humour from the presentation of Capote. It would be perfectly possible to watch (and appreciate) the picture and never know that its protagonist was regarded as a great wit.

Such a mistake could never have been made about Infamous, which followed the next year and starred British actor Toby Jones as Capote. Now that Jones is the toast of Britain, thanks to his excellent performance in Mr Bates vs the Post Office, it is fascinating to delve back into his career and see him in the role that, by rights, should have made him a major star. Not only does he nail Capote’s effete witticisms and distinctive manner of speaking (as well as looking considerably more like him than Hoffman did), but he also manages to hold his own against a ludicrously star-studded cast that includes everyone from Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow to Sandra Bullock and Sigourney Weaver. Yet it is a given in Hollywood that, if two films are made on the same subject, the one that is released first will take the spoils. Capote earned nearly $50 million at the box office and was nominated for five Oscars; Infamous did not even make back its meagre $13 million budget.

Capote would probably have found this state of affairs amusing. He was courted by Hollywood throughout his career, ever since he wrote his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in his mid-twenties, and, like that other literary poseur Lord Byron, awoke one morning to find himself famous. John Huston recruited him a few years later to co-write the comedic 1953 Humphrey Bogart vehicle Beat the Devil, of which Capote said ‘[Huston] and I decided to kid the story, to treat it as a parody. Instead of another Maltese Falcon, we turned it into a… [spoof] on this type of film.’ It demonstrated Capote’s flair for camp, ironic humour – something not usually associated with Bogart – but this would not be called upon again for nearly a decade, when future Pink Panther director Blake Edwards adapted Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a 1961 film.

Like it or not, the film is regarded as a classic, mainly because of Audrey Hepburn’s performance in the lead role as the good-time girl Holly Golightly. Yet Capote had wanted Marilyn Monroe in the lead, and had written the story with her in mind, and so was disenchanted by the casting of Hepburn, saying ‘Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey.’ Edwards also made significant changes to the story, giving it a happy ending, and, in a precursor of the broad humour that would later permeate his Peter Sellers collaborations, cast Mickey Rooney in the wildly caricatured and racist role of Holly’s neighbour Mr Yunioshi. The part – yellowface in excelsis – was deplored by Capote, and even Edwards later commented that ‘Looking back, I wish I had never done it… and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it’s there, and onward and upward.’

An altogether more artistically satisfying example of screen adaptation came the same year when Capote co-wrote the adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the Gothic horror The Innocents. Terrifying psychological drama may not have been Capote’s predicted forte, but during the three weeks that he worked on the project, he managed to write around 90 per cent of the finished script, during which he subtly suggested that the protagonist Miss Giddens’ own sexual repression was the cause of the supernatural events – or at least her perception of them. It was intellectually rich, remains one of the great cinematic ghost stories, and makes a fascinating companion piece to the 1967 film adaptation of In Cold Blood, with both stories set around figuratively or literally haunted houses, and exploring heightened psychological states of their flawed protagonists: one governess in Victorian England and two murderous drifters in 1960s Kansas.

Yet Capote’s star had begun to fade after the publication of ‘La Côte Basque’, as outraged former friends of his caricatured in the story made good on their threats to take revenge, ensuring that he was cast out of the high society enclaves that he had spent his life trying to climb up into. His cinematic career declined commensurately. He was commissioned in 1971 to write an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and, depending on which source you believe, was fired either for doing little other than copying the dialogue out verbatim, or for making the Nick Carraway character explicitly homosexual and in love with Gatsby. An intriguing idea? Perhaps, but far too much for the studios, who promptly replaced Capote with Francis Ford Coppola. The film is today regarded as a triumph of set design and costume, rather than acting or screenplay, and it remains a great ‘what if’ to wonder what Capote might have done with it.

He spent the last few years of his life drifting and trying to recapture former glories. A brief, uncredited cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall was a nod to his former status, and a lead role in the 1971 Neil Simon jeu d’esprit Murder by Death, opposite an eclectic all-star cast including Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness and Maggie Smith, suggested that, by that point in his life, he was more comfortable pretending to be characters, rather than being himself. Still, as his biographical presentation by Hoffman, Jones and now Hollander suggests, the man often described as ‘the American Wilde’ – with a similarly tragic trajectory – is now a figure who can be assessed coolly and fairly.

Hollander has said of Capote that ‘he’s an extraordinary man who was so individual that various different actors get to play him for all eternity’. Should the new show be the success that Ryan Murphy’s previous work has been, we can expect plenty more of Capote on screen, giving the lie to the writer’s oft-cited comment that ‘Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.’ There may yet be plenty more acts to come.


Alexander Larman