In her thoroughly engrossing new book A Killer Life, indie über-producer Christine Vachon (Go Fish, Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol, Far From Heaven) writes in the chapter “A Tale of Two Trumans” of being the producer of “the other Truman Capote movie.” The first, of course, is last year’s bleak Winnipeg-shot drama Capote, for which Catherine Keener was nominated for an Academy Award and Philip Seymour Hoffman won one.
Three years ago, as she was casting Doug McGrath’s screenplay Infamous, about the period in Truman Capote’s life when he researched, wrote and was undone by his revolutionary non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, Vachon discovered that there was another Capote project making the rounds. It was about the period in Truman Capote’s life when he researched, wrote and was undone by his revolutionary non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Capote was written by an actor, Dan Futterman, and helmed by a director, Bennett Miller, with one documentary under his belt. The problem, beyond the obvious, was in the casting—Miller’s movie had Hoffman. McGrath’s was Trumanless.
“We tried not to get too distracted by Capote,” Vachon writes. “After all, we had a seasoned director and they had a first-timer. And we had a studio behind us.…But as it increasingly became clear, a seasoned director, a terrific script and studio backing couldn’t solve the basic problem of finding a Capote. We needed an actor to fill those quirky shoes. And we absolutely did not have that.”
Vachon goes on to wonder that if she had cast the film with an unknown from the outset—Infamous is toplined by British actor Toby Jones—instead of trying to nab Sean Penn (!) as Capote and Julia Roberts as Harper Lee (Roberts got pregnant, Sandra Bullock stepped in), the two movies might have switched positions or, at the very least, been released at the same time for direct comparison.
But here we are, and Infamous arrives this week, a full year after Capote’s triumph.
The trailer plays like a parody of the earlier film, as if Jones is doing Hoffman doing Truman. Bullock’s outfits look borrowed from Keener’s closet. Stark landscape shots appear lifted, frame-by-frame.
The film itself will never be taken on its own merits, and compare-and-contrast exercises are inevitable. What Infamous holds over Capote, beyond marquee value—the former has a bigger, more well-known cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Peter Bogdanovich, though Bullock, likeable as she can be, will never best Keener in an acting contest—is a sense of humour. Capote is a stark, measured drama, an actor’s piece, full of pore-grazing close-ups and long conversations. It has moments of humour—when Capote does a pirouette to show off his outfit, for instance, Lee turns away before he’s even completed it —but its power comes from the slow, steady build to the execution of Perry Smith, the man half-responsible for the murders of a farming family of four, and what that death does to Capote.
Infamous, as Vachon points out, spends a lot more time with Capote as he navigates and backstabs his way through New York society. There are more jokes, one too many about his sounding like a woman, including an inquiry to the whereabouts of “Mrs. Kapoat.” There’s a breeziness to the storytelling, one that delights in the tale rather than succumbing to its gravity—but that also works against it. When Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) discovers that Capote’s book is called In Cold Blood, he shoves him into a cell corner and threatens to rape him. (In Capote, Truman talks his way out of it, blaming his editor.) The suddenly sniveling Jones, having spent the last hour charming and lying his way through New York and Kansas, has been robbed of the drama of this moment, and his fear feels fake (maybe it is—Infamous subscribes to the theory that Capote and Smith had a romantic relationship, something Futterman and Miller believe is a lie).
Both films end similarly, with the execution of the killers and a postscript about Capote’s deterioration, and their production values are about equal. Each film has good writing, impeccable casting and undeniable pedigree. Infamous is funnier, and gayer, than Capote, which has better performances and cinematography. That the choice exists is weird, unfortunate even, but it’s a rarity worth taking advantage of.
Infamous opens friday, October 13. See movie times for more info.