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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

It's happened before, of course. Stephen Frears made "Dangerous Liaisons" in 1988 and then poor Milos Forman made "Valmont" in 1989, both from the same novel. And everyone said, "You know, they're really not the same movie, they have different emphases, different subtexts, different production styles." But . . . they were the same movie. Too bad for Forman.

Now, here's "Infamous," reaching theaters a year or so after "Capote." They're not the same movie, you see. They're really not. Different emphases, different subtexts, different production styles. Except . . . they're the same movie. Too bad for Douglas McGrath, writer-director of "Infamous."

The movie, like its accidental predecessor, follows six years in the life of the American writer Truman Capote, who ventured from the sophisticated glades of upscale Manhattan to the windswept wheat prairies of Kansas to chronicle the home-invasion massacre of an upstanding family, the investigation that followed, the trial and the execution of the killers. He was in quest of the Great American Book and many believe he got it: "In Cold Blood," bestseller and acknowledged classic "nonfiction novel," to use Capote's own term. It is the thesis of both movies, though in slightly different terms, that Capote's deal with the muse was Faustian in nature: He got his great book, his eternal life and fame, at the expense of his soul.

Of the two, "Capote" is superior, which is not the same as saying "Infamous" is a bad movie. It's not. It is, in fact, quite a good movie, completely riveting, swiftly moving, well acted, handsome and in the end heartbreaking. The difference is tonal: "Capote" was less forgiving than "Infamous," viewing the genius-sprite at its center harshly, as an opportunist and manipulator and suggesting that like the killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and like the hang-'em-high state of Kansas, he acted in cold blood; "Infamous" sees a man in love, who ends up shattered by grief.

Of course, famously, Philip Seymour Hoffman played Truman Capote in the first film, a bravura actor's trick: He was a hearty, large guy playing a fey, tiny guy. He had to make you believe something your eyes told you was not true. He had to make you believe it so hard you forgot it and just accepted the illusion, of course done without movie magic but only with the performer's guts and power.

Toby Jones doesn't need to pull tricks: He is genuinely small-boned and small-voiced. Put a vicuna coat on him and a cashmere scarf and a pair of horn-rims and physically he becomes Truman Capote to an astonishing degree. Again, this isn't to underestimate his performance, it's just to point out it starts out at a different place and from there has a different set of issues. When he minces and flounces, replicating Capote's dainty stride, it doesn't look campy, like a football player doing a fairy joke for the amusement of the guys in the locker room. It looks real, believable and acceptable; for his part, Hoffman wisely avoided the mince.

And Jones makes you believe the pain, which is really the heart of this story.

"Capote" was based on Gerald Clarke's epic biography, an austere, even scholarly work; again by contrast, "Infamous" is based on "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career," by George Plimpton, which was a gossipy retelling, by people who knew him well, of Capote's life. It was slightly more scandalous (as is "Infamous") in suggesting a far more intense personal relationship between Capote and his subjects. Moreover, the film is structured around the idea of the interview; its present seems to be some immediate posthumous TV show in which the principals of his life, from Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) on to Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) recall him, and those recollections then morph into dramatizations.

If you run the two films off against each other, you get a plus-minus tote board barely in favor of "Capote." That film's director, Bennett Miller, had a much better feel for the grim landscape of the wheatlands, and his lonely compositions made your bones ache with cold and loneliness; McGrath is more of a "social director," meaning his movie comes most alive in New York, where Capote swells about with society babes and gossip mavens, a highball in one hand, a cigarette in the other, a quip on his lips, and a swanky nightclub or Fifth Avenue apartment in the background.

On the other hand, the much underappreciated Sandra Bullock registers far more clearly and humanely as Capote's assistant and childhood friend (and fellow writer) Harper Lee than did Catherine Keener in the earlier film. As far as Chris Cooper ("Capote") or Daniels as the laconic Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey, who ran the investigation and ultimately became a good friend of Capote -- how unlikely was this? -- it's pretty much a wash: Both were excellent.

On and on it goes, though one bonus that "Infamous" brings to the table is the British actress Juliet Stevenson as legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, a swooping, rapturously upper-class vulture of a woman. On the other hand, the same movie loses points in trying to pass off Peter Bogdanovich (!) as Bennett Cerf, and some rotund nobody as William Shawn, the famous New Yorker editor.

Both movies have fun with the setup: elfin, aggressively gay Tru wood-nymphing it up unselfconsciously amid the phlegmatic stoics of early-'60s Kansas law enforcement and ranching communities. Them boys ain't never seen nothing like this li'l feller, and they regard him with the utter befuddlement of Maori warriors confronting color television for the first time. As Capote, Jones is a lot more physical in the role than was Hoffman; he prances, flounces and cavorts, his body language expressing his own self-confidence and the joy he took in being himself. He's also very good on Capote's iron charm: Young and pretty then, he could wear down anybody, no matter how prejudiced, and make him a friend and confidant, even Dewey, the state investigator.

Where they diverge is in their treatment of Perry Smith, the actual triggerman in the killings. In "Capote," that role was played by Clifton Collins Jr., a smallish actor in a kind of smallish place in the movie. Here the part initially went to Mark Wahlberg, then to Mark Ruffalo and finally to Daniel Craig. What these three have in common and Craig in spades is massive sexual charisma -- Craig, after all, is the new James Bond. Clearly McGrath wants viewers to see Perry Smith, who in life was a bitter, tattooed runt who could cut a man's throat, then blow his skull open with a 12-gauge shotgun at muzzle-contact range, as a sex object. He goes to great lengths to suggest that Capote fell in love with the (now) hulking, beautiful Nietzschea god in the cell, with his brooding pain and his super body. This follows from suggestions made by some of Plimpton's interviewees, even to the suggestion (made as well in the movie) of physical intimacy between the two in some dark corner of the Kansas penitentiary.

In both cases, literary vanity drives Capote. He desperately needs Perry's account of the night of the killings to wrap up his narrative; to get it in the first film, he lies and manipulates the lesser man, then lives with that guilt. In "Infamous," he falls in love with Perry, and the communication is from one heart to another; then he watches his loved one put to death, and despite the wealth and accolades showered upon him, lives in grief from which he never recovers. His prayers have been answered -- the title of his unfinished novel "Answered Prayers" is evoked throughout the film -- and his soul has been shattered. A last image is of the little man alone in his uptown apartment opening a crate from the Kansas penal system containing Perry's squalid belongings; his fingers linger on each one.

Which is the truer picture? No one knows. Which is the better picture? "Capote," but it's close.

Infamous (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for harsh language and violence.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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