He died in 1984 and they scattered his ashes 11 years ago into Crooked Pond, not far from his beloved Long Island home. But Truman Capote has risen, Bergdorf scarf aflutter, delicate fingers adjusting tinted glasses, ready to dish dirt about himself and his famous friends in that mosquito-pitched voice.
There he is -- floor-length coat and all -- in "Capote," which opens next weekend. Philip Seymour Hoffman has already attracted giddy reviews for his portrayal of the diminutive author, despite their obvious differences in stature. And if Hoffman's performance isn't enough for you, there's always British actor Toby Jones's turn in another Capote movie (previously known as "Have You Heard?," it's presently untitled) due next year. If comic books are your visual kick, there's Ande Parks and Chris Samnee's graphic novel "Capote in Kansas," which came out in July.
Another bit of harmonic convergence: An unpublished Capote novel, "Summer Crossing," which was discovered last year by the writer's former housesitter in a cache of papers she had been holding since 1966, will be published this month by Random House.
Neither of the films touches upon the young Capote, the angelic-haired scamp abandoned by his mother and father who learned the Southern art of storytelling on the porches of Monroeville, Ala., amid a world of aunts, cousins and his next-door neighbor, future "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Nelle Harper Lee. Nor do they explore the older Capote, that perpetually drunk fireplug who slurred out bons mots for Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, and died in his sleep at 59. They focus instead on the bespectacled, ambitious young man who read about the murder of a Kansas family in 1959 and decided he would make literary history out of the tragedy.
With ex-neighbor Lee (played in "Capote" by Catherine Keener and in next year's production by Sandra Bullock) as his research partner, Capote took six grueling years to write "In Cold Blood," the "nonfiction novel" that reprised the gruesome murders and their effect on the small town of Holcomb. His efforts paid off. Although the book would incur criticism for some compressing of characters and its fabricated final scene, it reaped financial and critical success for Capote and became a watershed event in the overlapping worlds of journalism and literature. And in 1967, it inspired Richard Brooks's powerful movie, "In Cold Blood" (starring a young Robert Blake as Perry Smith), nominated for four Academy Awards.
Other writers, Rebecca West and Lillian Ross among them, had explored forms of narrative reportage, but Capote defined an entirely new genre. It was, as he told the New York Times in 1966, "a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual." You can find its parallel on the screen, from Errol Morris's assured 1988 documentary "The Thin Blue Line," which revisits and eerily reenacts the sequence of events that led to the false arrest and murder conviction of drifter Randall Adams, to the tackiest of made-for-cable crime docudramas.
So, what is it about this chapter in Capote's life, when he was in his late thirties?
"His ambition and his agenda," says Hoffman. "There was a kind of a ruthlessness, a driven-desire thing that was just exhausting for me to play. You could never kind of relax into a scene and just not care about what you wanted. He was always on point. He was driven."
That time of his life "was the pivot," says "Capote" screenwriter Dan Futterman. "He achieved everything he ever wanted, and the cost of that ruined him. It was something he never came to terms with. He never did finish another book. The drinking and drug abuse increased, and it was the beginning of his long demise."
Douglas McGrath, writer-director of the untitled Capote project (he also co-wrote Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" and directed Gwyneth Paltrow in "Emma"), says he remembers Capote's "sad, public decline when I moved to New York City in the '80s. He was always being delivered to his lobby by a cabdriver who'd find him drunk on the streets, then took him back to the U.N. Plaza," where his apartment was.
"One of the problems with most biopics," he continues, "is they don't pick a section, they try to cram in as much as possible. We tried not to make that mistake."
McGrath's $13 million movie centers on Capote's Kansas years because "this wedge of his life tells us everything in its own way. It gives you the emotional truth of his life . . . 'In Cold Blood' undid him," he says. "It was both his highest public moment and, in it all, the seeds of his undoing."
What about the experience undid Capote?
As both movies show, not long after Capote arrived in Kansas in 1959, two suspects were arrested for the murders and the true story came out. Ex-convicts Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, operating on a bad tip that Kansas farmer Herb Clutter kept thousands of dollars in a safe at home, had broken into his Holcomb farmhouse that November, and tied up Clutter, his wife and two of their children, both teens. When they realized there was no money in the house, they decided they'd have to kill the Clutters anyway.
Capote developed a growing empathy for Smith. Both men were short in stature and had suffered considerable trauma during childhood. It was just circumstance, Capote often said, that made him a successful writer and Smith a murderer.
"On one hand, he did care about this man and was genuinely fascinated by him as a person, as the flip or the dark side of himself," says Futterman, whose screenplay is based on "Capote," Gerald Clarke's definitive 1988 biography. "And he had genuine love, although I don't know if he would have called it that. He just as strongly had a purely mercenary interest and saw in Smith his ticket to writing his great work. He made a decision that the ambitious, mercenary side was more important. That decision, I think, plagued him for the rest of his life."
"I believe he fell in love with Perry Smith," says McGrath. "I think something broke in him -- having to see those executions. It undid the delicate balance between being able to feel things and the part of the artist that needs to be tough to keep going."
In love or not, the real Capote could barely bring himself to witness Smith's hanging six years later. And in both films, he returns to his former life a successful artist and household name -- but emotionally haunted. (Speaking of hauntings, in the graphic-novel version, Capote has running conversations with Nancy Clutter, the ghost of one of the victims.)
"It's like Perry got ahold of him and never let go," says McGrath.
If "Capote," a smaller production at $7 million, focuses exclusively on the writer's Kansas years, McGrath's movie -- in postproduction -- gives a greater sense of Capote's social life. McGrath describes scenes at high-society Manhattan watering holes like El Morocco and La Cote Basque with escorts including Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and Gloria Guinness (Isabella Rossellini) -- the rich, manicured friends Capote called his "swans." Reflecting the format of its main source material, George Plimpton's 1997 biography, "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career," the film also features faux-documentary conversations with famous characters who talk about Capote.
Meanwhile, Hoffman's performance has gotten critical attention. The New Yorker's David Denby writes that Hoffman's Capote "looms up like some strange Rushmoric outcropping -- heavy-domed skull, golden hair, pink skin, double-peaked upper lip, owlish glasses, and blue eyes that occasionally peer directly at the bruised ego and longings of the person in front of him. Hoffman starts with the physical and works inward to the soul."
McGrath's movie may not come out soon enough to capitalize on the buzz created by "Capote," but its cast of celebrities -- including Bullock, Weaver, Paltrow and Hope Davis -- will at least arouse the attentions of moviegoers if not critics. It's unclear how either film will resonate with younger audiences who may not have a strong awareness of Capote's sensational 1948 debut ("Other Voices, Other Rooms") or his whimsical novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's," made into the 1961 movie starring Audrey Hepburn.
Director Miller believes they'll respond to the story of one man's bittersweet rise to fame 45 years ago, because it's about how everyone else got there.
"Warhol's 15 minutes of fame and all may sound trite nowadays," says Miller. "But there was a starting line, and I think that's the clearest example of someone crossing that line. Whether Capote created or formed or directed it or not, he was an indicator of what was to come. . . . Sometimes, in the natural cycle of things, there comes a time when you look back. I personally feel a collective sense of discontentment and disgust with so much of what the culture has become," he says. "I think you can look back to ["In Cold Blood"] as the genesis of certain components of it. This story is crystalline. It's the Davy Crockett of modern culture, in a way."
There's a scene in "Capote" when Hoffman gazes at Perry Smith for the first time. The experience makes you think of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" looking to her fans, "those wonderful people out there in the dark." The line is a tacit reference to the real audience watching the movie -- somehow implicating them in her need for fame and recognition. In this case, Hoffman-as-Capote isn't just looking at Perry as someone who appeals to him, he's looking at his own hungry future, and ultimately ours.