Back in the 1990s, there was a unfortunate epidemic of duplicate projects in Hollywood, plaguing us all with competing films about volcanoes, earth-killing asteroids and Wyatt Earp. If back then you would have informed me that the next time this phenomenon surfaced, the subject would be author Truman Capote, I would have driven you to the Betty Ford clinic myself.
Coming in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in Capote, it probably seemed mildly foolhardy to release another film that covered virtually the same subject matter just a year later. Certainly the poor sap stuck playing the author would fighting an uphill battle not to be compared unfavorably to the earlier performance.
Well, Douglas McGrath’s Infamous pulls off a minor coup by being a very strong and unique film that steps confidently out of its predecessor’s shadow. At no point while watching Toby Jones play Capote did I find myself mentally comparing him to Hoffman. Jones creates his own interpretation of the person that is flashier and perhaps more superficial but these seem like valid creative choices in this film. Hoffman’s character may have been more finely nuanced but Infamous makes the case that even Capote’s subtleties were larger-than-life.
Of course, it’s completely unfair to compare the two films side-by-side, but life’s not fair. I will try to keep my references to Capote to a minimum. My review of the previous film does relieve me of responsibility of recounting the same events again.
Infamous spends much more time with Capote in his natural element, among the New York social elite, and shows him as a shameless gossip and name-dropper. He solemnly pledges secrecy to Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) about the infidelities of her husband, CBS chief William Paley, then blabs the whole thing to someone in the very next scene.
This movie puts its own definite spin on the relationship between Capote and Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). The author is less manipulative and more genuinely needy of Smith’s respect and affection. This is a more conventional film than Capote but not weaker for it. It tends to make explicit what the earlier film implied and, in most cases, this is for the better. The sharpest breaking point between the two is that the unspoken and unconsumated relationship between the author and the killer is neither of those things here. It’s implied that Capote’s conflicted feelings over this indiscretion is part of what leads to his eventual decline.
Also more central this version is Nelle Harper Lee, played by Sandra Bullock, who had lost the role to Catherine Keener in Capote. Again, even though I viewed both films in less than forty-eight hours, I never found myself thinking of Keener while watching Bullock, who carves out a strong performance. Jeff Daniels is also notable as prosecutor Alvin Dewey, who is also more of a presence here than he was the other film.
Infamous is also more direct about showing exactly how the flamboyant author from New York City slowly won over the homespun farmers of Holcomb, KS. Capote’s “fish-out-of-water” status is highlighted as he employs the one thing he has that these people want, inside gossip about the rich famous. As soon as he starts dropping Humphrey Bogart’s name at dinner, his frosty reception quickly begins to thaw.
One unique feature of Infamous is the way it uses staged “interviews” with the characters of the author’s friends, as if the movie were an E! True Hollywood Story about Capote’s life. It’s an interesting device that is only partially successful, if only because it’s actually used too sparingly. This is a rare case when more would actually have been better.
It was certainly a fascinating exercise to take two cinematic takes on the exact same person’s and events and see how they can be completely differently from each other but equally worthy. Infamous may lack a single performance equal to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, but the whole is more than than equal to the sum of its parts.