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Film: A Capote Carol

On page, stage and screen the author is the ghost of Christmas past

By Alan Scheidt · December 13th, 2006 · Movies
Toby Jones stars as Truman Capote in this year's Infamous.
Warner Independent

Toby Jones stars as Truman Capote in this year's Infamous.

In Douglas McGrath's Infamous, this year's film about Truman Capote and the creation of In Cold Blood, the writer (an uncanny Toby Jones) and his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) find themselves spending Christmas of 1959 in Holcomb, Kan.

They've been invited to the home of Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), lead investigator in the murders of the Clutter family, which they are researching for Capote's eventual magnum opus. When they arrive at the lawman's house, Lee presents a small gift.

"I brought a fruitcake," the future author of To Kill a Mockingbird says.

"And she doesn't mean me," quips her elfin companion.

I imagine Capote, who died in 1984, would have preferred Infamous to last year's Capote, which covered virtually the same ground but with a decidedly different bent. To begin with, it's the more entertaining of the two films, if not the more incisive. Jones' performance is an engaging, full-blown impersonation, far livelier than Philip Seymour Hoffman's decidedly more dour and suggestive evocation of the author, the many deserved awards the latter won notwithstanding.

And, of course, Infamous, as the title suggests, is about celebrity in its many guises. Capote, however, is about death -- whether literal, spiritual or artistic.

Either way Capote probably would have appreciated the fact that both films view the author at Christmas, a season to which he is inextricably linked through his own writing and other's dramatizations of his life. Charles Dickens might be the writer we most associate with Dec.

25, but in terms of actually inhabiting the holiday season, be it in print, onstage or in film, Truman Capote is literature's most enduring ghost of Christmas past.

McGrath, whose other films include buoyant adaptations of Jane Austen's Emma and Dickens' own Nicholas Nickleby, gives Capote's holiday in the heartland more screen time and weight. (Infamous will be released on DVD early next year to coincide with awards season; Capote is currently available.) Like the rest of the film, it's a much more colorful depiction than what writer Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller convey in last year's biopic. And more generous, too. Among other things there's a running joke about the author having beaten Humphrey Bogart at arm wrestling, though he allows Dewey's impressionable teenage son to win their match.

"Beating your son would have been a Christmas gift of ashes and switches," the author informs his host, thus being the consummate guest.

And the consummate guest is what Capote dedicated himself to being once In Cold Blood was completed, as he never published another major work. Instead, he settled for dinner parties and talk shows, becoming a parody of himself. That parody reached an on-screen nadir in 1976 when he played Lionel Twain, the lisping host in Neil Simon's whodunit send-up, Murder By Death.

It is this Capote that writer Jay Presson Allen, most famous for her 1972 screenplay adaptation of Cabaret, depicts in Tru. This one-man play debuted on Broadway in 1989 and was filmed in 1992 for PBS' American Playhouse. In both incarnations Robert Morse commands the stage as Capote and won both a Tony and an Emmy for his efforts. (Legend has it that when Capote saw Morse in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business the author commented, "That's me!") Even more than the recent films, this imagining might be the true Tru.

Tru covers the evenings of Dec. 23 and 24, 1975, in Capote's New York apartment at the United Nations. It is a lonely holiday for the author as Esquire magazine has just published excerpts from his unfinished memoir, Answered Prayers. His lacerating depictions of the Manhattan social circle to which he was privy has left him alone and ostracized from the very A-list seen embracing him in Infamous.

In Allen's memory play Capote, a jolly-but-melancholy alcoholic desperately trying not to drink, chats up friends on the phone, waxes nostalgic about his life and contemplates the holiday. Among other things he has received a hilariously oversized poinsettia -- "the Bob Goulet of houseplants," he snorts -- and eventually he talks of his own yuletide story, "A Christmas Memory."

Before the recent film bios, Capote was dramatized in books both famous (he's the basis of Dill, the rarefied little boy in Lee's own autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird) and not-so-famous (he's the object of an obsessive letter writer in Gordon Lish's cult novel Dear Mr. Capote). But it is "A Christmas Memory" which endures on both page and on screen.

First published in 1956, this is Capote's exquisitely written recollection of the Christmas he was 7 and under the tutelage of a somewhat dotty, aging cousin in the rural, Depression-era South. In 1966 Frank Perry directed a one-hour film version for ABC featuring Geraldine Page in an Emmy-winning performance. (Who doesn't win awards for Capote roles?) There's a terrible cable remake with Patty Duke, but stick to the original on DVD.

Capote himself did the television adaptation, a near word-for-word transcription, and he also narrates. Clarence the angel might get his wings and Tiny Tim might intone, "God Bless us, every one," but there is no more poignant ending in any Christmas story, written or filmed, than when that distinctive voice says, "I keep searching the sky, as if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven."

This is the season's most affecting tale of growing up and growing old. And giving fruitcake. ©



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