Truman Capote

October 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: He was a prodigiously gifted spook, a steely, self-paradigm, homosexual imp and for a while the most famous writer in America.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, as Truman Capote: Have you read the article about the killings in Kansas? I think that’s what I want to write about.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Truman Capote now breathes again in a smart complex new movie that captures him in deepest small town Kansas circa 1960 as he is engaged in and reporting of his most celebrated and imitated book “In Cold Blood” — his so-called non-fiction novel about the killing of the Clutter family in Kansas.

The actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, doesn’t tumble into mimicry but rather inhabits him in all his cunning methodical charm. It is a performance to make the critics gush while making reporters squirm. That’s because the Capote we see here is a bone deep seducer. He uses all his quirky guile to seduce everyone in sight — good guys and bad guys — in order to get them to talk.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: I’ve decided on a title for my book. I think you’ll like it – it’s very masculine – “In Cold Blood” — isn’t that good?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: The chilling sympathy he shows one of the killers in particular, Perry Smith, is a work of cinematic art — the truth hound of a writer blatantly lying to his subject and wooing him with a flirtatious kindness.

ACTOR: What are you calling it?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: The book? I have no idea.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Is this okay? Is this really how they– we– go about our jobs? Where are the lines we shouldn’t cross? Where is the morality? To a public already suspicious of the media, this movie won’t help. You know what? I don’t care for once because it’s smart enough and nuanced enough to be raising the questions we journalists should be asking ourselves all the time.

We seem — I know to many — like parasites crawling through the world’s tragedy spots with our notepads and laptops and TV cameras, probing the wounds in weak places with our prying questions and empathy. I know. I watch us. I sometimes feel that way too.

But when the stakes are high and the stories for the getting, like Katrina, for example, good stuff is done by good people who aren’t out there selling their souls for a byline, aren’t having to cow tow to power to get a sound bite or usable quote — the dance of so much American journalism.

The first of the books are coming now out of Iraq: Tart and smart and well reported. And the best of them and their attention to detail and novelistic style owe something to the complicated, compromised gifted writer of “In Cold Blood,” so did a lot of the first-rate non-fiction chroniclers of the Vietnam War as, of course, do so many of the true crime writers who have tried to mimic Capote’s seminal work.

Capote came out of Kansas with both a masterpiece and a trio of addictions, to drugs, alcohol, and celebrity. And his decline wasn’t pretty.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: This book is going to change everything. I think it’s going to change how people write.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMINGr: But he had given us a new hybrid language, a new more vivid way to tell a story. And many of us writers owe him a debt of gratitude for that as we do the filmmakers who have now told his story with the same rigor and poetry Capote helped pioneer on the page.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: This is my work — period. I’m working. When you want to tell me what I need to hear, you let me know.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.