They gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote. I do not begrudge the versatile, popular Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar for playing the tiny terror in Capote, but he was doing an impression. In Infamous, the second movie about the tortures that the literary sensation endured while writing his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a diminutive actor with a titanic talent named Toby Jones literally becomes the man himself. This is no lisping impersonation learned from watching old Johnny Carson shows: Mr. Jones moves into Truman’s skin, heart and brains. Infamous: shows you the man’s soul. It is a monumental achievement of great artistry and depth. In some ways, the movie is better, too.
I was expecting nothing much. Capote was based on a small section of Gerald Clarke’s biography of the same title, a more exhaustively researched and better-written book than the one that inspired Infamous: Truman Capote, an “oral history” edited by George Plimpton that was nothing more than a series of bitchy interviews with people grinding axes at Truman’s expense. Also, Infamous was written and directed by Douglas McGrath, who once wrote for Saturday Night Live and penned the moronic screenplay for the catastrophic 1993 remake of Born Yesterday. So all things considered, Infamous does not arrive with impeccable credentials. Then there’s the parade of what I expected to be deluded actors impersonating famous personalities. Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee? Does that give you an idea of what I thought I was up against? Well, please pass me a large helping of humble pie. Infamous is infinitely fascinating, cinematically breathtaking and largely impeccable. It proves that there’s more than one way to tell a story and view a life. It is one hell of a beautiful movie to see and savor.
I hope you’re sitting down, because next to the shattering and sensitive central performance by Toby Jones, the biggest and most gratifying surprise in Infamous is Ms. Bullock. As the childhood companion who teaches Truman the meaning of devotion and friendship, she accompanies him to Kansas, chain-smoking in her tweed skirts, wool cardigans and no-nonsense shoes without a stick of makeup, the mirror image of every photo I have ever seen of Harper Lee. Not a gesture or a verbal Southern talisman is out of place, yet there’s no indication that Lee will end up rivaling her mentor by winning a Pulitzer Prize for writing To Kill a Mockingbird. She hasn’t got much to do except stand solidly by her fellow author’s side through thick and thin, which is why she’s so wonderful. Ms. Bullock is always more affecting when she doesn’t try to arm-wrestle the material. She paints a penetrating portrait of the ultimate loner, sharing so much with her idol while gallantly keeping her own sense and sensibility to herself.
The movie also offers a balanced, richer and more rounded picture of Capote’s life in general, and the famous Park Avenue “swans” who glided through it. The great Juliet Stevenson is a devastating Diana Vreeland, and they got her red apartment down perfect enough for posterity. Hope Davis is every bit as tough around the edges as Slim Keith. Sigourney Weaver is a trustworthy yet gossip-hungry confidante as Babe Paley. Isabella Rossellini is a curious but detached Marella Agnelli, Peter Bogdanovich a noncommittal Bennett Cerf, and John Benjamin Hickey the kind of solid, manly and attractively aging lover that one imagines Jack Dunphy always was from the way Truman talked about him. Not one of them is a caricature. In addition to the informed work by an irreproachable ensemble, the film also examines the water-thin membrane of a tormented writer’s changeable psyche—blocked one day, flourishing with creativity the next. By the time In Cold Blood was published, making Capote the richest and most celebrated writer of his time, it had taken so much out of him that he had little left to give. The final shot of Infamous is the underlined words “Answered Prayers” scrawled in his childish longhand on yellow legal paper. It is a brilliant moment that tells nothing about his next book and everything about the man who would never complete it.
My reservations are minor. What is Gwyneth Paltrow doing in the opening shots playing a fictitious cabaret singer named Kitty Dean, swinging Cole Porter off-key at El Morocco? For no reason, in the middle of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, she has what looks like a nervous breakdown, finishes the song while everyone swoons, and then disappears. If Truman ever wasted time in an expensive room where you had to listen instead of eat, smoke or gossip, he might have gone to see Mabel Mercer, but there was no cabaret singer named Kitty Dean and no floorshow at El Morocco. The scene is as preposterous as it is bizarre.
While nothing compares with the legendary 1967 Richard Brooks masterpiece In Cold Blood, the shots of Truman’s arrival in Kansas are museum-quality. I love the scene where Truman, instantly disliked, considered a freak and refused cooperation by Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), the mortified lawman heading up the investigation, broke the ice by charming Dewey’s wife in front of the Velveeta display at the local grocery store. Truman standing alone on a deserted railroad platform in a full-length fur coat is an image you won’t forget. The recreation of the Clutter family murders are hair-raisingly real, and the clever ways that Truman invaded the nuclear seeds of the killers’ most personal thoughts are both touching and unsettling. However, there isn’t one shred of evidence on the planet that Perry Smith ever tried to rape Truman Capote, that a world-famous writer would be left alone unprotected for days in a cell on death row with a killer on his way to the hangman’s noose, or that they engaged in a single passionate lover’s kiss. I believe that Truman did find similarities in his life and the emotional shadows of Perry Smith’s background—their lonely childhoods, their mothers’ suicides, their search for love in all the wrong places. He recognized Perry as a fellow sufferer. But I’m not sure I buy the director’s depiction of Perry as an aesthetic stalking beauty, art and truth, even taking the liberty of criticizing Truman’s writing, and any hint of a love affair is poetic license beamed up to Mars and back. As good as Daniel Craig always is, I also wonder what James Bond fans will think when they see the new 007 with his tongue down the throat of a lisping midget?
Still, the embellishments in Infamous are far outnumbered by its countless virtues and strengths. My only question is: How will it play? Mincing and flamboyant, Toby Jones looks and sounds more like the real Capote than Philip Seymour Hoffman did, yet the odds against two actors winning Oscars for playing the same role seem insurmountable. I hope Infamous isn’t doomed, but how many people want to see two movies about Truman Capote in the space of one year? From the box-office tallies, not many people even wanted to see one. There’s no statute of limitations on the number of ways to publicly tell the same story, but there might be a limitation on the number of people who privately care. Meanwhile, wherever he is, the Truman Capote I knew is probably wolfing down the attention like Beluga on a cracker.
Shortbus is a porno film by John Cameron Mitchell, the creator and star of the awful Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about neurotic New Yorkers pursuing every possible sexual solution, gay and straight, to the trauma of 9/11. The theme is supposed to be life after orgasm, but all you see are the orgasms, including one mind-bending scene of graphic auto-fellatio performed with a huge talent that has nothing to do with acting. Don’t try this at home. Shortbus is a nightmare for right-wing religious nuts preaching family values, but a dream come true for chiropractors.
Subject: Stacey Kent
Genre: Alleged Jazz Singer
Sub-Genre: Emperor’s New Clothes
Every few years, one comes along: a new girl singer who pulls the wool over the eyes of critics who should know better, makes CD’s that win awards but do not sell, and lands miraculous club bookings while superior singers go jobless. Stacey Kent, an American who lives in London and mistakenly thinks she’s a jazz vocalist of international importance, has moved out of the Algonquin after boring audiences to death and taken up residence at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Sitting through an hour of her insipid “act” is a bit like watching milk sour—an experience slightly more unpleasant than watching paint dry, but no less monotonous. Oddly, she calls her current gig (until Oct. 14) “Love and the Lyric,” but displays almost no knowledge at all of the art of phrasing. Whether it’s Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Alan Jay Lerner or Oscar Hammerstein II, every lyricist she tackles stays down for the count. There is such a Xeroxed touch to the arrangements on her song list that “Show Me” from My Fair Lady sounds exactly like “The Trolley Song”—and that ain’t easy, babe, that ain’t easy. On ballads or bossa nova, she swallows half of her words, like air. “A Cockeyed Optimist” is not only out of tune, but an interpretive disaster. “A Sleepin’ Bee”—a magical collaboration between Harold Arlen and Truman Capote from the legendary House of Flowers that Diahann Carroll performed with perfection on this same stage six months ago—suddenly has the personality of aluminum siding.
It’s no disgrace to be shortchanged by God in the looks department, but some performers make up for visual challenges with elegant hair and gowns. (After all, darlin’, this is show business, not a shopping aisle at Home Depot.) Not Ms. Kent. Gangly and dour in black, Ms. Kent has shaved her hair to the length and color of a rabbit’s ear, in what I can only describe as Holocaust chic. With nothing to look at, she has an obligation to give us something to listen to. But despite a first-rate rhythm trio headed by the excellent pianist Art Hirahara, she is crippled musically by the endless intrusions of her husband, the mediocre saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, who plays entirely too many solos to do either of them any good. This might work with a great, mellifluous player like Scott Hamilton, but predictable riffs and dissonant scales diminish the intimacy of a supper club setting faster than a ringside heckler. Even a seasoned husband-wife duo like Cleo Laine and John Dankworth knows when to spruce up the routine and avoid the mundane. Ms. Kent is no Cleo Laine, but God knows Mr. Tomlinson is no John Dankworth, either. She’s better on ballads with a lot of reverb on the mike to cover the flaws, but she cannot swing. If you want to hear the way Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms” should really sound, get out Peggy Lee’s recording and learn something. Ms. Kent’s taste in material invites yawns. The last time I heard her, she actually had the audacity to sing “Makin’ Whoopee.” Fortunately, she doesn’t stoop to anything so uninspired on this outing, but what legitimate jazz singer with taste and freshness would sing Judy Garland signature songs? For a finale, she whistled a song in French. Do you wonder why there was no encore? As for patter, she is speechless. During the entire hour, she offers only one anecdote about the time songwriter Jay Livingston heard her sing “Never Let Me Go” and told her it was the best arrangement of his song he had ever heard. That’s nice, but I’ve got news: He said the same thing to Betty Hutton.