A recent revisiting of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood sparked some interest in the two films about him that were released in quick succession in 2005 and 2006 — Bennett Miller’s Capote and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous.
Being the first released, Capote stole most of the limelight, especially as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote won him an Oscar for Best Actor (not to mention the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and SAGs). The film itself was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (for Catherine Keener as Harper Lee), and was at the top of most critics’ lists for the year.
On the other hand, Toby Jones, who played Capote in Infamous, won high praise for his performance too, and physically he was closer to the real life counterpart. Sandra Bullock’s portrayal as Harper Lee was also praised, but did not receive the same recognition as Keener. Infamous also had an arguably better cast, featuring stars such as Jeff Daniels, Daniel Craig, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, and a cameo from Gwyneth Paltrow. But despite all of this, and the fact that most critics thought the film was pretty good too, Infamous could not avoid being compared to the earlier film, which they almost unanimously agreed was superior.
Having read the book and watched both films in quick succession, I thought I would throw in my two cents on the two film versions.
Capote was based on the biography by Gerald Clarke, whereas Infamous was based on the book by George Plimpton. Nevertheless, the story is essentially the same — Truman Capote is fascinated by a 300-word article about a family that was brutally gunned down in the small town of Holcomb, and decides to travel there to write an article. He brings his good friend Harper Lee with him, and after a lengthy investigation, decides to turn that article into the “first” non-fiction novel (ie a non-fiction book written with fictional techniques). In order to write the book, Capote gains access to the two killers in prison, Dick and Perry, who are facing the death penalty. Capote befriends both men, and is particularly drawn to the sensitive and artistic Perry. Despite becoming extremely close with the men over several years, Capote knows that the book’s ending can only be effective if they are ultimately executed for their crime.
Both films were good, but in different ways. Capote is a classy production with a classy performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who really brings out the genius and the narcissism in the titular character. It’s a slow burning film full of pain and contemplation, where the pauses are long but meaningful.
Comparatively, Infamous is lighter and flashier. Toby Jones is a more flamboyant, less subtle Capote who is portrayed as a shameless gossip with the high society women in New York. Jones also makes Capote seem like a prick, though Hoffman’s Capote is colder, more reserved but definitely more manipulative. As good as Jones was, the edge goes to Hoffman in my opinion.
Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock both make fairly good Harper Lees — but again, Keener is more subtle whereas Bullock is more in-your-face. Not to say that makes her a weaker Harper, just a different one, though this was probably attributable more to the script than the actresses. I’d say they were equally good.
I found it interesting that both films focused almost entirely on Capote’s relationship with Perry, even though Dick also played a very large role in the book. Nevertheless, I thought Capote handled this crucial part of the story better than Infamous did. In Capote, you really get a sense of the struggle Capote is facing — he clearly feels something for Perry (though exactly what that feeling is is left rather ambiguous) but he also knows he must finish his masterpiece — and that obsession, vanity and selfishness eventually gets the better of him.
As for Infamous, I thought getting Daniel Craig to play Perry was a bizarre choice. He’s a very good actor, but having read the book, he does not exactly fit the bill (Perry’s supposed to be very short and half American-Indian). I didn’t fully buy into the relationship, which lacked the emotional power of the earlier film, even though it actually depicted a physical relationship between the two men.
Ultimately, Capote is more serious and reserved, much like the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Infamous, like Toby Jones’s performance, is more “out there” and talkative, especially as we get to see more of Capote living his high society life in New York, and there are occasional mock interviews with his friends that remove a layer of realism.
So yeah, same story but different approaches and different results.
Capote: 4.25 stars
Infamous: 3.5 stars