War of the Colossal Midgets

The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”

The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.

And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.

It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.

My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.

McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.

CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.

INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.

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6 Responses to “War of the Colossal Midgets”

  1. I didn’t get that sense of compare/contrast in Capote at all. I liked Hoffman in it (despite the size disparity) and the great Catherine Keener. Toby Jones looks and sounds more like the real Capote. But then there’s the real Capote. He was such an annoying puffed-up little poseur that the fact he actually had some degree talent gets tossed to one side. His dialogue for Beat the Devil is marvelous and Jennifer Jones is wonderful playing. . .Truman Capote. She’s by far my favorite movie Capote.

    His book and lyrics for House of Flowers (music by Harold Arlen) are also marvelous, especially “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “I Never Has Seen Snow.” As for In Cold Blood it’s just a nicely edited True Detective story.

    At the last he was so controlled-substance-impaired that he could bare write a sentence, despite the best efforts of log-time fan Andy Warhol to help him out. Answered Prayers was just a con, that didn’t pay off.

    Brooks’ film of In Cold Blood is indeed quite good, especially for Robert Blake’s performance — which may well have proved to be “inspirational” in real life.

    What’s funniest about Capote is that he has become in the American popular imagination the embodiment of the “Great Writer.” All “Great Writers” in this matrix are “tragic” figures as art (a dangerous toxic substance) drives them to drink (Fitzgerald) or suicide (Hemingway). Capote replaced these macho men with the world’s biggest loudmouth sissy.

    I trust you recall that when informed of his arch-enemy’s passing Gore Vidal quipped “Good career move.”

    As always, Gore was absotutely right.

    Someday someone should make a film of Gore and Truman. It would be a hysterically funny screwball comedy with key scenes set at the Everard Baths (Gore took him there one evening, Truman squealed “I don’t like it!”), Tangier (where they both visited the Bowles’) and sundry courtrooms and law offices.

  2. Vidal’s literary adventures, such as the Mailer ruckus, could make a great story.

    I think Hoffman’s very good too, but he can’t compete with Jones physically, unless they’d shrunk him like a hobbit.

    I found In Cold Blood, the book, deeply moving, although the “factual novel” thing is baloney, as Infamous makes clear. It’s just hype.

    I’m sure Robert Blake found all his previous experience useful during his murder trial. I also wonder what Marlon Brando said to him a week before his wife was murdered. Possibly something like “I think you should kill her”?

    Beat the Devil is great, and Capote did manage to contribute somewhat to the screenplay for The Innocents. So he’s arguably had a more distinguished film career than Vidal (someone should do some research into drafts of Ben-Hur to see if Vidal’s claims can be confirmed).

  3. Well I personally wouldn’t claim Ben-Hur myself. It’s a rpofoundly silly story no matter how you slice it. Gore’s career as a screenwriter has never come up to the level of his sophistication as a film enthusiast as Myra Breckinridge (his book, NOT Sarne’s film) and its great sequel Myron, plus his essay-book Screening History make clear. I’ve always had the impression that Gore loves hanging out in Hollywood and knowing everyone and everything that’s going on more than actually “working within the system” — as the saying goes. He’s far too Patrician to put up with that.

  4. Well, Vidal was never going to be held responsible for the STORY (I’m sure he’d never have become involved if he thought there was any chance of carrying that can for that). It’s a silly story that sort of works, on its own daft level, and Wyler tries everything he can think of to make it credible. Stephen Boyd, reportedly conspiring with Vidal, gives the film it’s real drama, and has the most gruesome death scene of any film up to that point.

  5. True. Then came Suddenly Last Sumeer, where Gore wrote a “surround” to Tennessee William’s great little shocker of a play. But they kept the cannibalism offscreen.

    Elizabeth Taylor was really teriffic in that one. She really knew that Williams is all about the cadence of the monologue.

  6. “Please Don’t Eat the Pansies” was John Gielgud’s proferred alternative title for that.

    You know, I’ve heard all about it, and I have a copy, and I still haven’t watched it. Terrible of me!

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