Truman Capote On Screen

March 14, 2019
With a special series of screenings of Breakfast At Tiffany’s coming up, we take a look at the big screen presence of that much loved classic’s author, Truman Capote.

An author, screenwriter, social commentator, playwright, notorious party goer, actor, and frequent TV talk show guest, Truman Capote was short in stature but truly larger than life, with a rapier wit and a damning way with words. Several of his works were made into films, he appeared in a few himself, and there were even two competing biopics made about the creation of his epochal literary work, In Cold Blood. Though film was very much a secondary aspect to Capote’s career, he certainly made his mark in the medium. “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy,” the famously witty Capote once said.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) Blake Edwards’ stylish, artful adaptation of the great Truman Capote’s 1958 novella will never date too horribly thanks to its luminous central character, Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn, who lives a life filled with obvious joy, but who longs for so much more, both materially and emotionally. An inveterate partygoer and it-girl on New York’s swinging social scene, there has been much debate over the years as to whether or not Holly Golightly is actually a classy call girl, or merely a young lady who likes the company of wealthy older men. “I never met Capote,” the late Blake Edwards said in 2003. “He hated the film and I understand why, because it really is nothing like the book. Before Audrey came into it, they were thinking of actresses like Marilyn Monroe, which was more like the Capote character. But when I came into it, Audrey was already the one who was going to do it. I was hired as a director much to my happiness and excitement, even though I was somewhat critical of doing it in that kind of commercial way. But I got over that the minute I met Audrey. I fell in love with Audrey, and it was great fun. I was very lucky to get it.”

BEAT THE DEVIL (1953) Undeniably the most cultish movie on the iconic resume of Humphrey Bogart (along with In A Lonely Place), Beat The Devil is a bizarre meld of action, adventure and comedy. Co-starring top-shelf character actors, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley and Bernard Lee, and the incendiary Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida, the film centres on a rogue’s gallery of crooks and grifters looking to lay their grubby hands on land rich in uranium deposits in Kenya. Brusquely directed by John Huston, Beat The Devil is the blackest of black comedies. Based upon the novel by British journalist Claud Cockburn, writing under the pseudonym James Helvick, the film’s script was written by Huston and Truman Capote as the film was being shot. According to Capote, their aims were wholly comedic. “John Huston and I decided to kid the story, to treat it as a parody,” the writer said of the film. “Instead of another Maltese Falcon [directed by Huston and starring Bogart], we turned it into a…[spoof] on this type of film.”

THE INNOCENTS (1961) One of the greatest and most wonderfully restrained entries of 1960s horror cinema, The Innocents was based on the novella, The Turn Of The Screw, by the American novelist Henry James. The screenplay was adapted by William Archibald (who had written a stage version of the book) and Truman Capote, who principally looked to said play – rather than the novella – as his prime source of inspiration. “The picture took a convoluted route from page to screen,” wrote Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. “Truman Capote delivered a version that – with its intimations of repressed sexuality – allowed in flavours of Capote’s own southern mayhem. John Mortimer (still a decade-and-a-half away from Rumpole Of The Bailey) later stepped up to tweak the dialogue.” Far different from Capote’s most famous works, and directed with characteristic style by the underrated Jack Clayton (Our Mother’s House, Something Wicked This Way Comes), The Innocents follows a kind-hearted governess (Deborah Kerr) who begins to fear that the sprawling rural estate where she works is haunted by ghosts, and that her two young charges may be possessed by evil spirits. Critically lauded and highly influential (The Shining and The Others both owe blood debts), The Innocents is prime horror from a writer rarely, if ever, associated with the genre.

IN COLD BLOOD (1967) Truman Capote made history and literally changed the literary form with his 1966 work, In Cold Blood. Self labelling his book a “non-fiction novel”, it tells the true story of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, two rootless bottom-feeders in Kansas who murdered an entire farming family, and finally ended up on Death Row, where they were eventually executed. A deft and masterful work that introduced a new approach to reportage and true crime literature, the book was an enormous success, and was inevitably brought to the screen. The 1967 adaptation by screenwriter/director, Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry, Blackboard Jungle), is a near masterpiece, stunning in its narrative economy, stark visual aesthetic and psychological enquiry, and boasting extraordinary performances from Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Smith and Hickock. The book was also adapted into a two-part 1996 television mini-series starring Anthony Edwards and Eric Roberts as Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

MURDER BY DEATH (1976) Though a regular on TV talk shows in the 1970s, Truman Capote’s principal on-screen moment (outside of a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) came with Murder By Death, a goofy detective mystery spoof penned by celebrated playwright, Neil Simon, and directed by Robert Moore (The Cheap Detective, Chapter Two). With the likes of Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, David Niven and Maggie Smith playing characters sending up literary figures like Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles and Charlie Chan, Truman Capote is amusingly cast as the villainous Lionel Twain, the wealthy eccentric who invites them all to his mansion to solve a murder…that hasn’t happened yet. The film received mixed reviews, and so did Truman Capote. “Mr. Capote possibly is acting, but it looks more as if he’s giving us an over-rehearsed impersonation of himself as people see him on unrehearsed TV talk shows,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times.

CAPOTE (2005) A renowned socialite and industry player, Truman Capote was almost as famous for his fey, effete mannerisms as he was for his literary work. But in this acclaimed biopic, the Oscar winning Philip Seymour Hoffman does so much more than just impersonate Capote; sure, he might get the voice and wispy hand movements pitch perfect, but he goes much deeper than that to uncover a far less well known Truman Capote, one almost crippled by a combustible mix of loneliness and fevered self-absorption. It’s the best kind of performance: original, full bodied and wholly believable. But while Hoffman and the character of Capote anchor the film, they’re not the whole show. Concentrating solely on the research, writing and aftermath of Capote’s non-fiction masterwork In Cold Blood, director Bennett Miller creates an atmosphere of quiet, almost glacial dread. Stellar support comes from Catherine Keener (as Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird), Clifton Collins Jr. (as killer Perry Smith), and Chris Cooper (as a small town cop). Cogent and compelling, Capote is a keenly intelligent portrait of a keenly intelligent man.

INFAMOUS (2006) Coming after Capote, and telling exactly the same story, Infamous – starring British actor, Toby Jones, as Capote – is actually an equally powerful work. The ensemble is excellent: Sandra Bullock skillfully and quietly plays Harper Lee; Sigourney Weaver briefly appears as socialite Babe Paley; Hope Davis excels as Slim Keith; and Jeff Daniels is terrific as the down-home Kansas cop who ultimately falls for Capote’s name-dropping charm. But the most astonishing performance comes from Daniel Craig as the sensitive killer Perry Smith. The scenes in which Capote probes him gently for the grist to bring his book to life only to find an indefinable love blooming are shatteringly emotional. A less stylish and visually assured production than Capote, Infamous works with a more natural visual palette. A less fussed over approach suits the film, and provides no hurdle of affectation to keep you from diving into this world of words and feelings. Julian Shaw


TERMINAL STATION (1953) Capote is credited with contributing dialogue to this drama from Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D) starring Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones.

THE GRASS HARP (1995) Starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek and Walter Matthau, and directed by his son, Charles Matthau, this little seen comedy drama is based on Capote’s 1951 novel.

OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS (1995) Adaptation of Capote’s 1948 Southern Gothic novel starring Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus Of Montreal) and Anna Levine.

CHILDREN ON THEIR BIRTHDAYS (2002) Starring Sheryl Lee, Tom Arnold and Christopher McDonald, this family drama is based on Capote’s 1940s-era short story.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s will screen at The Sydney Opera House with a live symphony score on May 4 and May 5. Click here for all information.

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