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Hoffman Delivers a Haunting 'Capote'

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Yeah, I have decided on a title for my book. I think you'll like it; it's very masculine. It's "In Cold Blood." Isn't that good?


Truman Capote, the 1960s writer, celebrity and, some say, genius, is the subject of the new movie "Capote." Nearly everyone who reviews the movie says its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, deserves an Oscar nomination. Our critic, Bob Mondello, is in that number.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

It was a brief newspaper story that caught Truman Capote's eye in 1959, a terrible, inexplicable murder in a farmhouse; a whole family dead. He thought it might make a good New Yorker magazine piece. So he headed for Kansas, where his bizarre affectations, coupled with a sleek, long camel-haired coat, made him seem an almost alien creature. But director Bennett Miller establishes that Capote's weirdness may have worked in his favor, allowing him, with a little help from his novelist friend Harper Lee, to ingratiate himself with, say, the local sheriff's wife.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Girdle up, no extra bulges. If you're dressed right when he gets home, the rest of the evening should be smooth sailing. Bon voyage, gals.

Unidentified Woman: I can't believe you got that whole page. I only read it once.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) I had to ...(unintelligible) myself. I have 94 percent recall.

Unidentified Person: ...94 percent recall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Cut that out.

Unidentified Person: Cut that out.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Cut that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: The sheriff's wife, then the sheriff, then Capote got access to the two men accused of the murders and developed a rapport with one of them, Perry Smith, who, after many months of interviews, started to think of him as a friend, especially after he helped them find a new lawyer.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. CLIFTON COLLINS Jr.: (As Perry Smith) Thank you.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Well, it's as much for me as for anyone, and I couldn't bear the thought of losing you so soon.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) We're going to be able to use your book for our case. You'll write we never got to raise an insanity plea. You wrote how terrible the lawyers was.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Well, I haven't written a word yet.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) What have you been doing?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Research, talking to you.

MONDELLO: But the inmates refuse to talk about the night of the murders, and without that, Capote didn't really have a book, a book he thought might change the way writers write but that was, meanwhile, putting him on increasingly shaky ethical ground. As the case dragged on for years, he courted a nervous breakdown and was alternately seductive and cruelly manipulative with his subjects.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) They only exacerbate the problem. They only heighten or intensify it. Maybe we can prepare a requiem...

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Perry, I know what exacerbate means.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) OK. Well...

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) There is not a word or a sentence or a concept that you can illuminate for me. There is one singular reason I keep coming here.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) Truman...

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) November 14th, 1959, three years ago. Three years. Mm-hmm. And that's all I want to hear from you.

MONDELLO: Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman lets you see exactly how this might have worked, how Capote disarmed people into underestimating him and then went in for the kill. It's a marvelous performance, one that wrests every disturbing nuance from Dan Futterman's script and still leaves room for others to register: Clifton Collins Jr., scarily needy as Perry Smith; Catherine Keener, reserved and conflicted as Harper Lee. Still, it's Hoffman who dazzles. Whether delicately slipping a bribe to a prison warden, or crying for a man he's just doomed, his Capote is haunting. I'm Bob Mondello.

ELLIOTT: To hear an interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman about portraying Truman Capote, and more reviews of the movie, go to our Web site, npr.org.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.