Although it is certainly rare that two movies cover the same subject within a very constricted timeline, it’s hardly unprecedented. Remember that there were no less than three TV-movies made about Amy Fisher in under a year! And then there was Tombstone and Wyatt Earp both contributing to the big lie about how the Earps were the heroes of the gunfight at the OK corral in 1993/1994. Still, there just seemed to be something particularly jarring about two different movies that took as their topic Truman Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood coming out one upon the other. Perhaps it was because of the Oscar-winning performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman; anything that came after, it could be assumed, would pale in comparison.
It is perhaps the most unfortunate thing in the movie industry when a superior film follows an award-winning film. Even worse is when both movies were made pretty much at the same time, but one was released well ahead of the other; audiences can’t help but feel that the second is a pale imitation riding upon coattails. Not that Capote was a bad movie by any means; in fact, it was one of the year’s best, certainly more deserving of a Best Picture Oscar than eventual winner Crash. But after viewing both Capote and Infamous back to back within the space of a few days, it is clear that the former has only one advantage over the latter, though admittedly that advantage is hardly a small one. Philip Seymour Hoffman does, indeed, give the better performance as Truman Capote, but only by a single hair on his balding pate. Both men effectively capture the unique vocal delivery of Truman Capote which sounds like a cross between Carol Channing and Comic Book Guy. (And I really wish I could take credit for that trenchant observation, but in fact it was my beloved wife who came up with that terrific line.)
The movies both cover the same territory and watching them within the span of a few days certainly gives one a feeling of déjà vu. But they cover this territory with just enough slight differences to make one remember that these movies take as their subject Truman Capote’s attempt to create the genre of fictional non-fiction-or is non-fictional fiction? As with any biopic or movie “based on a true story” it is always best to remember that even the hardiest of them are probably at best 50% accurate. That there are slight differences in the same story shouldn’t be taken as a fault; it’s the point. Who knows what is real and what isn’t? (Though, admittedly, in the case of JFK where 99% of what is presented as fact never actually occurred, there is reason for concern.) Both Infamous and Capote paint a portrait of the author’s interest in these two cold-blooded killers-especially Perry Smith-that is dazzlingly complex. One can never really be for sure-with 100% accuracy-whether Truman Capote really had any genuine feelings for anyone, much less the killers, or whether it was all just cynical manipulation for a story.
What makes Infamous the superior Capote film is that it offers a more encompassing view of its subject. While Capote is all about Kansas and friend Truman’s relationship with Perry Smith, Infamous provides a dialectical approach that has Capote bantering with high society idiots one minute and bantering with small town dupes the next. Of course, the importance of this is that it really doesn’t matter to which class Capote’s audience belongs, he can easily manipulate them both by appealing to their worst instincts. While the high society “swans” lead lives of self-inflicted desperation that urgently need a Truman Capote to lend their meaningless lives some sort of import, the small town folk desperately need to touch the Hollywood glitter that Capote represents. The result in both cases is that Capote gets his subjects to open up and give him whatever it is he needs. Infamous does this with much more style than Capote, in part because it recognizes the importance of doing so. What lifts the second Capote movie above the first is that it offers a fuller, richer view of the kind of life he really led, then shows how he uses exactly the same kind of methods no matter where he is or who he’s talking to.
Why Infamous is better can be illustrated using sequences that appear in both movies. In order to write the article he really wishes to write, Truman Capote must gain access to the police investigation, which much be accomplished by gaining the trust of the local sheriff. This occurs almost immediately in Capote, with Truman and the sheriff rather quickly and easily hitting it off. Infamous, however, significantly draws out this process, turning it into a game of cat and mouse that is being played only by Capote and that climaxes with a Christmas Day visit that looks to be heading nowhere until Capote finally happens upon the key to gaining the trust of these people who, up to know, have consistently confused him with a woman due to this high, girlish voice. Once they find out he’s friends with Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, everything falls into place.
Except for Truman Capote, all of the performances in Infamous are superior as well. It’s difficult to pin down just exactly what it is about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance that is better, but there is definitely something a little something extra there. As for the rest, although his resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones is at times distracting, current James Bond Daniel Craig lends a note of menace that is sorely missing from the Perry Smith in Capote. As odd and unexpected as this next sentence is, it remains nonetheless true: Sandra Bullock’s Harper Lee is more interesting than Catherine Keener’s. Equally true is that Jeff Daniels offers a more dimensional Alvin Dewey than Chris Cooper. Of course, one should keep in mind that these are all differences of degrees. The fact is that Bullock is not significantly better than Keener and Daniels is not significantly better than Cooper. Although, to be honest, Daniel Craig gives a far more intense performance in the role of the more important of the two killers.
It is still rare when two movies take on the same subject within a short period of time, but even rarer is when both movies are worthwhile. While Infamous is superior overall, it is important to note that both are far, far superior to such Oscar-nominated fare as Little Miss Sunshine, Crash or Munich.