Rating 3

Written and directed by Douglas McGrath, based on the book by George Plimpton

Starring Toby Jones (Truman Capote), Sandra Bullock (Harper Lee), Daniel Craig (Perry Smith), Lee Pace (Richard Hickock), Sigourney Weaver (Babe Paley), Jeff Daniels (Alvin Dewey), Gwyneth Paltrow (Kitty Dean), Isabella Rossellini (Marella Agnelli), Juliet Stevenson (Diana Vreeland), Michael Panes (Gore Vidal), Hope Davis (Slim Keith), Frank Curcio (William Shawn), John Benjamin Hickey (Jack Dunphy), Bethlyn Gerard (Marie Dewey) and Peter Bogdanovich (Bennett Cerf)

When, in November 1959, the celebrated New York author and wit Truman Capote reads an small report in the New York Times about the murder of a family in Holcomb, Kansas he decides to write an article about the crime and its impact on the local community, travelling to Holcomb with his lifelong friend and confidant, the author Harper “Nellie” Lee. He soon realises he has enough material to write a book, adopting a new approach that he describes as a “non-fiction novel”. As his research and writing continues, he becomes increasingly wrapped up in the life of Perry Smith, one of the two men responsible for the killings.


‘Infamous’ is based on a 1997 book by the late George Plimpton and deals with the events leading up to the writing of Truman Capote’s book ‘In Cold Blood’, which caused a sensation when it was first published in serial form in the New Yorker magazine in 1965, six years after the killings. The film received a limited theatrical release in October 2006 and dealt with exactly the same subject as ‘Capote’, which had been released in September 2005. That earlier film received much greater attention, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role.

Both films deal with Capote’s motivation for writing the book, which he researched in considerable detail, interviewing many of the people connected with the case, including the two convicted killers, and eventually amassing more than 8,000 pages of notes. He did not tape record any of the interviews he conducted, instead transcribing them from memory, and it has been claimed that he deliberately changed some of the detail to suit his own purposes in creating this new style of non-fiction work. He was particularly fascinated by Perry Smith and it has long been rumoured that the two shared a romantic or even sexual relationship during Capote’s visits to the prison where Smith was held, although there is no real evidence to support this.

I had initially avoided watching ‘Infamous’, having already seen the excellent ‘Capote’ and deciding that I did not need to watch two films that dealt with the same subject matter in such a short space of time. However, a friend recommended it to me, making mention of the performance of Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, whose acclaimed novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was published in July 1960. Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel in 1961. I like Sandra Bullock very much and believe she is a much better actress than many of her film choices and has genuine screen presence. Her performance here is quietly impressive and is, for me, the highlight of the film, although the central focus is on Toby Jones as Truman Capote and Daniel Craig as Perry Smith and the relationship of these two pivotal characters. Harper Lee, who has never published another novel after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, said in 2007, when asked to address an audience at a ceremony she attended, “It’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

‘Infamous’ makes a distinction between the small community of Holcomb and the impact it (and Perry Smith) has on Truman Capote and his celebrity lifestyle in New York and the society circles he moves in. We see him with the socialite and style icon Babe Paley, of which he once wrote, “Babe Paley had only one fault, she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” Paley was one of Capote’s “swans”, as were Marella Agnelli and Slim Keith, both of whom feature in the film. Paley and Keith were the inspiration for Capote’s posthumous novel ‘Answered Prayers’, which when some work-in-progress chapters were published in Esquire magazine in 1975 and 1976, resulted in Capote being ostracised by several friends led by Paley.

The scenes set in New York are somewhat stylised, but I imagine this is deliberate to create a juxtaposition with the reality of Holcomb and the real lives of real people that Capote encounters there. His friends in New York seem like caricatures, but that is what they are, jet set socialites and style icons playing a role. I don’t think the film quite manages to make this mix work entirely successfully, but I can see what it set out to do.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays a nightclub singer called Kitty Dean. The original intention had been that she would portray the singer Peggy Lee and the scene in the film when she goes into a kind of trance during her performance of a song to a nightclub audience, including Capote, is based on a genuine performance by the nightclub singer and Broadway musical actress Barbara Cook.

The film boosts a very impressive cast and there are some very good performances. Toby Jones, in particular, manages to avoid turning Capote into a caricature, even though that is what he was in many ways, and perhaps even more so than Philip Seymour Hoffman the previous year, he creates a real person who found himself identifying with Perry Smith. Capote’s childhood was a long way removed from the circles he moved in later on after his successful writing career was established and both films reference this as a motivator for the strange attraction of the contemplative but explosively violent Smith.

‘Infamous’ has a 71% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 135 reviews. It had a production budget estimated to have been in the region of $13 million and grossed $2.6 million at the box office worldwide.

Review posted 11 June 2009


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