Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
In Cold Blood created a sensation in America in 1966 hard to imagine today. From the start of the 2005 film Capote we see it is a revisionist look at Truman Capote and, to a degree, his blockbuster. Right away, there’s a character tut-tutting about the writer at work. Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, clearly disapproves when Capote ingratiates himself with the murdered girl’s best friend by telling her that he knows, because of his strange voice and affect, what it’s like to be misunderstood.
Keener plays Lee subtly and brilliantly, but this aspect of her role got on my nerves. What Capote did there was just fine by me—you could view him as being honest and human in the service of his work. He did know what it was like to be seen as strange; he did need to win over the girl in order to deepen the story. A journalist’s allegiance is to his work, if he’s any good, and the work must be worth such commitment. There’s tension, of course, because one must, or should, remember we live first as humans, not as writers.
But journalism is rather like politics and sausage: maybe you don’t want to watch it being made.
Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murder about another case but the same issue Capote faced with his killers; she specifically indicted Joe McGinniss’s queasy relationship with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for Fatal Vision. McGinniss, in interviewing the doctor accused of murdering his family, concluded that MacDonald was guilty, but he pretended otherwise so that MacDonald would continue cooperating.
Malcolm, going somewhat overboard, argues famously:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living. . . .
In the MacDonald-McGinnis case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late that the subject of his book was not up to scratch—not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers, like . . . Truman Capote’s Perry Smith, on whom the “non-fiction novel” depends for its life.
Malcolm tars journalists with a devoted brush, begging the question: what about every other human interaction? Do we really mean it when we say good morning or ask someone how it’s going? What about almost everyone who makes nice with a despised coworker or two for the sake of workplace harmony? What of the salesman who loathes his company’s biggest customer but doesn’t let on? The point is that all human interaction involves role playing, often complex, while everyone’s relentless private judgments are hidden. The journalist does withdraw and upon reflection publish his gossip. That’s a difference, perhaps, but if he’s compromised it is a matter of degree, not of kind, by and large, from the rest of us.
(As for McGinniss, he defends himself against Malcolm’s “skewed perception” in an afterword to his best-seller and has reprinted it on his web site.)
Nonetheless, journalism has rightly been called a moral minefield, and Capote depicts Capote wandering way too far into it. The movie’s premise is that Capote sold his soul to write In Cold Blood, and so the case is built from the start that he, already a freak and prima donna artiste, became an utter monster in order to effectuate it. This is a cautionary tale about the journalist’s, if not the writer’s, awkward role and relations, and it appeared to stun my feature writing students.
But the movie is a fictionalized work. In the service of its message, or its vision, it invents, and pushes factual aspects to the breaking point. After accusing Capote of trying to keep the killers alive only for his book, Capote advances a worse condemnation: he managed then to hasten their executions by ignoring their pleas for further legal assistance. Capote makes it appear he could have saved them but needed their deaths for a literary climax—an accusation that also arose when In Cold Blood was published. Kenneth Tynan, writing in The Observer in Britain after the book’s release there in March 1966, said, “It seems to me that the blood in which his book is written is as cold as any in recent literature.”
Biographer Gerald Clarke, from whom I got Tynan’s comment, rebuts:
Tynan’s thesis was based on a sloppy reading of the book and false assumptions about Kansas law, which would not have permitted the psychiatric defense he was suggesting. Truman set him straight in a lengthy reply, during the course of which he charged him with possessing “the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly.” The victory was Truman’s, but Tynan’s accusation stung more than it otherwise might have because it hit an exposed nerve. Truman could not have saved Perry and Dick if he had spent one million dollars, or ten million, but Tynan was right when he suggested that Truman did not want to save them.
Clarke’s biography, sympathetic to the writer, says that Capote faced “an insoluble moral dilemma,” desiring their deaths for closure while opposing the death penalty and identifying deeply with Perry Smith, the wounded artistic type of the pair. The reality of Capote’s dilemma appears to be the germ from which the movie Capote grew.
Which brings me to the movie’s last contention, that Capote was destroyed by guilt, a wretched creature in the wake of In Cold Blood finished off by alcohol and drugs. Only the latter appears to be unquestionably true. He was the toast of the literary world afterward, and gave his famous black and white ball, and was set for life financially. Some years later his society friends turned against him when he began to serialize a novel that told their secrets and but thinly disguised their identities. I suppose the movie’s vision implies that his later betrayals flowed from having sold his soul for In Cold Blood.
But Clark’s 631- page biography arrives at no such reductive message about the author. Perhaps a biopic can’t be as subtle as a book, even if it wants to be, which Capote doesn’t. The writer had been an unwanted child—the mother who had him at seventeen repeatedly abandoned him; her heart’s desire was to become a New York City society lady. It’s interesting that her son picked up that dream and made it real; even more interesting is that he betrayed that world, in his serialized novel Answered Prayers, and was cast out of it. Surely he was traumatized by his research for In Cold Blood, if only because he befriended Smith. The experience, from Capote’s own statements, seems to have scraped raw deep old psychic wounds. But I don’t think personal guilt over Smith’s death was a factor—just my sense from what I’ve read and seen, and lived as a reporter.
There are many ways to look at all this, including that Capote deserved Capote. If not literally always true, the movie prosecutes its own vision—or it panders to our desire for comeuppance, take your pick—but does crystallize the ambiguities in the journalist-source relationship.
A sunnier movie, and one far more sympathetic to Capote, the good but lesser-ranked Infamous, appeared a year later, in 2006. Its screenplay was based on George Plimpton’s oral history Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. I watched Infamous again, too, and though it fictionalized as well, it tries for a balanced view of Capote, his bon vivant lifestyle, and his courage in going after the killers’ story. Less beautifully filmed, less beautifully cast, Infamous finally reaches a similar conclusion—his nonfiction book made him and it destroyed him—but places the cause more on the nature of the work itself rather than on Capote’s guilt for betraying the killers.
Both films need to show him pay in the end for titillating readers with story derived from murder and from consorting with murderers. By going to the dark side. And finally they ask, Have you, would you, sell your soul for success?
In Cold Blood opened the eyes of journalists to what immersion, scenes, dialogue, structure, plot, and characterization could do, and it impressed other novelists with what journalism could do. But one of the things that makes the book difficult to teach today, in journalism and creative nonfiction classes anyway, are Capote’s inventions. Apparently he created from whole cloth Smith’s apology on the gallows—others didn’t hear Smith say a thing. But Capote wanted others to see Smith sympathetically, hence, Smith’s rather well crafted contrition in In Cold Blood.
The director-screenwriter of Infamous said that Capote proclaimed so often that “every word was true” in the book that he knew the statement must be a lie. Most obviously, Capote invented the book’s ending scene, an elegiac denouement in which investigator Alvin Dewey visits the Clutters’ graves. Long established as a classic and a masterpiece, In Cold Blood would be a scandal for that closing scene alone if published today in the genre it did so much to expand. A genius Capote surely was, but he hadn’t learned old newspapering tricks: he could have called Dewey to the cemetery, had him gaze at the graves, chatted with him. Maybe that would have got Capote off the hook, technically at least. Except he not only put Dewey in the graveyard, he had him run into Nancy Clutter’s best friend there. He gilded the lilly, journalistically, for that coda.
I suppose Capote might tell Oprah, if he could be summoned to her couch for expiation, “If something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Dummy—who could possibly believe such a scene was literally true?”