“Capote” teaches us as much about Philip Seymour Hoffman as its subject

PSH Capote "Capote"

Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.

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Ask any critic, and most will tell you the same thing: writing about acting is no picnic. It’s only natural to evaluate a performance you’re seeing on screen. Pretty much everyone does it. But what actually makes an actor’s work particularly high quality or noteworthy? What makes a great actor great? 

“What he learned to do was maximize every opportunity, maximize every line. He didn’t let one line go. Phil didn’t take one line for granted. He was ferocious.” That’s Ethan Hawke eulogizing Philip Seymour Hoffman a few years ago, so don’t take it from me, take it from someone who’s truly knowledgeable about performance. Hoffman was an incredible talent, an efficient chameleon armed with truly impressive range. 

What can we all learn from him? What can his work teach us all about acting? I’m starting with P.S.H. I Love You because I believe that Hoffman stands as one of the few actors who deserve to have their entire body of work studied and appreciated, the same way we here at The Spool examine the complete works of different filmmakers monthly. Hoffman’s prolific presence makes this project a treat: some weeks, it’ll be an excuse to write about and appreciate movies I already think are great; others, it’ll be a detour into cinema I never would’ve stumbled upon. On a case-by-case basis, what mountains were Hoffman able to move to enhance each filmmaker’s vision? 

(Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Before he passed away on February 2, 2014, Hoffman appeared in 52 features, six television shows (including a revolutionary war miniseries in the late ‘90s), and a few dozen New York theater productions. This column will be confined to his film work; I plan to write about each of his movie roles, weekly, over the next year. There’s no specific anniversary or occasion. I just think examining this magnificent talent is worth it. 

Truth is, with a project of this scale, I’m able to discover its shape as I go. I won’t be proceeding chronologically—the film I’ve chosen to start with is Bennett Miller’s Capote (not to be confused with Josh Trank’s Capone, another offbeat biopic). Released on its subject’s birthday—September 30, 2005—this a surprisingly thoughtful historical examination, one elevated at every turn by Hoffman and his work. We meet Truman Capote in the late ‘50s. He’s published his Breakfast at Tiffany’s novella and done some work screenwriting in Hollywood. It’s clear from the moment we meet him that what he seems to truly love—and need—is adoration.

Immediately, it’s just as clear that Hoffman (also credited as an executive producer) is doing some impressive physical work. His usually large stature has narrowed, and his voice reaches an astonishingly high octave. Yet instead of seeming tense, Hoffman successfully plays Capote as cocksure and charismatic, whether he’s entertaining circles of people at a party or combing through the morning paper searching for his next project. He finds inspiration in a story of a Kansas family killed in a home invasion, the murders becoming the basis for his eventual acclaimed “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood

Truman heads west, away from the lavish parties of his Manhattan nightlife, accompanied by a pre-To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, delightful as usual). Capote, a fish out of water, does his best to adjust, but it isn’t long until the killers are caught. They are Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino); the novelist bonds with the former, laying the psychological groundwork for his eventual book. 

It’s here that Capote reveals what it’s really about: this is a movie about acting, the story of a man expending every ounce of his energy to get inside the head of another person. The film is essentially the true crime behind the true crime, almost reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (of course, Kaufman and Hoffman would eventually collaborate on Synecdoche, New York). Sure, Truman can soak up affection and praise like a dry sponge, but can he actually get a handle on Smith’s psyche to the point that he can honestly convey it to others? 

At the same time, there’s a persistent sense that Capote is taking advantage of his subjects as he lies about the title of his book and spirals into an alcoholic fugue, waiting for the criminals to face execution. It’s dark stuff, and though In Cold Blood received universal acclaim, we learn from closing cards that Capote never finished another book. The artist earned the praise he so desperately craved. Was it worth it?

[I]t’s not Hoffman’s ability to imitate Capote’s high register and unique body language that makes this performance great, but his realization of the character’s opposing psychological desires. 

The script, from actor-turned-writer Dan Futterman, doesn’t explicitly devote much time to the question, though on the whole, this biopic operates with more nuance than many of its peers. By focusing on just a few years, the film finds the footing to operate on its own terms instead of attempting to summarize its subject’s entire life. Director Bennett Miller frames proceedings in the usual cold period tones; his instincts to swap to handheld shots can’t change the fact that this is not a particularly exciting motion picture. Heck, it’s not even really Miller’s movie: Hoffman is the focal point of every scene, the engine that powers every expression. 

“I didn’t accept this film to play Truman Capote,” Hoffman said in an interview, and yet the actor would go on to win his only Academy Award for his work here. Again, it’s the sort of performance the Oscars often recognize: a prestige drama filled with showy flourishes. That’s not to say it’s bad—it’s quite good—though in this critic’s opinion, Hoffman would reach even greater heights before his passing. Furthermore, it’s not Hoffman’s ability to imitate Capote’s high register and unique body language that makes this performance great, but his realization of the character’s opposing psychological desires. 

Indeed, as an exploration of the lengths one will go to achieve greatness while self-sabotaging along the way, Capote effectively, quietly inverts the biopic process. Perhaps instead of a performer showing us more about Truman Capote, the narrative built around Truman Capote reveals more about Hoffman—more than we could’ve realized at the time.

Capote Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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