The biopic occupies a strange place within contemporary cinema, independent or otherwise. Of the many released in the last decade, Capote is in my mind most notable for its understatement. And though the daisy chain of mononymous films can be traced back further than 1977’s Julia, Fred Zinnemann’s film based on playwright Lillian Hellman’s memoir Pentimento provides a useful lens through which to view the current state of its extended cinematic family, especially Bennett Miller’s 2005 portrait of the jet-setting author of In Cold Blood. Capote was neither the first nor last biopic so unimaginatively titled; recent films carrying on this tradition range from art-house (Carlos, Che) to multiplex fare (Alexander, Ali), but Miller’s was the first in a long while to play into this trend while transcending most others. It sits largely on the shoulders of its star-turned-Oscar winner (as did Ray the year preceding and The Last King of Scotland the year following), was an otherwise modest undertaking from the boutique branch of a large studio (Sony Pictures Classics), and has seemingly been forgotten by the lion’s share of critics who almost unanimously embraced it upon its release.
All this is to say that, on paper, Capote does not distinguish itself. That the film is imbued with such gravitas despite its unremarkable premise and conception can be explained most readily by its performances. Any late-for-the-party praise for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the author of In Cold Blood would at this point be redundant; suffice to say the adulation heaped upon him was well-earned. Just as notable—and far less lauded—is Clifton Collins, Jr., whose performance as Perry Smith, one of the two drifters whose murder of an entire Kansas family inspired Truman’s book, seemed poised to make the young actor a star but was forgotten shortly thereafter. Read Michael Nordine’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.