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What begins as a humorous journey into the life of writer Truman Capote (Toby Jones) turns darker when he becomes consumed by the investigation into the 1959 murders of a Midwest family. Traveling to Kansas with childhood friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), Capote's quest to understand the murders leads to an unexpectedly intense bond with one of the killers, inspiring his book In Cold Blood, which indelibly changed his life. Co-starring Daniel Craig, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson and Sigourney Weaver. Written and directed by Douglas McGrath (Nicholas Nickleby), based on the book by George Plimpton.
 

 Infamous

Whenever I make a movie, it is because I am deeply interested in a certain world and the people who define it. In Infamous I was drawn to the world inhabited by the great American writer Truman Capote, played by the amazing English actor Toby Jones. At the start, we find Truman where he was happiest: as the center of the social universe. That universe for him was the top of Manhattan high society where he was court jester and confidant to an elite group of American royalty—the wealthy, the chic and the artistic.

In the movie there is a speech given by Diana Vreeland, played by Juliet Stevenson. At this time in her life, Mrs. Vreeland was the editor of Harper’s Bazaar and what she says tells us a lot about Truman and the world he lived in: “Here’s a word I loathe,” she says in her crisp, businesslike way, “eccentric. ‘Eccentric’ is a word that boring people use to describe someone I think of as interesting. Some people think of me as eccentric simply because when I have my shoes polished I have the entire shoe polished—tops, sides, soles. Some people think I’m eccentric because every morning I have my maid iron my money. When I told Truman that every morning I have my maid iron my money, do you know what he said? Here’s what he didn’t say: ‘How eccentric.’ Here’s what he did say: ‘How wonderful!’”

That’s the world Truman lives in when my movie starts: a world where people get their money ironed every morning. But he is quickly called to another world, the world of Holcombe, Kansas, where the Clutter family has been tragically and brutally murdered. (It is their story that would be the subject of Truman’s great book, In Cold Blood.) The contrast between Truman and the Midwesterners who made up the community could not have been sharper. Let’s just say none of the ranchers were getting their money ironed every morning.

Kansas had never seen anyone quite like Truman. At his first appearance at a press conference with the police, where the other reporters were wearing traditional Midwestern suits, boots and ties, Truman wore moccasins, a sheepskin coat, a scarf wrapped several times around his neck that still went almost to the ground and a pillbox hat. People were so confused by him, they frequently called him “ma’am.”

I thought his arrival there had the feel of a great comedy, and indeed, the first half of Infamous explores the comic aspects of that clash of cultures. Humor was an essential part of Truman’s appeal; however smart he was, he was no stuffy intellectual. In these years particularly, he was playful and merry—he always made people laugh and he knew how to make a joke about himself. He and his friend Harper Lee (played by Sandra Bullock) are invited to Christmas dinner at the home of Detective Alvin Dewey, played by Jeff Daniels. When they arrive, Harper Lee tells her hosts, “I know you said not to bring anything, but my Daddy would kill me if I showed up for company empty-handed. We brought you a fruitcake.”

Truman jumps in and adds, “And she doesn’t mean me.”

Part of what made him so funny to people was his voice. I have his enemy Gore Vidal describe it: “To the lucky person who has never heard it, I can only say, ‘Imagine what a brussels sprout would sound like if a brussels sprout could talk.’” It was nasal, it was babyish, it was sometimes languid, like he was falling asleep in the middle of his own sentence. If you hear it for the first time and think it has a slightly cartoony quality about it, that may be because the voice of the character Deputy Dawg was based on Truman.

But all of this—the outrageous clothes, the wit, the comical voice—hid a very different person underneath. He was a dedicated artist who dreamed of creating a serious and lasting work of art. He was a man of many contradictions, both rigorously artistic and dangerously frivolous. He was so deeply devoted to his work he would often spend days toying with a single sentence, yet he also haunted the talk shows and played a part in the Neil Simon movie, Murder By Death, a role no other serious writer would have done. His closest friends were women; he spent countless lunches listening to them pour out their troubles, yet very traditional masculine men, like Humphrey Bogart or Detective Alvin Dewey, enjoyed his friendship, too. Given how tiny he was, how seemingly delicate and how outlandish he could be in places where being outlandish wasn’t the way, he had an undeniable courage and people admired it.

In the movie he tells Alvin Dewey that he beat Humphrey Bogart at arm wrestling. Dewey can’t believe it—can’t and doesn’t. Finally, Truman has no choice but to prove it. Sleeves rolled up, arms on the table, the detective and the writer go at it—and Truman wins. “Well, I’ll be,” Dewey says in admiration. Truman looks at him, in a rare burst of candor, and explains, “When you’re tiny, you have to be tough. This world isn’t kind to little things.”

The world went Truman’s way for a long time, but then, because of what happened to him in Kansas, his toughness wore out and the world became a very unkind place. Infamous takes you on the journey from those penthouses in Manhattan to the homes and jails of Kansas and back again. When he returns to New York at the end, he is irrevocably changed.

If you saw Capote, you’ll know there is another film about this time in his life. People have asked me if I was surprised that there could be two movies about this tiny man. Knowing what I do about this complex and astonishing person, I am surprised—surprised that there haven’t been ten. Truman Capote was accused of a lot of things over the years but never, not even once, was he accused of not being interesting enough.