“Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies”
Author: Tison Pugh
Publisher: The University of Georgia Press
Price: $79.95 (Cloth); $28.95 (Paper)
There was a time in the ’60s and ’70s when Truman Capote’s face and voice, unusual as they were, were the most familiar of any writer in America. It may still be so. After all, we have recently seen him portrayed on the screen by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” and by Toby Jones in “Infamous.” Both these films focus on Capote and the making of the film “In Cold Blood.” Along with the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” this may be how most people remember Capote.
In chapter after chapter, however, this thoroughly researched study reminds the reader of how very much Capote wrote and of the many ways his work and life intersected with Hollywood.
(Of Hollywood and California as a cultural center or as a place to live Capote was merciless: he called Los Angeles “a city of suntanned Uriah Heeps” and warned friends, “It is a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year.”)
Capote, an escapist/romantic and a dreamer, was a moviegoer from childhood. His primary self-identification as an artist was writer, but Capote loved glamour and money, so offers to have his fiction filmed were certainly welcome. Pugh spends the most time on the film adaptations of the “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Both were hugely successful films and both meet Pugh’s theoretical needs rather well.
As a critic, Pugh employs “queer theory” which means he explains fiction and film in terms of any sexuality portrayed that is not strictly orthodox heterosexuality. This includes the gay world, transsexuals, transvestites, pedophiles, and much more. With Capote, there is a lot to write about, but even so, Pugh overdoes it by half. Out of a need to put a theory label on everything, all male activities, such as two men fishing or ten men playing basketball, are “homosocial.” This seems more confusing than useful. The jargon is excessive, the attention seems obsessive, and the common reader may be put off by the academic nature of the criticism.
Capote was deeply involved with the productions of his Alabama stories of childhood: “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” “The Grass Harp,” and “Children on Their Birthdays,” all fraught with varieties of childhood eroticism, and with his much-loved and sexually benign “A Christmas Memory” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor.”
“A Christmas Memory,” the 1966 production, seems the most sexually chaste of all Capote productions but Pugh tells the reader that because Capote did the voice-over and “because the voice is so obviously Capote’s it is impossible to forget that the story is indeed his, and so viewers realize that they are watching a queer boy’s childhood.”
No, they don’t.
Although the bulk of Pugh’s work focuses on film analysis, changes from book to film, and why they are made, especially interest Pugh as queer theorist. In the novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” for example, the narrator is gay, an observer. In the movie, the hero is George Peppard, definitely not gay, and we are given a happy romantic ending.
The movie made from “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” Pugh reminds us, had an even bigger challenge. The novel ends with the young protagonist, Joel, resigning himself to a homosexual life with his peculiar cross-dressing cousin Randolph. In the movie, Joel leaves and the closing film voiceover declares: “I never did come back.”
The sexuality of the killers Smith and Hickok of “In Cold Blood” is considerably tortured, with Smith probably gay and, one reads, in love with Truman Capote. Truman downplays all this in the book; it would not have helped sales. There is even less in the film.
Capote was famous for drinking, pill-popping and jet-setting—famous, in fact, for being famous. But Pugh remind us of how hard he worked and with whom. Capote wrote the screenplays for “Beat the Devil,” directed by John Houston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lorre and others; “Indiscretions of an American Housewife,” starring Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones; “Laura,” starring Princess Lee Radziwill; and “The Innocents” (from James’ “Turn of the Screw”), starring Deborah Kerr. Like many screenwriters, he wrote several unproduced scripts, including one for “The Great Gatsby,” and occasionally took a part and acted, most notably in “Murder by Death.”
A kind of side effect of reading Pugh’s study—and it happens again and again when reading about Capote—is that we realize he worked harder, in more genres, and accomplished more work of high quality than we had remembered.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”