A couple of weeks into its run, the big news about Truman Capote is that he’s still gay.
Hollywood is expected to straighten out the historical gay character: Brad Pitt’s god-warrior in Troy, Colin Farrell in Alexander and even Johnny Depp in JM Barrie’s Neverland were all just going through phases, apparently.
Gay? Bi? Tranny? According to the local multiplex just give it a couple of hundred or thousand years and it’ll all straighten itself out.
The only other historical figures I can recall staying or turning gay are the 1920s Leopold-Loeb thrill-kill boys in the low-budget 1990s movie Swoon. But even they were straightened in an earlier outing: 1959’s Compulsion (starring Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell).
Maybe it’s Capote’s no-budget production or that the man has only been dead two decades, but the Tiny Terror remains that rare historical figure that straight culture has let us have — but at a cost.
The film focusses on the murder of a Kansas farm family that so intrigues Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he spends years researching it for his landmark 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. He also becomes infatuated with one of the men sentenced to hang for the killings, the dark brooding Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr).
Given the popularity of TV shows like CSI and A&E’s Cold Case Files, Capote has built-in appeal for the masses. Add the allure of literature and arguments about whether journalism is the exploitation of human tragedy and the movie appeals to the art house moviegoer as well.
The movie is also an experiment in gaydar.
When we first meet Capote no one tells us he’s gay and no one has to because it’s all up there on screen in the way Hoffman holds a glass (pinky extended), speaks (high and fey) and bitches (like America’s Next Top Model).
Hell, the filmmakers even give Capote a fag hag in Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), the author of To Kill A Mockingbird who accompanies him to Kansas.
But Capote is one conflicted movie. It shows the admittedly odd author as the mincing, mercurial troll he was and then calls itself a progressive, forward-thinking movie because it’s being “truthful.”
Indeed, the filmmakers must feel they’re doing a service to the gay community. The sissy with his limp wrists and swishy demeanour remains the most exotic species of gay man, rarely seen on-screen.
At the same time, the movie solves the problem of showing Capote’s love life by betting that no one in their right mind would want to see this man mate. And no one does. Even his partner (the blandly handsome Bruce Greenwood) is kept at arm’s length, mostly talking to Capote on the phone-and only about the murders.
Bare skin is unveiled only during Capote’s visits to Smith’s cell. Between Smith asking for the author’s help in appealing his conviction and Capote worrying that if Smith doesn’t swing from the gallows he’ll never finish his book, the swarthy convict shows him his tattoos and lightly touches his hand.
And that’s when you realize that the real story going on in Capote is how even successful, committed gay men simply cannot resist the straight bad boy.
Capote is a “gotcha!” kind of movie. Yes, we finally have a prestigious, highbrow film about a famous fag — but it’s also about the most flawed, asexual famous fag since Liberace.
Ultimately, the movie sees Capote’s homosexuality as a bit of a handicap, like Ray Charles’ blindness. But where last year’s biopic Ray saw the musician’s disability as a gift that heightened his creativity, Capote sees the author’s homosexuality as just another quirky vice like drinking too much.
So why is a straight actor playing a gay writer? Probably because Hoffman wants an Oscar nomination. (Unfortunately for him and Terrence Howard of Hustle and Flow, Jamie Foxx’s win for Ray last year satisfied the Academy’s obligation to honour historical and/or ethnic roles.)
But straight actors playing gay men isn’t a novelty anymore. It’s time to let a gay man do a gay man’s job.
Hoffman’s Capote doesn’t make me think of Oscar as much as it reminds me of Al Franken.
Remember Stuart Smalley, that counsellor Franken played on Saturday Night Live (“I’m smart enough. I’m nice enough. And, gosh darn it, people like me!”)? To borrow a term from the fictional Dr Smalley: Capote is one long shame spiral.