Truman Capote and Useless Critics


I first watched Infamous some five years after seeing Capote. The two are not only Truman Capote biopics, but ones that focus on the same event: the writing of In Cold Blood.

The similarities between the two films cannot easily be overstated. Since Capote beat Infamous to theaters by roughly a year, it did much better at the box office. This is not surprising. But what I think is interesting is how film critics trapped themselves with these two films.

There was a reluctance to like Infamous too much after so much had been made of Capote. That was particularly true of the praise heaped on Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role.

After labeling Capote a great film, it must have been humiliating to have another film come along that everyone agrees is pretty much as good. In the end, the vast majority of reviews are the same. “Both films are of equal quality but I’m going to put a negative spin on Infamous, just as I put a positive spin on Capote.”

Capote vs Infamous


The most important reason that Capote is considered better is that it is far vaguer. I really didn’t like Capote very much — so much so that I was reluctant to watch Infamous. The film can be summed up thusly. Capote is conflicted about his role as an artist and a human — but we don’t have any insights into that conflict.

In the end, the portrait that it paints of its main character is decidedly superficial. Of course, this kind of filmmaking is great for actors because critics will naturally fill in the subtext. “He’s not showing any emotion: what great acting!”

In contrast, Infamous does have something to say, and as a result is a far more watchable film. However, because the script tells us what is going on, we have a decent idea what the characters are thinking.

Hoffman vs Jones

It is hard to imagine that either film would have changed in quality if the stars had been reversed. But oh do the critics try to find a distinction!

Here’s how Eric D Snider compared them when he had to find a way of justifying his previous review:

Toby Jones looks enough like Truman Capote, but his voice sounds like an impersonation, not a performance. It’s impossible not to compare: Philip Seymour Hoffman imitated the voice, too, but fleshed out the performance so well that it seemed natural. Hoffman could have not done the voice at all and the character still would have seemed fully realized. With Jones, the voice is all he has.

What is the proof? Critics like Snider don’t need no stinking proof! Of course, there are exceptions, and they show how ridiculous this game is. Here’s Rex Reed:

I do not begrudge the versatile, popular Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar … but he was doing an impression. In Infamous, the second movie about [Capote] writing his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a diminutive actor with a titanic talent named Toby Jones literally becomes the man himself. This is no lisping impersonation learned from watching old Johnny Carson shows: Mr Jones moves into Truman’s skin, heart, and brains.

I understand: one could be right and the other wrong. But I think it is far more likely that both Hoffman and Jones are professional actors who are at the top of their professions and they both gave excellent performances without one being necessarily better than the other.

Critics Don’t Know Squat

In Reed’s review, he admits that when he went to see Infamous, “I was expecting nothing much.” And that’s probably why he liked it so much. And Snider probably didn’t like it much because he knew how he’d gushed before so he had to find fault in the new film.

It is hard to understand how two groups were independently convinced to invest roughly ten million dollars to make a film about Truman Capote. But I’m glad they did because they highlight just how silly and arbitrary film critics are.

Capote and Infamous images taken from Amazon under Fair Use.

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