The Gift of Tears: The Tragedy of Capote and Seymour Hoffman

Mark Thomas

Capote, 2005. Directed by Bennett Miller.

Tears are a gift. So say masters of the Christian mystical tradition like Ignatius of Loyola. To be moved by the tragedy of sin, and by God's abundant love and mercy, even to the point of tears, is a boon to the soul. And yet I don't imagine that even the few who prize such a consolation would be delighted to receive the gift of tears in their Christmas stockings. So it is with trepidation that I offer for your consideration, in this season of gift-selection, the exquisitely tragic film Capote, directed by Bennett Miller and starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I'll start by answering the question you didn't know you wanted answered: Yes, this film actually made me cry. But I must admit that my tears were anything but the fruit of divine charity at work in my soul. Rather they were entirely and uniquely selfish. Because I am Truman Capote. By which I mean that, like the man born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana, I am a poor soul. A man who sometimes feels―make that feels all the time―like a motherless child. Those who experience themselves as un-loved―or at least not loved enough―often find that it undermines their health, their sanity, even their soul. For them it seems that nothing can rescue them. Not even―indeed, judging from Truman's story, especially not―artistic accomplishment and acclaim.

Capote, while based upon the 1988 biography by Gerald Clarke, is not in fact Capote's life story. It does not show us his tragic childhood, nor his slow descent into oblivion following the universal acclaim of In Cold Blood. The film confines itself to the story of Capote's ruinous journey toward the completion of his acclaimed masterwork. His book tells the story of a senseless killing of an entire Kansas family while they were all still in their beds. At a time when there were no such thing as senseless killings. When nothing bad ever happened in a place like Kansas.

Put simply, Truman's book shook the world. Not only because of its subject matter, but because it was a story the likes of which the world had never read, an entirely new kind of literary event, a new genre which Capote dubbed the "non-fiction novel". It could be said that he created, in literary form, what we refer to in cinema as the documentary. And the most astonishing thing that Capote documented was the wounded, tortured psyches of the killers themselves. He might fairly be referred to as the world's first criminal profiler (which means in addition to inventing the documentary, he also invented "CSI" and "Criminal Minds"). For his astonishing accomplishment Capote received worldwide acclaim. He was ever after a celebrated personage. And yet, as the film's closing cards tell us (after leaving us with an image of Truman alone on a plane clutching his inimitable masterpiece), he never finished another novel, blew up all his personal connections, and ended up drinking himself to death.

In the movie, Capote is played by a man who I suspect may have understood him all too well: Philip Seymour Hoffman. In an extended interview he gave shortly after the release of the film and shortly before he won an Oscar for his work on it, Hoffman revealed that, after long and agonized deliberation, he decided to say yes to Bennett Miller and accept the role of Truman Capote, "for personal reasons." He never did reveal in that interview what those personal reasons were. What he did speak about was how he came to understand Capote through his analysis of the Gerard Clarke biography (an analysis which I think we may say was vindicated by Hoffman's critical success). Said Hoffman: "I kept coming back to the story he tells about his mother. I knew in the end it had everything to do with the kid who was left alone in the hotel room for a good twenty-four hours, and everyone who could hear him was told not to open the door, when he was, like, six."

After registering that note of disgust, he continued,

And there was years of this kind of abuse. And not that that ever happened, nothing like that, but I had to think: Well, what does that do to somebody?... It's about love being rejected at some point… it's about a love that was given with such openness and rawness and somebody actually took it, spat on it and threw it away. Meaning your need for love is going to be bigger than you're capable of dealing with. There's never going to be enough of it. There'll never be enough love, there'll never be the right kind of love, it'll never be all-consuming enough.

Why do I suspect that Hoffman understood Capote all too well? Moments earlier in this same interview, after being asked whether or not he felt Capote's need for recognition was his tragic flaw, and after grinding to a halt several times, Hoffman finally said:

You go to talk about something like this, and you're afraid to talk about it because you don't want it to come off in some therapeutic way, something that has to do with… my dead pet or something. But you know what? A lot of life has to do with the dead pet. And that's just the truth... It has to do with not getting picked for the team, it has to do with your mom not talking to you for two weeks when you're ten... So you go to talk about it, and you don't want to talk about it, because everyone's like, eww, ugh, I don't care… umm… your life? That's not interesting to me! It's a craft!

Hoffman was referring to acting here. And it is at this point that he launches into the hotel-room story.

So, wait, were we just talking about your life, Phil? Is that how you knew the abandonment of Truman in that hotel room was at the heart of his story? And why you knew you couldn't say no to this role, as much as it terrified you? Because that example of a mother refusing to speak to her son for two weeks was something more than a pointed hypothetical? Because you knew yourself to be as insatiable as Truman, because you knew yourself to have been wounded with the same wound that would not heal? Because you knew that you grew up in that same house? Because you, too, were Truman Capote? This might explain his apparently non-sequitorial qualifier "not that that ever happened, nothing like that". He had been four years older, for one thing.

But whatever the facts of his personal life, there can be no doubt that Hoffman, in keeping with his mission to impart to his audiences sympathetic insight into even the most unsympathetic of characters, came to possess an understanding of what it would be like to be as bereft as Truman Capote. In other words, he understood this motherless child. And maybe even loved him. Hoffman, who never liked watching himself on screen, forced himself to watch his performance as Capote. In Miller's film, Truman is depicted as someone so bent on reaching the mountaintop that he is willing to sacrifice his humanity to get there, knowing full well what he is doing. And yet, upon seeing that final image of Capote alone with what we might call his precious, Hoffman is reported to have shed a tear and muttered, "'Poor bastard."

And so that is why you should give (or treat yourself to) the gift of Capote this Christmas. That you and your loved ones might weep for all us poor desperate motherless bastards (emotional and literal), that you might give thanks to God for all the love that surrounds you, and that you might confess that there but for the grace of God goest thou. And so, with hearts thus enlarged, you might say a prayer for those of us who walk around with smiles on our faces and wounds in our hearts and minds, out of which all the love and affirmation we're given, even the love and affirmation given by God Himself, seems to slip away and disappear into the void.

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic living in upstate New York and haunting southern California.