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Monday, November 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  Light Drizzle
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Personally, I always thought David Hyde Pierce should have played Truman Capote, American literature's celebrated Queen of Dish. Pierce was halfway there on "Frasier," swishing just enough to get the laugh without making a complete shambles of Niles' alleged heterosexuality. And the guy has a killer sense of timing, capable of dropping opponents at 20 paces. Not to take anything away from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won a much-deserved Oscar for his tough-tender portrait in last year's Capote. But in retrospect, it was a little on the butch side, albeit only in the context of Capote himself, who may have been as tough as nails but was also one of the world's preeminent sissy boys. Hoffman wisely underplayed the flamboyance, since he was never going to get all the way there anyway.

And now along comes Toby Jones in Infamous, Douglas McGrath's campier version of the years during which Capote researched and wrote In Cold Blood, his famous - infamous? - nonfiction novel about the murder of a Kansas farm family back in 1959. A British stage actor, Jones has the great fortune of looking quite a bit like Capote in his middle years, before the booze and drugs started working their magic. And perhaps by taking regular hits of nitrous oxide, he's come up with a reasonable facsimile of Capote's inimitable voice. (If Scarlett O'Hara had been a munchkin, she would have sounded like this.) Only on occasion does Jones take things too far and start to seem like an animated character - a femme Mr. Magoo, perhaps. Otherwise, this is an impersonation worthy of Rich Little.

As a performance, it simply doesn't reach as deep as Hoffman managed to get, nor was it perhaps intended to. If Capote was a wake of sorts, Capote himself having wound up a victim of his fabricative search for truth, Infamous is more of a cocktail party, the chatter derived from George Plimpton's "oral biography," Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. There's a better word for "oral biography": gossip. But since Capote himself thrived on the stuff, it's as if we've come full circle. Who knows how much of Infamous is "true"? For that matter, who knows how much of Capote was true? Or In Cold Blood? The difference is that Infamous gets a kick out of the uncertainty, just as one might get a kick out of champagne. It has more fizz.

For my money, it might have had even more fizz. McGrath brings on the "swans," those ladies-who-lunch whom Capote dined out on for years before airing their delicately soiled laundry in the first (and, it turned out, last) installment of Answered Prayers. Sigourney Weaver attempts Babe Paley, wife of CBS head William Paley. Hope Davis gives Slim Keith a go. But none of this amounts to much. If McGrath wanted to cast a net around Capote the social butterfly, he perhaps should have focused on the later years, from the Black and White Ball onwards and downwards. Instead, he heads out to Kansas, where Capote must have been good for a laugh or two but surely not the fish-out-of-water, alien-off-his-planet comedy we get here. When he steps off the train, it's as if Miss Peggy Lee has arrived for her engagement on the Russian steppes.

Things get more serious when Capote visits the Clutter home, bed mattresses still stained with blood. And they get even more serious when he visits one of the killers in prison. Perry Smith, here given the rough-trade treatment by the up-and-coming 007, Daniel Craig, reminded Capote of himself. As to whether Capote was in love with Smith, or Smith was in love with Capote, only their hairdressers know for sure. Capote turned the prison scenes into a gripping master class in the art of psychological seduction, each side getting what he needed. Infamous is more about consummation, including a kiss that removes whatever nuance we might have hoped for. Did it happen? Doubtful, if only because Capote would surely have told somebody about it. "I'm absolutely sworn to secrecy," he used to say right before spilling the beans.

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