by Bill Hawk

United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics, 2005, Color, 114 mins.- Sony DVD

Philip Seymour Hoffman: “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster, always. I don’t want that.”


Author Truman Capote knew something about being misunderstood- when you’re a slightly-built gay man with an effeminate manner who sounds like he’s been inhaling helium, it can be hard to get any respect. And like many creative types, he needed respect, and attention, which is why he was always on the lookout for story subjects. And late in 1959, he found one in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, where four seemingly senseless murders had been committed in a farmhouse in the dead of night. Leaving his usual stomping grounds in New York City, he heads to Kansas and insinuates himself into the investigation of the crime. He soon finds himself drawn to one of the killers, Clifton Collins Jr., a kindred spirit of sorts whom Hoffman comes to see almost as an alternate version of himself. Hoffman slowly gains Collins’ trust, learning about his life and helping with his defense- but always with the ultimate goal of finding out just what happened on the night of the murders. As the appeals process for the two men drags on, for years, Hoffman laboriously works on his book about the murders, “In Cold Blood,” but he can’t finish it until he has an ending. He needs to get the last piece of the puzzle from Collins- and he needs for the two men to be hanged. In a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for,” he does finally get what he wanted, and the book is published…but he got too close to his subject, and it’s scarred him. He will never complete another book.

Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman’s take on the pivotal events of Capote’s writing career is spare but penetrating, with understated visuals that augment the somber nature of the story and put the focus onto the actors. Hoffman, like his character, is usually at center stage, and he not unexpectedly snagged an Oscar for his work. He has to walk a fine line, because Capote could easily be seen as the joke that he became later in life- the fixture on talk shows who was always ready with a quip, and was always ready to down one of the cocktails that would eventually do him in. Fortunately, enough of the man’s inner qualities- both good and bad- come through to make him compelling. Able support comes from Collins, a seemingly unlikely killer, and from Catherine Keener, playing “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Nelle Harper Lee, an old friend of Capote’s who understands him as only an old pal can. Overall, the film is a perhaps a bit too long, but if you’re in the mood for a well-crafted, character-driven piece, with some gritty (and occasionally gory) details, it’s worth a look. Disc extras include audio commentaries and featurettes.

 MGM, 1976, Color, 121 mins.- Warner Bros. Special Edition DVD

William Holden: “You’re television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”

Yes, but she gets good ratings for the UBS TV network- and old-timers with integrity, like news division chief Holden, and his newscaster friend Peter Finch, are becoming a dying breed. And that dying part threatens to become literal when Finch, faced with the loss of his job due to declining ratings, unleashes some rather harsh comments in his final broadcasts- including an announcement of his own on-air suicide. Holden, annoyed by the corporate bean-counters who want to gut his operation, allows Finch to have his say. But amidst the repercussions to all involved, programming exec Faye Dunaway sees an opportunity to showcase the rantings of Finch in a new, entertainment-oriented news program. Soon, the increasingly-nutty Finch- known as “The mad prophet of the airwaves”- is a hit for the ratings-starved network, and the door is opened for other shows that mix the real and the phony in new and insidious ways. Holden finds a bit of a silver lining in the situation by having a fling with Dunaway, but it’s the sort of thing that can’t last. And when Finch speaks out against the machinations of big corporations, he finds out that being a prophet has its downside….

This satirical masterpiece netted a well-deserved Oscar for writer Paddy Chayefsky, who foresaw the rise of “Edutainment” and “Reality” programming on the ol’ Idiot Box. The real world of television hasn’t quite caught up to his dark vision in some ways, and has exceeded it in others- but the film retains its power to shock and amuse, and bits like Finch’s “Mad as hell” speech have earned a place in pop culture. Director Sidney Lumet sets things up in a very believable way, aided by extensive location shooting, Chayefsky’s wonderfully theatrical dialogue, and excellent performances across the board. Finch won an Oscar for this, his final film role, and he tears into the part of the crazed newsman with gusto. Dunaway received a statuette as well for her morally-challenged TV exec, an object lesson in the picture’s theme of the destructive nature of television. Holden’s struggle against a world which is making him obsolete has a universal poignancy. Supporting players Beatrice Straight, as Holden’s wife, and Ned Beatty, as a corporate honcho, have only one significant scene apiece- but they’re both unforgettable, and Straight’s won her the picture’s third acting Oscar. Recommended if you’re up for a classic melodrama with a biting, black-humored view of the Boob Tube. Extras on the two-disc set include audio commentary from director Lumet, a documentary and some featurettes.



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© Melt Magazine 2006