The Tortured Artist
by Matt Brennan
Where there is light there must be shadow.
So it is in Capote at the moment Nelle Harper Lee emerges from the flashbulbs of adulation to find her friend Truman curled up with a martini in the dim and empty bar. It is the New York premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird, and at first blush the scene appears but a sorrow song of professional jealousy, the underappreciated writer tying one on with ribbons of bitterness and cigarette smoke and gin. But pay close enough heed to the layered depths Philip Seymour Hoffman sounds in Truman Capote and suddenly this forthright kind of sadness fades as though a spotted forgery, revealing the real work behind it to be far more profound, and more terrifying.
"How are you?" she asks, delicately.
"Terrible," he replies, words cottoned by liquor.
"I’m sorry to hear that."
"I mean, it’s torture the way — what they’re doing to me."
There’s so much texture to the surface of what Hoffman achieves in Capote — the woodwind voice lofted above the din, the open gestures worn like armor — that it becomes easy to misunderstand the performance as primarily physical. In point of fact the moment in the scene that still rattles in my heart is as still as fallen snow, Truman staring after Nelle’s departure into some great, dark chasm, mulling the pronoun uncoupled from its antecedent. As Joan Didion wrote of the same city in the same year, it seems he is “discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.” Hoffman’s Capote is a masterly portrait in light and shadow, in the irrevocability of things, in the understanding that even when we are writing about someone else we are writing, at some level, about ourselves.
What does it mean to create, and what, ultimately, does it cost?
For Truman Capote the cost of creation was everything — all of it — because the tortures he bore, as Hoffman’s brilliant turn so gracefully captures, derived not from bitterness or narcissism or even monstrous ambition but from the intimation that expressing the full complement of human frailty requires you at some point to absorb it. Where there is light there must be shadow is merely a cliché, but it is only now that I realize just how great and dark the truth in it happens to be.