- Truman Capote: A Literary Life at the Movies by Tison Pugh
Truman Capote liked watching movies, but he claimed that they had little influence on his literary fiction. Such claims, as Tison Pugh writes, reveal more about Capote’s penchant for inscrutable public statements than about his literary art. The main message of Pugh’s study is that the author of such celebrated works as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965) “lived in and through the movies” (1). Pugh traces a symbiotic relationship between the worlds of literature and the movies, one that yielded a “Cinema Capoteana.” Much like Capote himself, Cinema Capoteana defies easy categorization. It includes the author’s original screenplays, cinematic adaptations of his fiction, and later efforts to portray his life in Hollywood biopics. The common thread is an effort to deal with the subjects of homosexuality—and to a lesser extent, Capote’s southern upbringing—in [End Page 174] the post–World War II decades, an age of strict Hollywood production codes and the marginalization of gay people in general.
Pugh provides readers with a series of learned critiques of the cinematic adaptations of Capote’s fiction to highlight their queer subtexts. Capote disliked Blake Edwards’s adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), in part because he wanted Marilyn Monroe (not Audrey Hepburn) cast as Holly Golightly, an alternative rich for consideration among cinephiles. Edwards’s larger error was to transform a complicated novella about sex, money, and desire into a conventional Hollywood romantic comedy. The director muted Holly’s vocation as a “quasi-prostitute” for well-heeled, middle-aged men (93). Even more, he replaced the novella’s gay narrator with the character of Paul Varjak, a handsome gigolo, who eventually falls for Holly. Here Pugh argues that the movie is “queer” because it “flirts with gender play, prostitution, and ostensible sexual deviance” through its portrayal of Holly and Paul’s sex lives (93). To see Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) as essentially innocent is to overlook the movie’s “sly depiction of the queerness of heterosexuality, in which two quasi-prostitutes find love among the vagaries of their occupations and the shifting sexual mores of American culture” (107). For Pugh, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an example of the subtle undercurrent of sexual liberalization running below the surface of postwar popular culture.
Capote’s greatest literary success, In Cold Blood, inspired a new prose genre, the nonfiction novel, as well as a series of cinematic adaptations. Pugh emphasizes the queer subtext of Richard Brooks’s 1967 adaptation to illustrate how homoerotic themes moved from the printed page to the silver screen. Pugh disagrees with the film critic Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet (1987), that Brooks erased the homoeroticism in the relationship between the two murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. In Pugh’s telling, the “brew of friendship, desire, and homoeroticism” that put Smith and Hickock at odds with one another quite literally exploded during the murder of the Clutters, a Kansas farm family (126). The Clutters thus represented “scapegoats sacrificed to these two men’s inability to communicate their desires other than through denial, displacement, and violence,” an evocative interpretation of the movie’s violence rooted in research from Brooks’s own files, the director’s discussions with Capote, as well as the movie’s visual tableau (128).
The critical and public reception of the novel, In Cold Blood, brought Capote both literary fame and enhanced celebrity. Pugh makes a compelling case for Capote as one of the original “celebrities,” people famous for being famous. Capote’s fame resembled Hollywood celebrity, and he moved in the same social circles, but he was a poor actor in his own right (see Murder by Death, 1976). His was a queer celebrity performance on television talk and variety shows, one delivered in open defiance of the sexual mainstream. Yet as Pugh concludes, Capote’s celebrity cut both ways, bringing him financial rewards but also diminishing his identity as a serious artist. Readers not familiar with Capote’s biography...