Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Capote in Botswana, Shawn in Disguise

Filed under: Looked Into   Tagged: , , , , , ,

The movie (it "may be coming soon to the New Capitol Cinemas") is discussed today in Mmegi, which according to its site is "the only daily independent newspaper in Botswana":

The story of Truman Capote (a.k.a Truman Strekfus Persons), the great American writer, novelist, and his endeavours to create the first "non-fiction novel", which was published as "In Cold Blood" (1966, the movie came out in 1967), is both a fascinating and upsetting film. Truman Capote was not a pleasant man (acted with unusual flair by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who captures Truman's mannerisms and way of speaking perfectly, and who was awarded an Oscar as Best Actor, 2006).

Truman loved being the centre of attention and knew how to hold an audience. The story of the prolonged agony involved in writing is also not the normal content of a good movie, but director Bennett Miller and scriptwriter Dan Futterman manage to pull it off (using Gerald Clarke's 1988 biography of Capote - he died from alcoholism at sixty in 1984). Truman, who was born in New Orleans on 30 September 1924, was in a state of limbo on November 15, 1959, when he read about the murders in Kansas and decided to change his life most dramatically. He was a young man of 35, basking in the success of his short story, "Shut a final door" (1946), his first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" (1948), "House of Flowers" (a musical in 1954), and most recently, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1958, not yet made into a movie).

Fascinating (and in some instances upsetting) indeed. There is actually a movie of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but clearly it hasn't made it to the New Capitol Cinemas yet. (The writer also notes that Cary Grant starred in To Kill a Mockingbird, which was news to me.) All this reminds me of a meditation about the depiction of William Shawn in the movie, after previous protests from, for instance, Roger Angell and Ken Auletta. The meditation, by Levi Asher in LitKicks, goes like this:

Now that I've watched the DVD, I can make sense out of a controversy that's been brewing in the New Yorker magazine for the past few weeks. One of the main characters in Capote is the legendary New Yorker editor-in-chief William Shawn, and the magazine has now published several complaints that the film's portrayal of this legendary publishing figure is an insult and a throwaway.

David Denby, Wallace Shawn (the editor's son, and a notable writer/actor) and the other objectors are probably correct. William Shawn is played by Bob Balaban, the nerdy character actor who played the NBC television executive (based on Warren Littlefield) in Seinfeld, then varied the persona only slightly in Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. The latter two movies are excellent comedies, and Balaban may be a good actor for all anybody knows, but he shows up in Capote with the same mannerisms, the same expressions, the same voice and the same posture he used in every other movie or tv show, and I don't blame the friends and family of the late William Shawn for feeling shortchanged.

A quick look at William Shawn's life makes clear that he is nothing like the fussy, business-minded bureaucrat Balaban plays. In Cold Blood is only one of many important books this editor nurtured; Hiroshima and Catcher in the Rye are two others. One can only imagine how the filmmakers made this casting decision. "Who's this character?" "Some magazine editor." "Call Balaban."

So predictable. Just like Geoffrey Rush, who they've been squeezing into feathery leotards for every historical epic about Elizabethean England made in the last fifteen years. Or poor Jim Broadbent, who was so absolutely brilliant as W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, but who's since allowed himself to be cast in every movie ever made that needed a chubby old bearded guy with a funny accent (British, French, who the hell cares?). Balaban has become the latest of this type, and it really is a shame that a subtle and powerful literary giant like William Shawn should get played by a character actor so dull he couldn't even be funny on Seinfeld.

But at the same time, it would also be a shame if the filmmakers' one casting misstep were to reflect badly on the entire film. Maybe there's even something appropriate about the fact that Truman Capote, who was never known for willfully sharing a spotlight, should crowd all the other characters out of the movie that bears his name.

Call me crazy—you wouldn't be the first—but I'm pretty positive I saw Balaban in Carroll Gardens last week, buying yogurt at the health food store where Heath and Michelle also shop (this is not my neighborhood but the neighborhood of my far more elegant friends). Balaban, for I'm certain it was he, was wearing white and looked very good, and of course short. Anyone have a Gawker Stalker cross-confirmation? As for his Shawn portrayal, it was unnecessarily prurient, a la Terry Gross, and many agree that he wouldn't have just up and flown to Kansas like that in the middle of a production cycle (Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions this detail as well), but I loved the movie anyway. One of LitKicks' commenters suggests that Wallace Shawn would have been better for the part, but that would have been strange indeed. Not that I'm not a fan; I am, despite his finding my own cinematic behavior a little unhinged.

comments are off
2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree