The Loss of Genius: How Philip Seymour Hoffman Made Truman Capote Even More Famous

The death of Truman Capote in 1984 surprised no one. The little man seemed to have been slowly dying for years. When the end finally came it was not a shock so much as a collective relief. A long-time addiction to booze and prescription pills had taken its toll on a life lived, perhaps, too well. He didn’t intentionally O.D… or probably didn’t. But like Hoffman the details here are murky.

Capote’s death would join a pantheon of writers who found solace, if not a sizable part of their creativity, in the emptying of a bottle.

 Capote was not prolific, however he achieved what few others had– to write what was acclaimed then and remains a modern American literary masterpiece.

After a slew of highly regarded short stories, Capote penned his first novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” followed by the thin but oh-so-successful “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Capote then threw himself into an eight year odyssey culminating in the creation of his ground breaking non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.”

By the time history had it’s say Capote would change the face of documentary fiction writing, and in the same turn, influence the evolving maturity of American film.

Beyond prolific, the 47 films of Philip Seymour Hoffman secured his lofty position as an iconic movie star. His Broadway credits alone thrust him to a level unparalleled. His talent was unquestionably enormous; his worldwide fame equally echoed. So perhaps the bigger-than-life scale of his death, the wave of loss which swept across the country on a snow frosted February morning, simply matched the magnitude of a life that could only grow more unwieldy. The days that followed were counted in the increasing number of bags of heroin found, adding to an ever-louder chorus of “Why?”

The careers of Capote and Philip Seymour Hoffman met in a near operatic way… with Hoffman no less than psychically channeling Capote in his portrayal of this writer at the top of his literary fame and game. He recreated the lilting voice and over-dramatic face of an odd, lonely little man… “a homosexual, a genius.” Truman’s own words. Now this film documented the making of “In Cold Blood” and told much more than just a behind-the-scenes story line.

Hoffman himself was a chameleon very similar to Capote, morphing from role to role with fully realized performances that seemed to thrive inside our frail human condition with the resiliency of no other actor of his time. Just as the real life Capote could charm both the rednecks of Kansas and the socialites of Manhattan with the slur of his silver-charmed tongue, Hoffman was the perfect artist to mirror another frighteningly talented life.

It was not surprising that Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his seminal portrayal of Truman Capote. The collision of these two great talents was angst’s most perfect storm.

Blessedly, Hoffman leaves us with so many cherished performances. The porn star struck young man in “Boogie Nights.” The priest of questionable child molestation charges in “Doubt.” The charismatic shaman (or con man) in “The Master.” And of course, the troubled brilliance that was Truman Capote. These unlikely outcasts challenged more than just our notion of sexuality. Hoffman’s considerable skills defined such sexual acts as first being experienced in one’s own head, not groin. He made us look and look hard. Then soft. Like the peeling of an onion he could strip away the layers until only the rawness of the real was left. There was never time for tears in watching a Hoffman performance. He made you look quick. He made you care.

In a twist of coincidences that would have been deleted from a novice’s screenplay, Hoffman took on the persona of Truman Capote and made him even more famous.  Stranger still, this sad event has now doubled down on their parallel deaths.

No one understood fame better than Capote. He didn’t invent it so much as re-invent it.  Capote’s own 1966 “Black & White Masked Ball” was regarded as “The Party of the Century– And it seriously was. It was a triple “A” lister’s orgasm of celebrity guests, probably the largest one time gathering of the famous and infamous that defined the celebrated 1960’s. Both a book and film were produced about the infamous one-night-only event.

Though countless biographies and memoirs about Capote have been published, Hoffman’s re-invention remains the consummate performance that eerily illustrated Capote’s life.  Fairly or unfairly, the film “Capote” will be the work for which they will both be best remembered. 

Any reader with a working knowledge of the life of Truman Capote understands that he would have loved this bizarre outcome– Not the death of the man who brought him back to cinematic life– but God’s bold underscoring of their intersecting destinies. Capote now adds yet another chapter to his ever-growing infamy a full 30 years after his passing. And one particular bon mot comes to mind…

Capote relished in the telling and re-telling (on various TV shows of the era) the following story: while eating in a posh NYC restaurant, a drunken man approached him. “Aren’t you that famous writer guy?” the over-served man spit out. “My wife says she wants your autograph but I told her you’re a fag!” The man then proceeded to unzip his fly and place his penis on Capote’s linen covered table. The man barked,”Why don’t you autograph this?”

Truman clicked his trademarked tongue off the roof of his mouth and rolled his eyes with glazed amusement. “I couldn’t possibly give you an autograph, sir…” Truman drawled.  “However, I will initial it.” And with pen in hand, Truman did just that.

That was Truman at his smartest, if not snarky, best. Capote liked nothing more than to incite if not enrage, so the shock that would surround Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose would not pass unappreciated by him. And though so dismally unfortunate, it is still deliciously bizarre, so curiously impossible. Both men are now bonded by this event, as if some cosmic knot has tied the two together forever, their deaths a package set we do not wish to accept.

We are left with the passing of their unparalleled success– only to accept the death itself.  At least for now. But in time, just as Janis Joplin passed into the death of Jim Morrison, and he into Elvis, and he into John Belushi, and he into River Phoenix, and he into Heath Ledger, and he into Michael Jackson, and he into Prince, and he into Robin Williams. On and on.  We will look back at these great talents and remain in awe.

On a cold Winter morning in NYC’s Greenwich Village lay a row of flowers in a doorway. All that remains is sentiment. Yet if there was ever a doubt that Philip Seymour Hoffman might be forgotten, Truman Capote took care of that long ago.

Chameleons, you see, never really disappear.

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