At the Festival’s first tribute to a screenwriter in 1974, the legendary writer regaled the crowd with tales of his Hollywood career.
Photo: Truman Capote answers audience questions at his 1974 tribute.
By Kyle Otsuki
Today’s audiences base their idea of Truman Capote on movies like Capote and Infamous. In 1974, when the now legendary writer appeared for an onstage tribute at the San Francisco International Film Festival however, the popular image of Capote was as the author of the enormously popular novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s and as the witty raconteur who frequently appeared on the Johnny Carson show. But in contrast to the throwaway tone of late night talk shows, at the Festival Capote talked seriously about his work and his career.
The tribute opened with a neglected 1969 movie called Trilogy. Clips were shown from four films: Beat the Devil and The Innocents (on which Capote shared script credits with other writers) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood (which were adapted from Capote books, though he did not work on the scripts).
“He was a real character,” recalls Claude Jarman who was the Festival’s executive director at the time. “He was very moved, he really was” by his selection as the first Festival screenwriting honoree. “He was not at all like the legendary Truman Capote,” recalls Marty Rubin, the producer of the Festival tributes at the time, who prepared the clips program. "He was very cooperative, very low key, very intelligent, and had very good suggestions to offer about his clips.” And as far as being a razor-witted raconteur, Capote did not disappoint.
When asked about life on the set of Beat the Devil, he replied with a delicious anecdote. “Bogart was a very good friend of mine,” Capote recounted. “He was one of those people who loved to come around and give you big hugs and punches and things like that all in the name of joviality. But he sort of came up and gave me this big clap on the back, and I told him to stop that. ‘Don’t do that again.’ And he said, ‘What's the matter with you, anyway?’ And he did it again. And I said, ‘OK,’ and I just took my foot and put it behind his leg and gave him a good push, and he fell down and broke his arm,” said Capote, to the great amusement of the Festival audience. “Which caused the film to go about $200,000 extra over budget because he couldn’t work for several weeks.”
An audience member inquired about his script for The Great Gatsby, which was rejected by the studio. “[Paramount] asked me to do the screenplay. I agreed because I love the book, though I hadn't read it for many years,” Capote said. “I did complete a script that was faithful to Fitzgerald and fast-paced. There were three producers on the picture and finally one of them told me, ‘The difficulty is your script is The Great Gastby. It’s just too literal.’ I said that in that case they should get someone else to do it. They did so and you know what happened.” The film was not successful, to say the least, either with audiences or critics.
The recent films Capote and Infamous focus on Capote’s work on In Cold Blood. Today that seminal work of reportage has become his greatest legacy. Significantly, that is what Capote chose to talk about the most in 1974. “I spent four years on and off in that part of Western Kansas there during the research for that book, and then the film. What was it like? It was very lonely. And difficult. Although I made a lot of friends there. I had to, otherwise I never could have researched the book properly. The reason was I wanted to make an experiment in journalistic writing, and I was looking for a subject that would have sufficient proportions.
“I’d already done a great deal of narrative journalistic writing in this experimental vein in the ’50s for the New Yorker. . . . But I was looking for something very special that would give me a lot of scope. I had come up with two or three different subjects and each of them for whatever reasons was a dry run after I’d done a lot of work on them. And one day I was gleaning the New York Times and way on the back page I saw this very small item. And it just said, ‘Kansas Farmer Slain. Family of Four Is Slain in Kansas.’ A little item just about like that. And the community was completely nonplussed, and it was this total mystery of how it could have been, and what happened.
“And I don't know what it was. I think it was that I knew nothing about Kansas or that part of the country or anything. And I thought, ‘Well, that will be a fresh perspective for me. . . . And I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to go out there and just look around and see what this is.’ And so maybe this is the subject I’ve been looking for. Maybe a crime of this kind is . . . in a small town. It has no publicity around it and yet had some strange ordinariness about it. So I went out there and I arrived just two days after the Clutters’ funeral. The whole thing was a complete mystery, and was for two and a half months. Nothing happened. I stayed there and kept researching it and researching it and got very friendly with the various authorities and the detectives on the case. But I never knew whether it was going to be interesting or not.
“You know, I mean anything could have happened. They could have never caught the killers. Or if they had caught the killers . . . it may have turned out to be something completely uninteresting to me. Or maybe they would never have spoken to me, or wanted to cooperate with me. But as it so happened, they did catch them. In January, the case was solved, and then I made very close contact with these two boys and saw them very often over the next four years until they were executed. But I never knew . . . when I was even halfway through the book, when I had been working on it for a year and a half, I didn't honestly know whether I would go on with it or not, whether it would finally evolve itself into something that would be worth all that effort. Because it was a tremendous effort.”