The Contemptible Balabaning of Shawn

I finally got a chance to see Capote, which I expected to like a little and turned out to like a lot. The title is deceptive; you expect a soapy biopic but what you get is a tight morality play about the techniques Truman Capote used to put together his classic book In Cold Blood.

It’s a movie designed to spark debate: was Truman Capote a jerk or a hero for the way he manipulated everybody to get his story? You’ll have to answer that question for yourself, and you’ll enjoy doing so. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a great job with the lead role; in fact, he disappears so completely into the role that no trace of Philip Seymour Hoffman is visible at all (this is something few Hollywood actors can pull off). I especially liked the parts where he tells the sheriff his scarf came from Bergdorf Goodman, where he sits with the murderer in jail and feeds him baby food, where he drunkenly refuses to say anything nice to Harper Lee about To Kill A Mockingbird.

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.

6 Responses

  1. Shawn and BalabanHmmmm. I
    Shawn and Balaban

    Hmmmm. I think you’re missing a point here. The controversy is not over who was cast as the William Shawn character, but over what the screenwriters had Shawn doing — flying to Kansas, hosting a book- publication party, etc,. This was definitely not the hermitesque William Shawn that we all knew and loved (not literally, just figuratively) at the New Yorker. When I saw the film, I kept whispering to my wife, “William Shawn? — no way!” I also thought Balaban was well cast, and now that I’m trying to think of anyone else I would rather have seen in the part, I can’t come up with any name.

    Other than those factual liberties taken by the writers, I thought “Capote” was a fine film and that Hoffman deserved his Oscar.

  2. Well, I agree with you that
    Well, I agree with you that the letter-writers were complaining about the textual or factual issues rather than the casting, but I wasn’t missing this point so much as trying to look deeper into it. I don’t think the factual errors would have been so offensive if the overall portrayal hadn’t been a disappointment. As always, the biggest crimes are the artistic ones.

    A better choice to play William Shawn? Well, here’s an obvious one: his son Wallace Shawn, who is a little more funny-looking than his Dad was, but would have been a pleasure to watch in the role regardless. With stuff like My Dinner With Andre to his credit, I am sure Wallace Shawn could have aced this one easily, and I wish somebody had made that happen.

  3. Hmmmm, again. Wallace Shawn
    Hmmmm, again. Wallace Shawn playing his father? I don’t know — it’s a little awkward at best, and it would probably have put the film slightly off-balance, too. It’s supposed to be about Capote, remember? Who’s your next choice –Wallace’s brother, Allen?

    I don’t know if the part was offered to Wallace, but I like to think that if it was, he roundly turned it down. No, for me Balaban was a good William Shawn.

  4. What strikes me…Capote
    What strikes me…

    Capote lived another 19 years after completing IN COLD BLOOD, but never completed another novel. I saw the film (very good) recently also and have wondered if emotional exhaustion contributed to his inability to complete future projects (also advancing alcoholism didn’t help, either). The film piqued my interest in learning more about his life and work.

  5. I just came from looking up
    I just came from looking up two different sites on Truman Capote and neither of them mentions the book Music for Chameleons which I clearly remember reading. Most peculiar. I’ll keep looking. Maybe it was published under another title?

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