For this post, I owe thanks to my friend Bill McGeveran (soon-to-be-lawprawf). He sent me the following link to a Slate article about the film "Truman Capote." In the article, Philip Seymour Hoffman opines on the difference (or lack thereof) between playing a "real" person and a fictional character in film.
Specifically, Hoffman is asked by Slate:
Slate: You've now played both Lester Bangs and Truman Capote—two larger-than-life cultural figures. Is there a difference between impersonating a real-life person and creating a character?
Hoffman replies: There is at first. One difference is that you have all these materials at your disposal. There's information right there that can help you—books, tapes, photographs—which you don't have when you're creating a fictional character. But once you get that information, you have to start looking at the character as a fiction. When you're playing someone who really lived, you carry a burden, a burden to be accurate. But it's one that you have to let go of ultimately. Films are always a fiction, not documentary. Even a documentary is a kind of fiction. So, ultimately you have to think about the story you're telling. You want somehow to be able to create the character in such a way that people actually stop thinking about the fact that they're watching a real person—that they're watching "Truman Capote." If you can get them to be more invested in the story they're watching than in the character, then you've succeeded.
I am intrigued by these statements, not only for the wrinkle they add to the Frey affair, discussed at length on this blog and elsewhere, but also for what they say about the possible difference between books and film as regards audience expectations for truth.
Are viewers of the film "Truman Capote" upset or angered by the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman, in interpreting the person of Truman Capote for film, intended (and by most accounts succeeded) to transform the historical figure into a film character for the purpose of telling a story that moves the audience? Does the implicit (or often explicit) subtitle of a film "Based on a True Story" function in the same way as the book genre of "nonfiction" such that film directors and movie producers should be worried about claims of fraud and misrepresentation by disappointed audiences? Or, is there something about film -- the way its made, its history as a cultural form, how it is received -- that distinguishes it from books in how we expect film to "tell us the truth" about some lived experience?