In Tom and Viv (1994), Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Miranda Richardson) is free-spirited but mentally fragile, while the man she elopes with, Tom Eliot, better known as T.S. (Willem Dafoe), is reserved and somewhat stiff. He will become a masterful poet and author of The Waste Land, a watershed in modern poetry, and she will descend into an insanity which the film shows us is partially a genetic predisposition, complicated by a gynecological condition and other mysterious ailments. (Most likely she suffered from manic depression, decades before it was fully understood.) In fact, the way her mental illness is foreshadowed, and alluded to ominously by her family, is similar to what happens in Sylvia.
As Tom and Viv head toward marriage, she tries to hold it together, with both help and embarrassment from her mother and brother. There is some interesting historical detail shown around the floundering young poet Eliot - his tutelage under the scandalous and Pacifist philosophy professor Bertrand Russell, his financial difficulties, his effort to convince a skeptical and hostile father-in-law. One memorable scene involves a reading of The Waste Land before Tom's befuddled in-laws, which Vivienne provides with a hilariously detailed, and unwelcome, preface (that is just as intrusive as Eliot's own set of footnotes to his poem).
The film, dedicated to the memory of Vivienne, basically asserts that her condition worsened and ended tragically (she was left in a mental hospital, where Eliot never visited her) partially due to Tom's self-absorption, coldness and lack of understanding. It is also kindred to Sylvia in that it recalls feminist (though controversial) readings of both lives by flashing sympathetic light on flawed heroines in relation to less sympathetic husbands, while demonstrating how their support of a famous man was under-acknowledged by history. (A key and symbolic moment comes when the brilliant Vivienne secretly gives Tom the answer to a question in a game of intellectual musical chairs, for which he takes credit.) While Dafoe is a bit miscast (he is never quite believably stuffy), Richardson is scarily and effectively off-kilter the entire ride. But the film is ultimately not a convincing experience because neither Tom nor Vivienne leaves a truly likable impression.
The highlight of Capote (2005) is Phillip Seymour Hoffman's chameleon-like, Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote, complete with pitch-perfect lisp and disarming charisma. The film follows the New Yorker essayist as he travels from New York City to the plains of Kansas with buddy Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who would go on to pen the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. There he investigates the killing of an entire family by two men, one of them named Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., in a stunning performance which was submerged in the shadow of Hoffman). The story he writes about the event would eventually become In Cold Blood, which, with its combination of true-crime story and novel-like embellishments, would redefine the territory of what non-fiction could do.
When he is not dazzling the literati at parties with his saber-like wit back in New York, Capote becomes drawn into the world of the tender and troubled Smith. In the end, the author is torn between his empathetic feeling for Smith on the one hand and wanting the killer's possible execution to offer him a slam-bang ending to his masterpiece on the other. The film powerfully chronicles the blurry lines between fiction and reality an author can face in trying to craft his work and the moral implications that result. The final scenes between Capote and Smith are chilling, and the true shock is that Smith winds up more sympathetic than the man writing about him. One of the great re-creations of a writer's personality on film.
Other important dark portrayals:
Jennifer Jason Leigh gives her usual solid performance as poet Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), in which the circle of literary friends known as the Algonquin Round Table trade venomous barbs and biting wit in the 1920s.
A young William Holden plays a failed screenwriter who writes a script for has-been silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in a legendary performance) in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a combination of black camp and meditation on the nature of fame and madness.
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