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Robert Benton’s Film Landscapes

Robert Benton’s Film Landscapes

Articles - Directing

Sophistication saturates Robert Benton
movies. From his first screenplay, the legendary Bonnie and
Clyde
(1967), which was co-written with David Newman, Benton
has imbued his films with intelligence, charter and humor. As screenwriter
on What’s Up, Doc? (1972), The Late Show (1977), Superman (1978), Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), Still
of the Night
(1982), Places in the Heart (1981) and Nadine (1987),
Benton has both survived the lashings of critics and garnered high
praise. Oh, by the way, he also has a few little golden statuettes
called “Oscars”: a clean sweep of Best Picture, Director, and Adapted
Screenplay for Kramer, and Best Original Screenplay for Places
in the Heart
. Small town life is Benton’s point of departure,
the place he always goes back to cinematically. Residing in New
York, and sometimes making his movies there, Benton can brushstroke
even the mercurial Big Apple with a sense of panorama and frontier.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in his newest
film, Nobody’s Fool, an adaptation of Richard Russo’s multi-textured
novel. Paul Newman stars in a smart and touching turn as 60-year-old
Sully, a reprobate with an aversion to responsibility who ultimately
confronts his demons. Nobody’s Fool boasts some supporting
performances worthy of note from Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith,
and the late Jessica Tandy. All the components of Benton’s past
films come into play here—style, wit, heart and the integral
pulse of solid acting.

On a visit to Seattle, Benton waxed philosophic
on his cinematic tenets and hopes and on the current state of movie
affairs.

Paula Nechak (MM): You adapted Nobody’s
Fool alone. Generally you have worked with David Newman or
Arlene Donovan.

Robert Benton: Yes. I began working
with David Newman in the early 60’s. We were at Esquire.
I was the art director and him into writing a screenplay with
me. It’s the first time I’ve actually approached somebody. The
conditions are he gets first billing, but I get the last word.

MM: There is an innate sense of
decency in your films. Is this the most important thing to
give back to your audience?

RB: I grew up in a world that valued
decency and valued how we treat one another. It doesn’t mean
we always treated one another well. But we acknowledged and paid
attention to one another. It’s important that we treat one another
with seriousness and respect.

MM: Have you any concerns about
the direction films are taking, the lack of conscience, the
unmitigated violence? Do you feel we’ll go full circle or will
film continue to do the art-imitates-life thing?

RB: I don’t know. I’m in an iconoclastic
position because my first picture was Bonnie and Clyde.
I feel like I was once in the position that Quentin Tarantino
is in now. Thirty years ago people were saying to each other, “Don’t
you object to these kinds of violent movies like Bonnie and
Clyde
?" I never thought of Bonnie and Clyde as
amoral or violent. I thought it was about people who cannot live
within a system and get destroyed by it. I wanted to show them,
without judging them, to show them with some compassion.

MM: Bonnie and Clyde had tremendous
influence on me when it was released and I felt, as a young
person at the time, that I could love the film without walking
the path.

Producer Scott Rudin, Robert Benton and Paul Newman don’t
mind the cold weather on the set of Nobody’s Fool.

RB: That’s the other thing. Maybe somebody
can prove me wrong, but I don’t believe anybody ever became a
bank robber from watching Bonnie and Clyde.

MM: Nor did it necessarily romanticize
that life.

RB: No. It made us, I hope, understand
them somehow, that we were connected to them. In some way, I
guess, we are connected. It’s one of the great things about doing
film. When there’s a really successful villain you’ve got to
love him—like [Hannibal] Lector.

MM: And actors love playing them.

RB: Exactly. Because when you make
a villain everyone passes judgment on, it’s awful.

MM: Or if your villain is too ambiguous
and the audience doesn’t know what to feel about him, you’re
in trouble. When you go all out, like Anthony Hopkins did.

RB: Exactly. And it’s wonderful. Anthony
Hopkins did it, Jonathan Demme did it, the guy [Ted Tally] who
did the adaptation did it. They all understand that Lector was
an enormously sympathetic character. That’s the most complicated
morality, i know, but it’s also interesting , complication.

MM: I’ve heard this rumor for years
regarding
Bonnie and Clyde, that in writing the screenplay
you took creative license in making Clyde Barrow impotent instead
of homosexual—

RB: He was bisexual.

MM: —because Warren Beatty
feltuneasy portraying a gay character. Or did you have concerns
about potentially alienating a segment of the community?

RB: No. What happened was in the first
draft the character of C.W. Moss was a dumb stud. The script
sat for years without airs body doing it, but we never thought
of changing it. Warren was told about the script by Francois
Trutfaut, and I’d known Warren slightly. He came to the door
and said he’d heard about the script. So I gave it to him. He
said he’d read it and was really interested in it. He called
after 20 minutes and said, “Listen, I’m on page 15. I want to
buy it.” I said, “Warren, wait till you bet to page 45.” [laughs]
An hour, passes, he calls back and says, “I know what you mean
about page 45 but I still want to buy it.” So, he bought it,
he got the studio, to buy it, and we went into discussions about
directors. He mentioned George Stevens, We mentioned Arthur Penn,
who he had worked with (on Mickey One) and whom he liked. Arthur
said yes and we went era to work.

Benton directs Dustin Hoffman in the 1979 film that won both
of them Oscars, Kramer vs. Kramer.

The first two months homosexuality was talked over,
but nobody thought of taking it out. It was Arthur Penn who came
to us and said, “I’m going to propose something and you may not
like it, but I’ll give you may reasons. I want to take out the
homosexuality and for the following two reasons. One is, we have
written, in essence, a heterosexual relationship. Two, the moment
anything violent or bad happens, the audience will think, ‘Oh,
that’s because they’re homosexual.’ The audience would miss the
point we were trying to make. We took a couple days to think about
it and realized he was right. But it was not Warren. Warren and
Arthur may have worked out something, but I would be surprised.
I think Warren would have done it as written.

MM: Two things come to mind when
I think of your films. First, landscape. I don’t know if it’s
your Texas background, but you’ve managed to make a frontier
out of New York as well as out of the towns in your rural films.
The second thing is your sense of being an actor’s director.

RB: About landscape, I believe it’s
a character in the movie. It doesn’t get a credit, it doesn’t
say landscape played by Beacon, New York, but it’s important.

When we did Places in the Heart, economically
it would have made more sense to be closer to Dallas. But the character
of a place really informs all of the actions that take place within
it. In Kramer Vs. Kramer, we took an enormous
amount of care to show a certain kind of New York, a New York that
was really believable, that from that very playground you could
make that run to that emergency room. It drives me crazy in New
York-based films when a police chase starts on 42nd Street, goes
to 14th Street and ends up on 86th Street, and you’re supposed
to think it’s a straight line. You’ve got to remember that people
who know will be bothered. Landscape must be respected.

MM: Your set design in Still
of the Night was impeccable; the auction house, as well as
the intensity of the blue in Meryl Streep’s apartment.

RB: We really worked on that. That
was where Nestor [Almendros, cinematographer for Kramer]
was extraordinary. In Kramer, the clouds in Billy’s room
were Nestor’s idea. Nestor was involved from the beginning in
all of those decision’s. He approached them not simply as a cinematographer,
but as a writer. There was always a logic or reference behind
it that he could point to. I will always, always miss Nestor,
the rest of my life.

MM: You are a purveyor untapped,
new, potential and underutilized talent: Loren Dean in
Billy
Bathgate, Nicole Kidniati, Glome Headly doing that great
bit in
Nadine, early Malkovich and Meryl Streep. What
impulse hits you to cast unknowns?

Paul Newman, odds-on favorite to win Best Actor
this year for his portrayl of Sully in Nobody’s Fool

RB: It’s different with everything.
I remember Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love and seeing Ed Harris
and just being wiped out by him. With Nobody’s Fool, I
had never heard of Pruitt Taylor Vince before in my life. He
comes walking in when we were in negotiations, practically, with
this other guy. I have no idea if he can act, but he starts to
and he’s brilliant. I said, “We’ll fly him to New York and see
how he is with Paul Newman.” And Paul just fell in love with
him.

Same thing is true with Dylan Walsh. He was perfect
as Paul’s son. It’s a feeling he can hold the stage. And Malkovich!
When Malkovich walked in I’d seen him do, what’s the other Shepard?

MM: True West

RB: True West And I was afraid, when
Malkovich came in, of getting sonic guy like the drifter in the
play. And he’s not like that at all. He’s a sweet, lovely, funny
guy. You learn from actors. In Places, I learned one of
the most important things about actors I’ve ever learned. Every
day’ at noon they had a break and the whole cast would come to
the set and start playing touch football, or volleyball, or softball.
It was about testing one another’s timing. Acting happens at
the speed of light. When you put out your hand, is the other
guy gonna be there? You’re always dependent, on a high wire together.
It’s critical.

MM: Nobody’s Fool felt like a film
that was, outside of the weather, a glorious shoot.

RB: It truly was. I’ve worked
with Bruce Willis before. I’d never worked with Melanie Griffith.
She’s like a woman in a Howard Hawks film. I gave her Hawks movies
but she didn’t watch them. But this guy (Richard Russo) writes
Hawks stuff. The ideal director for this movie would have been
Howard Hawks.

MM: This is a film about a 60-year-old
man’s emotional awakening. While watching Paul Newman play
Sully, did it become an emotional catharsis for you as well?

RB: Sure. You can’t deal with this
kind of material and I’m 62and remain
oblivious to it. You watch the mistakes of your life unfold,
and in my case I see a life that’s not been,’ in some senses,
like Sully’s but in other ways has. A life of utter carelessness
at times. A life of learning responsibility, very late in it.

Paula Nechak is a freelance
writer living in Seattle who specializes in film topics.
For several years
she has also been a consultant for the San Diego International
Film Festival.

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