“I’m simply drawn to characters who are deeply flawed,” Robert Benton once said. “I’m drawn to characters who want to do the right thing, but rarely manage to do it. But they struggle on.”
In an industry seemingly obsessed with flash, flair and things that go “bang”, writer/director Robert Benton is a quiet, unassuming anomaly. Since the early seventies, he has managed – without so much as a whisper of animus laid upon him – to craft a series of low key but uncompromising films about realistic people with real, recognisable problems. Driven by strong dialogue, powerful performances and earthy drama, these superb works have established Benton as one of America’s most consistent, and highly underrated, filmmakers.
Born in Texas in 1932, Benton’s career as a writer began when he moved to New York City and found work with the then cutting edge magazine Esquire, where he toiled in various editorial capacities. While there, Benton became acquainted with fellow editor David Newman, a partnership that would reap huge rewards for them both. Initially working on ideas for fiction and theatre, the pair hit pay dirt with their script for Bonnie And Clyde, a revisionist take on America’s infamous bank robbers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
The keenly intelligent and surprisingly humorous script (partially influenced by The French New Wave) was flagged as “hot”, and bounced through the hands of a number of Hollywood producers. At one stage, French filmmaker Francois Truffaut had even toyed with the idea of directing the film. Bonnie And Clyde, however, finally ended up in the hands of producer Warren Beatty, who set it up with director Arthur Penn. The resulting film – with its outlaw aesthetic, balletic violence, and almost arterial blood spray – became one of the seminal works of the sixties and, quite literally, changed the way that films were made, watched and critiqued. It was a watershed work, and the box office and critical success of Bonnie And Clyde meant that the laidback but ambitious Benton could make the move into directing feature films.
For his next project, Benton worked again with co-screenwriter David Newman, this time on the revisionist 1972 western Bad Company, which is now a bona fide cult classic. A true original boasting brilliant performances from Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown, Benton’s ingenious debut puts an interesting tilt on the western with its unconventional and anti-romantic tale about a group of young boys who head dolefully into a life of crime but end up suffering the consequences.
But despite the bravura success of his debut screenplay, Benton was more than a little green around the gills when he came to his directorial debut, with only his visionary eye and behind-the-scenes experiences on Bonnie And Clyde to guide him. “I remember driving from the hotel to Paramount, thinking, ‘I’m going to make an utter fool of myself,’” Benton has said of the experience. “But when I walked onto the film set, it was like a family. It was a dysfunctional family, but a family. I come from a dysfunctional family, so I felt totally at home.”
From there, Benton continued to work consistently, if not exactly prolifically, as a filmmaker, while also writing the odd film here and there (outside of the films that he’s directed, Benton has also scripted the likes of What’s Up Doc?, There Was A Crooked Man and Superman). Benton’s follow-up film as director was 1977’s gentle detective drama The Late Show. This gorgeous mash of genres (gumshoe mystery, generation gap comedy, melodrama) winningly teams Art Carney’s old school private eye with Lily Tomlin’s typical seventies-era kook in a labyrinthine plot that begins with a stolen cat and detours into all manner of violence and mayhem. “It’s hard enough for a movie to sustain one tone, let alone half a dozen, but that’s just what Robert Benton’s The Late Show does,” wrote esteemed critic Roger Ebert in his laudatory review.
Highly appreciated but hardly a box office blockbuster, The Late Show was followed by Benton’s biggest success to date with the 1979 divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer, which won multiple Oscars, including two for Benton himself as director and screenwriter. One of the truly great films of the seventies, this gut-wrenching drama about a father (Dustin Hoffman at his best) left in the lurch when his wife (the brilliant Meryl Streep) leaves was a major hit, and opened up public debate about divorce and the effect that it can have on the children stuck in the middle. A deeply personal work for Dustin Hoffman (whose own divorce served as inspiration for his performance) and a true zeitgeist work, Kramer Vs. Kramer remains Benton’s brilliant key film.
After the major success of Kramer Vs. Kramer, Benton moved across genres with varying degrees of success. He toyed with Hitchcock-style thriller conventions on 1982’s interesting but flawed Still Of The Night, which boasted strong turns from Roy Scheider and Meryl Streep, but failed to connect with audiences or critics. The director reversed his fortunes with the highly popular 1984 drama Places In The Heart, which richly evoked the struggles of America’s heartland and harked back to more traditionalist filmmaking amongst the splash and splatter of the eighties. Anchored by a brilliant, full bodied turn from Sally Field (who won a deserved Oscar for her performance), this beautifully crafted mini-epic paints a complexly layered portrait of life on the land, and offers a showcase for brilliant supporting players John Malkovich, Ed Harris and Danny Glover.
Benton mixed screwball comedy with a murder mystery on the largely lamentable 1987 comedy Nadine, which is more famous for the unhinged Kim Basinger’s on-set antics than anything in the film itself. The 1991 mobster drama Billy Bathgate failed to really get off the ground, but Benton bounced back with the acclaimed comedy-drama Nobody’s Fool. Paul Newman offers up one of his finest late-career performances in this canny adaptation of Richard Russo’s picaresque novel about smalltown rascal and layabout Sully Sullivan, whose influence on those around him bounces from warmly positive to darkly comical and dire. It’s a wonderful but now rarely discussed collaboration from Benton and Newman.
The duo reunited for the delightfully old-school crime film Twilight (co-written by Benton and Richard Russo) in which Newman again excels, this time expertly playing a retired detective who gets caught up in a labyrinthine criminal plot. “The shooting of that picture, in thirty years of making movies, was the most pleasant shooting I’ve ever had,” Benton said of the film, which also stars Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing and Reese Witherspoon. “Twilight is about getting older and relationships; it’s not about a murder mystery,” Benton said of the film. “It’s about love when you reach a certain age; nothing is in primary colours.”
2003’s unusual race-class drama The Human Stain (starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman) confused audiences with its vast tonal shifts, but 2007’s ensemble comedy-drama Feast Of Love (starring Morgan, Radha Mitchell and Greg Kinnear) saw the director returning to his favourite subject: people and their flaws. “I don’t really control the film, I chase after it,” Benton has said revealingly of his directorial process. “There’s a terrific thing that happens as the film starts to take on its own life. And either you let it breathe, and you let it live, or you control it. And part of me has always loved seeing what happens in a film.”
With 2007’s Feast Of Love standing as his most recent credit, the now 90-year-old Robert Benton is retired from the film industry, leaving behind a collection of beautifully tailored films about the human condition, and a reputation as a true gentleman of the cinema who never quite received the real praise that he so richly deserved.
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