Forty years ago this year, former Esquire magazine art director Robert Benton began his film career by co-writing, with David Newman, a little movie called Bonnie and Clyde. A decade later, he was winning Oscars for writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer. Since then, Benton hasn’t hit it out of the park every time, but his best films, including Places in the Heart (for which he won another screenwriting Oscar), Nobody’s Fool, the neglected Twilight and the foolishly maligned The Human Stain, are marked by a literate and tender willingness to let the characters talk their way toward their own truth. Credit that to Benton’s small-town Texas upbringing. This week, the filmmaker turns 75 — a milestone that happens to fall one day after the release of his 11th film, Feast of Love, which is based on a marvelous novel by Charles Baxter, and which stars Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear. At a recent Santa Monica lunch, Benton lingered well past the allotted hour, in a conversation filled with his favorite topics — movies, novels, and memories of his mentor and friend, the late Robert Altman.
L.A. WEEKLY: I saw Feast of Love for the second time yesterday and enjoyed it very much, but it made me wonder what it’s like for you to watch it now. By the time of release, are directors secretly sick of their new film?
ROBERT BENTON: I’ve seen it enough, but everyone’s different. [Robert] Altman loved watching his movies. They say that when he was shooting Popeye on Malta, they showed movies every weekend, but only his movies. [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s true. You lose track of a picture once you’ve seen it two or three times. You need an audience to tell you about it. Friends will lie to you. An audience will tell you the truth. I don’t like focus groups, but I do love the screening process. Though I can get paranoid. We were screening Kramer in Kansas City, and in the middle of a very emotional scene, a guy got up and walked out, and I’m thinking, “How can he do that?” So I followed him. And he doesn’t go to the men’s room, he goes to the pay phone. So I stand next to him, pretending I’m making a call too, and he calls home to check on his kids, and I think, “I’m okay. The movie got to him.”
I was 17 years old when I saw Kramer vs. Kramer, and one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about is the montage of Dustin Hoffman furiously packing up Meryl Streep’s belongings. At one point, there’s a close-up of a bookshelf, and the one title that leaps out at the camera is a novel by John Updike called Marry Me. That shot thrilled me at the time because it was the first time I realized that a filmmaker could comment upon the very story he’s telling. As a geek who lugged hardcover novels, including Updike’s, around school, I felt like I was being privately acknowledged, one reader to another.
Yes! Yes, you’re absolutely right. I read Marry Me when I was making The Late Show, and actually, Marry Me had a bearing later, when I was doing Places in the Heart. There’s a moment where Lindsay Crouse is sitting in church next to Ed Harris and she takes his hand. And if I remember right, in Marry Me, there are three endings, and in the one where the couple get back together, she reaches over and takes his hand. I stole that for Places. So thank you for noticing. That’s really nice.
Your most deeply felt films — Kramer, Nobody’s Fool, The Human Stain and now Feast of Love — are based on novels, even though you began your career writing original screenplays. Why the shift?
I’m not good at structure. I can wander off in three different directions. A novel anchors me. Now, I sometimes I pick the wrong novel, but when I find one that I’m at home with, then I love what I’m doing. That’s what happened with [novelist] Richard Russo and Nobody’s Fool. Actually, it was Richard who told me to read Feast of Love.
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Feast of Love shares with Nobody’s Fool a fascination for how we talk to each other, but also how we learn to truly hear one another. In your recent films especially, that’s a common theme, people . . .
. . . people having to listen to other people. Against their will sometimes. Yes. They’re all fractured people, the Feast of Love people. Those are the ones who interest me the most. One of my favorite scenes in Baxter’s book and in the movie is the fight between David and Diana [played by actors Billy Burke and Radha Mitchell]. It’s a fight between two people who don’t know that the other person loves them until it’s too late. It’s a love scene and a terrible fight at the same time. I went into it thinking about a scene in Rio Bravo that I’ve always loved, between Angie Dickinson and John Wayne. Ricky Nelson has just saved John Wayne’s life. And there’s a scene between Angie and John Wayne where she’s drunk and he’s bewildered. She’s telling him how much she hates him. And it’s a love scene.
Talk a little about Robert Altman. He produced your second film, The Late Show. How did you meet?
He was repped by [agent] Sam Cohn and I was too. I was asked to go to a screening of Nashville before anyone had seen it. Pauline [Kael] was there that night. And the movie just took my breath away. I’d never seen anything like it. Later, when the script for The Late Show was finished, Sam took it to Altman and he said he’d produce it. I was scared shitless of him, but I loved him, even though he fired me three times on that picture. What would happen is that you’d be working pre-production in this big office, and at the end of the day, you’d sit and talk to him. He was a born teacher. He could tell you things without pontificating. He taught me to unclench, to stop being a writer who directed and be a director. He was the person who said to me, “Shut up, and listen to the actors. After the first week, they know more about the character than you.” He was a truly great artist. This will sound like a contradiction — Altman was very vain, but he had no sense of self-importance. He never acted himself. Almost everybody over a certain age, including me, acts themselves. He just was who he was.