YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A storyteller focused on the ties that bind

Robert Benton's keen insight into the human condition has served him well for 40 years -- and counting.

September 23, 2007|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

Robert Benton is so self-effacing that he once joked that "I'm like Dracula -- I don't leave a trace in the mirror." He's much happier talking about his favorite filmmakers and actors than about himself, saying, "I'm shaped by who I collaborate with." When Benton was making "The Late Show," an early critical success, he recalls Robert Altman admonishing him, "Trust your actors. There'll come a point in the picture where they'll know more about the character than you do. Don't be an idiot -- listen to them.' "

Forty years after co-writing "Bonnie and Clyde," nearly 30 years after winning a fistful of Oscars for writing and directing "Kramer vs. Kramer," Benton, who turns 75 this month, is now an éminence grise, standing a step behind Clint Eastwood as one of our last remaining masters of humanist drama. As Hollywood films have grown increasingly noisy and sterile, Benton's have become more resonant and serene. Most of his best work explores common lives and the connections between family and community, be it the small-town clan of "Nobody's Fool" or his affectionate portrait of life in his hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, that occupies the center of "Places in the Heart."

His latest film, "Feast of Love," which arrives Friday from MGM, examines many of those same bonds but puts its focus on romance, reminding us how much life is shaped by the mystery, passion and disappointments of love. Based on a novel by Charles Baxter, the film is populated with a gifted ensemble of actors, from accomplished veterans such as Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander to such younger talent as Radha Mitchell, Greg Kinnear and newcomer Alexa Davalos.

There are many who might see a movie about love as a hard sell, a concern Benton is eager to dispel. "It isn't sappy," he says, a trace of Texas still lodged in his soft voice. "In a lot of ways, it's about the downside of love, the idea that love always ends badly and yet it still seems worth doing. One reason I was attracted to the book is because you make movies to figure out things you don't know. And when it comes to love, that's something I still feel I don't really understand."

The film's moral center is occupied by Freeman, who plays a local professor who has had love and loss in his life. "There are things you can act and things you can't," says Benton, who has the courtly air of a graying college professor, especially when you notice he has Ovid's "Metamorphoses" under his arm. "You can't act erotic -- you either have it or you don't. The same goes for moral stature. It's an internal thing, and Morgan has it."

Benton laughs. "Maybe he got it from playing God, I don't know!"

Freeman's performances have grown less obtrusive as he has aged, something that has happened with Benton's filmmaking as well. "The gift of getting older is the gift of making things simpler," Benton says. "I used to agonize over things. I worry a lot less today. You realize that what shows up in the process, that might take you by surprise, is often better than what you'd planned for."

He shrugs. "I'm less concerned about having a style -- or maybe I don't have one and I've made my peace with it. You do what you do and try not to worry about it."

Benton's favorite Sam Peckinpah film, for example, is the elegiac "Ride the High Country," not "The Wild Bunch." " 'High Country' is the best because Peckinpah wasn't worried about being an artist," he says. "When everyone got so concerned about having a style in the '70s, American movies went from being effortless to self-conscious, which isn't always a good thing."

Benton was raised on the movies. As a boy in Waxahachie, he was seriously dyslexic, preferring drawing to reading. "Actually, I couldn't read," he says. "But out of a kind of desperation I would draw and draw. I was close to being an autistic child, but drawing allowed me to extend my attention span and rejoin the world."

He was especially close with his father, who instead of lecturing him about doing his homework would take Benton to the movies. "I learned narrative from the movies," he recalls. "I became a storyteller just watching the stories on screen."

After college, he headed for New York, where he ended up as an art director at Esquire magazine when it was an incubator for a new kind of American writing, publishing the work of Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. Benton and his Esquire cohort David Newman helped create the magazine's Dubious Achievement Awards and haunted the local art-house theaters with pals such as Peter Bogdanovich, then a writer at the magazine.

Hearing Benton describe his time at Esquire, it's easy to see why he believes his years there inspired much of the brash unconventionality of "Bonnie and Clyde."

Los Angeles Times Articles