By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
You would never know Robert Benton had been here. A minute ago, he was sitting in this chair in this hotel restaurant, drinking a Shiner, nibbling at fried squid, chewing over the past. His chair is still warm. But now he is gone, and it's as though he had never been here. Even the tape recorder perched inches from his face contains scant evidence of his existence. His voice, soft and possessing a slight lisp, barely registers on the tape.
So, maybe that answers the question posed by the headline above: A man with three Academy Awards and four more nominations, a man largely responsible for one of the most influential films of the 1960s and who has the respect and affection of everyone he's ever worked with is unknown because he is unremarkable. Passers-by take no notice of him standing against a downtown Dallas building, having his picture taken. The 71-year-old with the white beard and round glasses doesn't stop traffic. Instead, it rolls over him.
There are many more reasons for his not being a household name among Entertainment Weekly subscribers. Some are offered below by people far more famous than he. But maybe the simplest answer is the one right in front of your face, the one who vanishes like smoke the instant he walks away.
His credits are estimable, enviable. Co-creator of Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards. Co-author of a book that would come to define what's hip-not-hip for decades to come. Co-author of the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde. Writer-director of Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody's Fool and seven other movies, including the new The Human Stain, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer's adaptation of the Philip Roth novel about the secrets people keep and pay for. Winner of three Academy Awards, for writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramerin 1979 and, five years later, for writing Places in the Heart. Acclaimed by critics and adored by actors, among them Paul Newman, Sally Field, Jeff Bridges, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris--all of whom, save Field, he's worked with at least twice.
"And I've given him grief about that," says Field, who won her second Best Actress Oscar for Places in the Heart. "Always the guys." She feigns anger but quickly softens. "He is just one of the rare people--those rare, talented, sensitive, funny, goodpeople. It is the quality that allows him to make the kinds of stories that he does make, and I think it's also the quality that keeps him from making more films. It's a trade-off worth taking. If you have to wait every five years or whatever it takes, it's worth it, rather than making more and not having them be Benton's films."
Benton takes no credit, raises no stink, lives so far outside the Hollywood spotlight he becomes a shadow. When his films are good, he gives credit to others. When his movies are bad, he blames himself.
"I must say, he's such a humble cat," says Jeff Bridges, who starred in Benton's first film as director, 1972's Bad Company, and 15 years later in Nadine, the writer-director's film set in Austin, where Benton attended college in the early 1950s. "I mean, a lot of people run their careers and their lives differently, and I don't think he particularly enjoys the limelight or, you know, craves it to the degree that he's out pursuing it. I think he'd prefer the people in the movie to do as much of that as they can. I think he enjoys being kind of behind the scenes."
Adds Peter Bogdanovich, for whom Benton co-wrote the Barbra Streisand screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? in 1972: "I think, really, most directors aren't known. If they are, it's for extracurricular activities, like my affair with Cybill [Shepherd], or a great pronounced style, like Quentin Tarantino. And Bob is kind of self-effacing and very laid-back."
This profile of Robert Benton is the kind of story he would have loathed in 1963, when he and then-writing partner David Newman were at Esquire, the frontier of New Journalism. There they lampooned "The New Sentimentality," made fun of presidents, thrust their tongues so far in their cheeks they poked holes in their faces. This story, full of the accolades proffered by the famous and legendary, would have made a young Benton squirm.
But you will not find anyone who will say a bad thing about the man. His peers believe him compassionate; his actors think him generous. He tells small stories about small people: kids playing cowboy, private dicks gone limp, fathers falling in love with their sons, mothers trying to save their families, old men raging against inevitable decline. His first screenplay coated the screen in blood and had some seeing red, but Benton's movies do not go bang anymore. His films are as quiet as the man who makes them.
Benton speaks, softly, in circles. A discussion about Waxahachie might quickly turn into a history of Bonnie and Clyde, then give way to a story about Krameror French New Wave director François Truffaut or Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which he adores. Over three hours, he will say little about his new movie, in which Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a college professor who falls for a young woman (Nicole Kidman) and succumbs to a secret he's kept since abandoning his family years earlier. Benton prefers instead to talk about old movies made by dead directors who influenced him or young ones who inspire him.