Nobody's Fool

He has three Oscars, co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde and Paul Newman digs him. So why don't you know Dallas-born filmmaker Robert Benton?

"There was a kind of romance about it, so I began to build on it and build on it and build on it," Benton says. "That's when Dallas just got wiped out. Yet when somebody says to me, 'Where you from?' I still say Texas. I've been in New York for 50 years, but I'm still from here. And my notion of paradise is walking across the University of Texas campus with this girl I was desperately in love with, not even comprehending how happy I am, not even being able to understand that kind of happiness because it's so ubiquitous."

At UT, Benton went to work on The Ranger, the campus humor mag. He met Harvey Schmidt there, a Houston boy interested in playwriting; years later they wrote a book that defined the language of cool for decades to come. It was called The In and Out Book, as in "In celebrities to see: Marlene Dietrich, Thelonious Monk, Joe DiMaggio" and "Out celebrities to see: Jack Kerouac, Leonard Bernstein, Adolf Hitler." Their creation has become the staple of every Out magazine published today.

By the mid-'50s, Benton had two choices: return to Dallas, where his father had arranged for him to work at the phone company, or leave Texas. He chose the latter and broke his father's heart, the privilege of all sons sooner or later.

Clockwise from top left: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde; Dustin Hoffman, producer Stanley Jaffe and Robert Benton on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer; Sally Field in Places in the Heart; Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges in Nadine; Benton and Paul Newman on the set of Twilight; and Benton, with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, directing his new film The Human Stain.
Clockwise from top left: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde; Dustin Hoffman, producer Stanley Jaffe and Robert Benton on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer; Sally Field in Places in the Heart; Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges in Nadine; Benton and Paul Newman on the set of Twilight; and Benton, with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, directing his new film The Human Stain.
The odd couple: Writing partners David Newman and Robert Benton in New York in 1967
The odd couple: Writing partners David Newman and Robert Benton in New York in 1967

Benton arrived in New York City aboard a Continental Trailways bus, "bearing the terrible responsibility country boys have for preserving the city's sophistication against the vulgarities of people already here," said Esquire's legendary editor Harold Hayes. He moved there with aspirations of selling cartoons to the slick magazines; he would also take art classes at Columbia University, from which he earned his master's degree. After just four weeks, a woman at The Saturday Evening Postasked him to come to her office. He thought, "Thank God, I've sold something." She closed the door and asked him to sit down.

"Mr. Benton, I think you ought to look for another line of work," she told him. "Really, don't pursue this anymore."

To prove her wrong, Benton illustrated a children's book and made it look as though it had been written and discarded by a little girl years ago; he even stained each page with coffee to get it just so. He took the pages back to Henry Wolf, art director at Esquire, who hired him in 1954 as assistant art director.

"I was always borrowing money from my family and having no money," Benton recalls. "And then it turned around. I started getting work, and then I got a steady job, which astounded my family. And then I got drafted."

He would have to return to Texas to serve a stint in the Army; he would see no action. Upon his return to New York in '57, he was given his old job, and when Wolf moved to Harper's Bazaar, Benton was promoted to art director. By then he and Schmidt had begun writing and illustrating their In and Outs, which the magazine ran and the authors collected in a book in 1959. Three years later, they collaborated on another slim collection, The Worry Book.

"Benton, to all appearances, should have been Out," wrote journalism professor Carol Polsgrove in It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun?, her 1995 history of Esquirein the '60s. "He seemed perpetually poor, wore Army shirts and drove an old Citroën that looked like a Paris taxicab...But Benton had a talent that made him first-rate for Esquire: He enjoyed discovering people who could do some things better than he could. He [also] had a subtle, off-beat take on the times."

In 1960, there arrived in New York and in Esquire's offices a rumpled, dark-haired kid with a master's in English from the University of Michigan. David Newman was hired to read fiction and other over-the-transom pieces, but he was too smart, and too much a smart-ass, to stay hidden beneath other people's piles for long.

Benton and Newman became constant collaborators and companions. Hayes would hand them raw materials for pieces and demand their take. "They would come back with what would soon become the voice of Esquire," Polsgrove wrote, "a wise guy thumbing his nose at the world." By January 1962, they had created the magazine's Dubious Achievement Awards, consisting of photos and smart-ass captions. Beneath a photo of Esquirecontributor Norman Mailer, they wrote, "White Man of the Year."

Dubious Achievement, Benton now insists, "was much more David's voice than mine. I guess I sung harmony. I feel that in some way David was a better writer than me. Really was. I survived in some ways for reasons I don't understand. I'm not a good writer. I'm a very good screenwriter."

It's amazing Newman and Benton got any work done at all at Esquire: They spent much of their time watching movies, talking movies, writing movies. (Benton, in 1962, was also dating an Esquirecontributor, future Ms.founder Gloria Steinem; they, too, wrote together on occasion.) Benton and Newman fell in with another writer at the magazine, Peter Bogdanovich, who was determined to remind Americans theirs was a rich history of cinema--a rare thing at a time when most young filmmakers in the States were looking to France for inspiration, to the films of Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and others. Bogdanovich had been hired by the Museum of Modern Art to program retrospectives of Hollywood directors considered unhip by the cinerati, chief among them Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock.

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