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?

"David and Robert were very taken with all those films and went religiously to see all of them," recalls the director of The Last Picture Show. "I remember very well that they were really very impressed with those films, and I know it had an impact on them, as it did on all of us who were starting out at that time."

Of all the films Bogdanovich screened at the museum, none resonated with Benton more deeply than Hawks' 1959 western Rio Bravo, in which John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan banded together against a cattle baron and proved you could make something rich and emotional out of the most conventional tale pulled from a saddle bag. Rio Bravo would provide a kind of template for Benton's own movies, with and without David Newman. They would often say their films, from Bonnie and Clyde on, were about the same thing: "the creation of the artificial family."

"I think that notion of community, which I tend to make films about, comes out of a kind of haunted influence, in a bizarre way," Benton says of Rio Bravo. "I think that I became religious because of the sense of community that came out of Hawks' films. It's like I was converted by the power of Hawks. That sense of community led me back into a more religious life, and he's the least religious filmmaker I can imagine. If somebody doesn't have an influence on your life, they have no real influence. Art can be art and accessible to everyone. Hitchcock is a great artist; Hawks is a great artist; and yet they are not artists aimed towards small audiences, and that you can have art aimed for a broader audience seems to me an essential shift in my way of perceiving the world."

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

Before the decade was out, Benton and Newman, with a few co-conspirators, would find an enormous audience. And theirs would become an influence they never could have imagined.


"We had to make movies the way one has to breathe."

--Newman and Benton, 1972

Before there was Clyde Barrow, there was Clark Kent.

Benton and Newman began work in 1964 on a screenplay about the lives and horrific deaths of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. They had read a book, The Dillinger Days, in which the bank-robbing couple were minor characters. But for Benton the attraction was as natural as that of a bootlegger to a shotgun; his father, he says, had even gone to both of their funerals. They wrote the movie, then waited for it to get made.

Their first publicly performed work wasn't about an impotent killer and his poetry-writing girlfriend, but, of all things, Superman. And a musical, to boot, with songs provided by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who had done Bye Bye Birdie in '63 and later wrote the music for Annie. On March 29, 1966, It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman opened on Broadway...and, a mere 129 performances later, closed on Broadway. Still, Strouse insists, it ranks among his favorite works, the only one he will still listen to.

"It makes me smile--the cast, the kind of laid-back attitude Bob and David had," he recalls. "They were very, very tight and very, very opposite. David was more meshugenah. They were both equally funny, but Bob was very considered and still is when I see him. He grew a beard that was very trimmed, and that defines him for me in a way. He's very considered, even in the way he dresses. David, I can't think of a word that doesn't seem so derogatory, but I don't mean it as such, but he was rumpled. His haircuts were not perfect. Bob's were. Their attitudes toward each other were a wonderful balance, too. David had the wildest ideas, and Bob kind of tamed him in a way." Years later, Benton and Newman would contribute the first draft to Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie.

Benton and Newman had always wanted Truffaut to direct Bonnie and Clyde; they had written it for him, were inspired by him. He flirted with the project twice, but it never worked. Godard likewise floated around it. But in the end, it was Arthur Penn who made the movie, and it became the movie that made Arthur Penn.

Interpreting Bonnie and Clyde's influence as the first American New Wave film has become a cottage industry for film critics. Newman and Benton, writing in the 1972 Bonnie and Clyde Book, insisted it was about only one thing: style and the people who have it. "It is about people whose style set them apart from their time and place so that they seemed odd and aberrant to the general run of society." And in the end, they are punished for their style, gunned down and then some.

For their screenplay, their very first, Newman and Benton were nominated for an Academy Award. They lost, as did Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Penn, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and costume designer Theadora Van Runkle. It would be the only Oscar nomination of Newman's career.

"By David Newman and Robert Benton"--that's how their credits read on 1970's There Was a Crooked Man..., 1972's Bad Company and What's Up, Doc?, 1978's Superman: The Movie and 1982's Still of the Night (essentially a Newman-Benton leftover). Benton liked to say Newman came first, while he got the last word. So shall he again today: On June 27, Newman died of complications from a stroke. He was 66.

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