By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Newman and Benton were more than writing partners; they became family, living in the same Manhattan building with their wives and children. They wrote together during the day, ate together at night, vacationed together during time off. Of his late partner, Benton now says, "He was hypnotically wonderful," and he smiles.
"They sort of finished each other's sentences," says Bogdanovich, recalling the writing of What's Up, Doc? in 1971. "I called Bob and David, and I said, 'Do you want to do a screwball comedy with me?' They said, 'Well, we've only got three weeks because we've got another picture starting.' I said OK, so they came out, and we holed ourselves up in my suite at the Sunset Towers and worked for three weeks straight. It was tense, but we had a good time. David did the typing; Bob and I paced. They were very good together. They kind of bounced off each other, bounced off of me, bounced off the walls."
In the end, Benton says, the screenplay was saved by Buck Henry.
By 1972, the Newman-Benton partnership was dying. Newman made it clear he intended to direct, something Benton says he never had any interest in. It was too risky a proposition since they were making a nice living as writers and Benton was trying to support his wife, Sally, whom he married in 1964, and their young son. Then the worst thing of all happened: Benton, not Newman, had been given the opportunity to direct, a western he and Newman had penned called Bad Company.
"We started when we were young men, but the stakes got higher, and when the stakes got higher, it changed the chemistry," Benton recalls. "It was like turning up the flame. It brought all the problems in our relationship to a kind of head and forced what would have ultimately happened later. Since David, I have not had another close male friend. The breaking up of that partnership was so hard for me. From David's point of view, the sheer injustice that he was the one who wanted to direct and I was the one who got the chance, that was heartbreaking."
Newman would direct a single film, based on a screenplay he and Benton wrote. The Crazy American Girl, starring Patti D'Arbanville, was never released in the States.
Eventually, Bonnie and Clyde became a curse for its writers; nothing could ever live up to its impact, its legend. Newman and Benton were always asked, "What ya done since?" even after they'd done plenty, thanks for askin'. "It was very hard to escape," Benton says. "It ceased being a curse when David and I stopped being partners, because Benton or Newman alone is not Newman and Benton."
"And," he says, "I have less affection for Kramer than you would think."
When first offered Kramer vs. Kramer, based on a novel about a newly single father abandoned by his wife and left to raise his son, Benton turned it down. There was no way to make it work, he figured, without the material turning soggy from sentiment. His wife told him to reconsider. He said he would write it, but only if Truffaut would direct. The French director said yes. The producer said no. So, a second opportunity passed for Benton and Truffaut to work together, as did a discussed project about the life of Howard Hughes.
"I am a much more sentimental filmmaker than David was," Benton says. "I was afraid I would make a really sappy, sentimental movie. But once I started working on it, I began to identify with the character and began to see that in fact I could do it, and it would be sentimental, but it wouldn't be disgustingly sentimental."
It became his most commercially successful film, grossing more than $100 million upon its release in 1979 and garnering five Oscars, including ones for Benton (directing, adapted screenplay), stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep and for best picture. (Among the films it beat was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.)
At that same ceremony, Sally Field won her first Academy Award, for Norma Rae; Benton would get her a second for Places in the Heart, allowing her to deliver her now-infamous "You really like me!" speech. Initially, producers didn't want Field, thinking the role of Edna Spalding too much like Norma Rae, a strong Suth'n woman. But the role was too perfect: Like Benton, Field came from Texas stock, and her family history was just as rugged and tumultuous as his. She would even come to the set the first day wearing her grandmother's perfume, which Benton recognized as the smell of his own childhood.