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?

"It so resonated in me because I knew this woman. I knew these people," Field says. "This was mine. It all came together. This was supposed to be. I was supposed to tell the story of my grandmother, who lost her children, and Edna, who fought to keep them. There's just this little bubble of precious history and memory surrounding that movie, too, because of how we shot it and all of us being in Waxahachie. You get isolated from the world and are just in this spot, and that's when making movies is just a gift from God."

For Benton, coming off the failure of Still of the Night, Places in the Heartwas an especially important movie. He needed to make something personal, not some Newman-Benton leftover screenplay. Now, he will say he should have stopped there and not bothered with Nadine.Or Billy Bathgate. Should have just waited for Nobody's Fool, waited for Paul Newman, who gives a stunning performance as a hard-drinking construction worker with a bad knee, a distant son who thinks him unreliable and a grandson who doesn't know him at all. Newman, for decades larger than the screens on which his image is projected, rarely seemed so human as he did in Nobody's Fool, for which he received his eighth Oscar nomination for Best Actor and lost to Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump.

"When Benton is working best and when the actor's working at his peak," Newman says, "it's not that he leaves you alone; it's that he allows you the freedom to experiment and to go into odd places without crippling you before you get the words out of your mouth. The biggest gift I think that he has is when you're in trouble and are kind of lamely holding up your hand for instruction, he knows what to tell ya. Usually the problem with most directors is when you hold your hand up and they got nothing to say, or they have some kind of result-oriented thing: 'Well, look to your left,' or, 'Don't put your face so much into the camera.' That's no help when you're really, desperately trying to figure out why the scene isn't working. Benton would probably give you an active verb, like, 'Crowd her.' Or, 'Measure her.' Or, 'Bait her.' Or, 'It's not important.' You can play those things, or at least Ican. I know what he's talking about."

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

One quickly gets the sense this is the biggest compliment an actor can give a director. He stays out of the way.

"I tried to skewer Benton," Newman adds, "but I don't think that would have been cricket."

Benton speaks little of The Human Stain, except to say pieces of it mirror his life. He sees some of himself in the young Coleman, who abandons his family and his heritage to pursue a better life. So it was for a young Benton, who left Dallas a hapless nobody and returns now a celebrated, if occasionally anonymous, somebody.

"You don't know how many failures I go through, how many scripts I write that draft number 30 is sitting on the computer," Benton says. "In some ways, I'm extremely lucky that things die in the computer rather than on the screen. They do die on the screen. Nadinedied on the screen. Still of the Nightdied on the screen. Billy Bathgatedied on the screen. And Twilightdied on the screen. I wish I could say this without sounding shifty, because I'm notshifty, but I stumble into things. There's no design there. It's like chaos inside here"--he points to his temple--"and I'm not putting myself down. I'm just trying to describe it without sentiment, one way or the other. I tried to do commercial movies, but I'm not good at it. I've been lucky."

And with that, he is off.

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