Robert Benton: The secret rapture

With the release of his new movie, The Human Stain, Robert Benton talks to Ryan Gilbey about the special intimacy of a last love
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The Independent Culture

Self-deprecation can be a winning quality. But it's disconcerting how little time it takes for the writer-director Robert Benton to confess his shortcomings. This spry 71-year-old Texan readily admits that he never wanted to be a director. That he doesn't write well. That he's hopeless at plots. That he once flunked a writing course. And that his latest film, an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain, will appeal to "older, and therefore smaller, audiences." He folds his hands in his lap. "I don't think the publicity people will want to hear that," he chuckles.

Benton's admissions are the more remarkable for coming from a man who was one of the key figures of late-1960s and 1970s American cinema. With his former writing partner, David Newman, he co-scripted enduring masterpieces like Bonnie and Clyde and What's Up, Doc?, and brought a touch of class to Superman. As a director, he put downbeat spins on familiar genres such as the western (in Bad Company) and the private-eye movie (in The Late Show), before hitting a nerve with Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979. His influence has waned since then, but he has not ceased making contemplative pictures that are pleasingly out of step with current trends, whether for good (Nobody's Fool, Twilight) or ill (the creaky Hitchcock homage, Still of the Night).

The Human Stain runs to Benton's characteristically languid rhythms, and displays his usual receptiveness to the exceptional passages in unexceptional lives. But as the film commutes awkwardly between two periods in the life of a widowed professor, it exhibits little of the director's customary ease with the past.

Benton says that he hopes audiences will have cause to wonder which era they are in at some points in the film, but I think that will only come if they can see past a pair of uncomfortably mannered lead performances. The "publicity people" about whom Benton expresses concern will certainly be wishing on these stars: Anthony Hopkins, as the professor whose career is inelegantly curtailed by political correctness, and Nicole Kidman, as the janitor who finds solace in his bed from her white-trash woes.

"It's not about the first love, or the greatest love," explains Benton. "It's about the last love. Most love stories culminate in sex. Here she starts by having sex with him. It allows her to simulate intimacy without actually being intimate. But he can't not be intimate. So he pulls her into his world." Benton is employing passionate language, but his hands are still arranged regally in his lap; he might be sitting for a portrait. He is wearing a pink jumper under his black blazer and his prickly white beard glistens, as though it were comprised of hundreds of silver needles.

The thing I like best about Benton, apart from his films, is his voice, which was made for shooting the breeze on long winter afternoons. He measures out his words in gravy spoons: the pace is slow, the voice meaty and chewy, the vowels protracted, as when he reflects upon his last 15, cigarette-free years and confides, "I luuurve second-hand smoke."

That voice drops to a reverential whisper when he discusses Kidman, whom he first directed 13 years ago. I ask if he thinks audiences will have difficulty accepting her as a janitor, and he brings his hands together gently in prayer. "I hope not. Everyone thinks she's a movie star but she's actually a character actress: she disappears into a role. The difference between her now and when we worked on Billy Bathgate, is that age has given her depth. She's willing to risk everything."

While The Human Stain may not rank among Benton's most assured work, it does prove that he can't march to anyone else's beat but his own. That was what made him such an outlaw in the first place. He and Newman cooked up the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde in the early 1960s, while they were working at Esquire magazine. Intoxicated by the French New Wave, the writers had filtered the lives of these crumb-bum gangsters through a European sensibility, but the script's refusal to buy into genre conventions or easy morality foxed the studios.

"It took us four years to sell it," muses Benton. "David and I used to joke that we'd still be standing on a street corner when we were 80, peddling the script." First they took it to François Truffaut, who passed on it but noted in September 1964 that "of all the scripts I have turned down in the last five years, Bonnie and Clyde is by far the best." Truffaut handed it to Jean-Luc Godard to read, reporting that his friend "greatly liked" the script. Indeed, it might have ended up as an American Breathless if Warren Beatty hadn't bought it. "He turned down our suggestion that Godard should direct," recalls Benton. "He said, 'You've written a French film. You need an American director.' And he was right. We did insist, though, that he met Godard. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall there. Talk about Marx meets Coca-Cola!"

Even once Arthur Penn had imposed his cool authority upon the picture, it seemed unlikely that it would have much impact. "Before it opened, I said to my wife, 'It'll be out for two weeks, that's it, but we'll get other work through it.' When I saw the reviews, I thought: it may not even last two weeks. Except we had this confidence, born of absolutely no experience, that it was going to be fine, and that any kind of controversy would be good." It was. Ecstatic notices from Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt soon quashed the uproar over the film's graphic violence and ambiguous stance. The Newsweek critic Joe Morgenstern even reversed his original negative review and dashed off a rave instead.

Benton and Newman instantly became Hollywood's hottest new gunslingers. Despite this, Benton says, "For years afterwards we were still poor. We spent more time playing pool than we ever did writing. We squandered what money we had. We wrote so slowly."

Something had to give. In 1970, Newman announced that he wanted to direct, and Benton went into a funk. "All I wanted to do was be a screenwriter. I'd found this partnership, it was like a family, and I was horrified at the idea that it was going to be broken up." First he tried to dissuade Newman, then he got mad and kicked a filing cabinet. When that, too, failed to change his partner's mind, he said something he really didn't mean: "If you're going to direct, then I'm going to direct too."

They collaborated on two scripts - one that Benton would like to direct, and the other for Newman. Benton's was a western called Bad Company. The ink was scarcely dry on the first draft before a Paramount executive was on the telephone enthusing about it. Benton insisted immediately on directing - but only because Newman was in the room when the call came through. "I really didn't want to direct," he splutters. "It's insane, isn't it?"

Ten movies and three Oscars later, it certainly looks that way. While Newman became a nib for hire on turkeys like Santa Claus: The Movie, Benton made good on the promise of his early years. He may no longer pose much of a threat to filing cabinets, but he hasn't lost his spark, or his sagacity.

"Movies now have this rawness and energy that's terrific. Pulp Fiction, for instance, opened the door on a whole new architecture of narrative. That influenced me greatly on The Human Stain. But I do feel out of step with the things that are being made today. Perhaps I'm in the same position that directors of the 1940s were in when Bonnie and Clyde came out. I know my films are, shall we say, somewhat slower than other people's. But I can only make the movies I can make."

'The Human Stain' is released next Friday