Academy Honors Robert Benton
“Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), “What’s up Doc?” (1972), “Bad Company” (1972), “The Late Show” (1977), “Kramer vs. Kramer,” (1979), “Places in the Heart” (1984), “Nobody’s Fool,” (1994), and “Twilight” (1998), (no, not the 2008 teenage vampire movie of the same title), are some of the movies written, co-written and/or directed by three time Oscar winner Robert Benton. On June 2 The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated Benton’s incredible career with an event hosted by novelist and screenwriter Richard Russo (“Nobody’s Fool,” “Twilight,” “The Ice Harvest”). The event took place in the Academy’s screening room, located at Lighthouse International, at 111 East 59th Street, and included reminiscences from producers Arlene Donovan and Stanley Jaffe, actress Margo Martindale, as well as Russo.
The evening included many clips from Benton’s films. For me these clips were a reminder of just how good Benton’s movies are. Each clip made me want to watch the rest of the movie. I was also made aware of parts of the Benton canon that I have yet to see, as well as those films I would like to see again.
It was pointed out that Benton, in his movies, always takes a stand. Clips from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Places in the Heart” illustrated that stand as favoring the poor over the over the rich, and the powerless over the powerful. It was interesting that the clips, from each of these movies, had to do with banks taking away someone’s home. Following the clips Russo elicited laughs from the audience when he observed, “Imagine, a time when Americans were suspicious of banks.” He added, to more laughter, “Don’t you hate it when movies become dated?”
Russo described how his transition from novelist to screenwriter began with Benton’s screenplay adaptation of Russo’s novel, “Nobody’s Fool.” Russo credited Benton with teaching him how to write screenplays and initiating him into the film business. On the subject of the latter Russo recalled Benton saying, “I’m so sorry for what I’m getting you into.” Reflecting on his close friendship with Benton Russo added, “He must have suspected that he had me. He has me still.”
Russo recalled that people who loved his book, “Nobody’s Fool,” found the movie to be a faithful adaptation, even though Benton actually cut out three quarters of the book’s events. Russo said Benton’s skill was in making the cuts without bruising the book’s spirit.
The most interesting part of the evening was when Benton himself took the stage. Benton recalled being dyslexic as a child. He said he was excited about learning to read, but that he knew something was seriously wrong when he tried. He recalled a specific memory of being in his parents’ bedroom, at the age of seven, trying to read a book. He said the words did not look right and that he could not concentrate for more than a minute. Benton said his parents recognized his desperation at not being able to read. Then Benton’s father started to take him to the movies. Benton said that, to him, movies were something he could follow. He described movies as being another kind of story telling, that used images bound up in time in a way that words were not. Later in the discussion Benton brought the story full circle by recalling an interview that actor Paul Newman, with whom Benton was very close, once gave. The interviewer observed that Newman (based on his incredible success as an actor) must care a great deal about acting. Benton said that Newman replied that his accomplishments as an actor were about how much he did not want to be in the sporting goods business. Benton, being a masterful storyteller, then brought the topic back to himself by speculating that much of his life (and the attendant success) has been about him running from that point of discovery, of being a seven-year-old kid in his parents’ bedroom who could not read…and this from an Oscar winning writer.