During the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, which just came to a close after running in Hollywood from Thursday through Sunday, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the festival’s special guests, legendary writer-director Robert Benton, for an in-depth interview about his life and career. The 80-year-old, a three-time Oscar winner, is best known as one of the writers of Arthur Penn‘s Bonnie and Clyde (1967); the writer-director of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984); and as a man whose films tend to be intimate examinations of family and community.
(The video at the top of this post contains highlights of our conversation.)
Born near Dallas in 1932, Benton as a child suffered from severe dyslexia that prevented him from reading or writing very well. Only movies seemed to hold his attention, and, fortunately, his father took him to see them about three times a week. After graduating from college — the first in his family to do so — Benton relocated to New York City, where he landed a job as the art director at Esquire magazine. While living in New York, he began attending screenings at various art houses, including many films of the French New Wave.
Eventually, Benton and his friend and fellow Esquire staffer David Newman (who died in 2003) decided to write an “American New Wave” film. Their script, as well as additional contributions by Robert Towne and star-producer Warren Beatty, resulted in Bonnie and Clyde, an alternately humorous and violent film that put the nail in the coffin of the Hays Code that had censored movie content for decades, made mega-stars out of Beatty and Faye Dunaway, won a best supporting actress Oscar for Estelle Parsons, helped to launch the careers of Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder and made Hollywood players out of Benton and Newman, who were nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar.
Five years later, Benton and Newman wrote the script for Peter Bogdanovich‘s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Benton directed his first film, the Western Bad Company (1972), which he also independently wrote. He also penned and directed his next film, The Late Show (1977), which brought him a second Oscar nom, for best original screenplay.
Benton’s career reached its apex, however, with the release of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), a heartbreaking drama about divorce and single-parenthood that came out when America was confronting a massive rise in those areas. The film was a critical and commercial smash hit and won the Oscars for best picture, actor (Dustin Hoffman) and supporting actress (Meryl Streep), plus best director and best original screenplay for Benton.
Three years passed before Benton, a notoriously slow worker, churned out another film, Still of the Night (1982), which generated mixed reactions. But his next film after that one, Places in the Heart (1984), showed him to be in tip-top form and garnered best director and best original screenplay Oscar noms for him (he won the latter) and a best actress Oscar win for star Sally Field.
In the 1990s, Benton collaborated on two occasions with the writer Richard Russo and the actor Paul Newman (who died in 2009), Nobody’s Fool (1994), for which Benton received a fifth best original screenplay Oscar nom and for which Newman received his last of his eight best (lead) actor Oscar noms, and Twilight (1998), a less successful picture.
More recently, Benton and Russo co-wrote The Ice Harvest (2005), and Benton directed two films that he had no part in writing, The Human Stain (2003) and Feast of Love (2007).
Benton emphasizes that he has not retired and continues to write.