Robert Benton, in the corner of an empty restaurant facing the beach, has been pounding the media drum for his big film “The Human Stain” and is glad to share drinks with a writer who doesn’t start by asking about the movie.
Instead, the fan asks: Will there be a DVD of “The Late Show,” Benton’s 1977 marvel of witty L.A. noir that gave their best film roles to Lily Tomlin, Art Carney and just about everyone else in it?
The director smiles. He is 71 and slim and alert and with still a touch of the salty dog in his eyes, and answers reassuringly:
“Expect it next year, I think. I’ve never done a DVD, but really want to do ‘The Late Show.’ And I plan to do commentary. In some ways, it was a mess, but I love it. I haven’t seen any pictures I have done since they came out, but that’s one I was thinking, yeah, I’d like to see a DVD of it.”
Now there is “The Human Stain,” probably an Oscar contender like his “Kramer Vs. Kramer” (winner for film, best actor, director, etc.) and “Places in the Heart” (Oscar for Sally Field) and “Nobody’s Fool” (out of which Paul Newman was Forrest Gumped of his deserved award).
Anthony Hopkins is Silk, a proud professor chased by scandal, Nicole Kidman the tormented woman he loves, Ed Harris her vengeful ex. A big backstory comes forward powerfully, true to Philip Roth’s book, which veteran writer Benton chose to cherish:
“I have been reading Roth since ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’ Once, I was the art director of Esquire, and they printed an excerpt from Roth’s ‘Letting Go’ that I loved so much I assigned myself to do the illustration. Which also saved the magazine $125!
“At one point, I talked to Paul Attanasio, who had the great idea of taking two of the shorter Roth novels, ‘Deception’ and ‘Patrimony’ and intertwining them. But somehow we never connected up. Too bad, because I’ve admired Paul since he was a critic and I’ve admired his screenplays.”
Drawn to 'The Human Stain’ Benton, who doesn’t make many movies, had “read ‘Human Stain’ just for pleasure.
“Generally, I think great books are too hard to film. They’re too interior, or there’s not enough event, or there is a stylization that I don’t know how to bring to screen. But I read it, loved it, saw it was about things I liked a lot and there were roles — everything is actable. Great acting arias! In a way, we just had to Xerox Roth and use the eraser a few times, then let the actors act.”
Well, not quite so easy, as he indicates:
“I called about the book and found it had been sold to (a producer) and he had assigned Nick Meyer to it. I’d met Nick back when I did ‘Late Show’ and he’s a friend. I went back to other things, then a script by Nick of ‘Human Stain’ came across my desk some months later and it was extraordinary. He made choices I would have, and did something I never would have thought of. He opened the story with the car crash, which is brilliant because it says this isn’t just about a victim of political correctness, but a deeper mystery ending in death.”
Benton’s contribution in the scripting was “to methodically return to the novel and its voice. I did not know how to do that before I did ‘Nobody’s Fool’ (1994), where I turned a 450-page book to a 120-page script but lost Richard Russo’s voice. Which was the real core! So we had him rewrite the scenes as we were shooting, and those scenes we did together are the best.”
In “The Human Stain,” Benton “meticulously went back to Roth, his words. You see, I hadn’t figured that out when I did ‘Billy Bathgate’ (1991), where Tom Stoppard’s voice, a strong one, replaced (novelist) E.L. Doctorow’s. Then you add Dustin (Hoffman) to the mix, and it was a kind of chaos.”
A stellar cast
Casting was almost a cinch.
“We all agreed on Hopkins in a second as Silk. No second choice at all. He’s Silk, period. There was a short list to play Faunia, but I wanted Nicole (Kidman) the most because, well, I’d worked with her on ‘Billy Bathgate’ and over the years I saw that Nicole, beyond being a great beauty, is a character actor. In everything. She was the best thing, you bet, in the Kubrick film (‘Eyes Wide Shut’). Her range expands with every role, and will again in (the upcoming) ‘Cold Mountain’.”
“The Human Stain” peels open the secret of Silk — not to be divulged here — which surprises those who haven’t read Roth.
“That’s what I love,” says Benton. “It shifts, deepens. The actor we cast (Wentworth Miller) as young Silk has the same sort of family background as Silk, by the way.
“He was totally crucial. Just like I couldn’t have done ‘Kramer Vs. Kramer’ without young Justin Henry — that kid was Meryl Streep on screen when she was off the screen, and gutsy enough to stand up to Dustin!”
When you suggest that the movie could stand to take more than its 106 minutes, a soft criticism, Benton gladly greets it as a compliment:
“Oh, thank you, because I love movies that leave you wanting more. The story echoes. At the heart, this is about two people whose lives are disasters, who are both outcasts. Silk walks across class lines to be with Faunia, goes where nobody expects.
“One thing I kept in the movie, fought for it, is that they begin with the most intimate act, and the genius of Roth is that Faunia uses sex to avoid intimacy. Sex is a narcotic, but Silk drags her into painful real intimacy.”
A ’70s-style director
He’s been told that the film is old-fashioned. In stride, the old pro admits, “Yes, it is a sort of ’70s movie. But I’m a ’70s director, so what can I say?”
His angel was ’70s giant Robert Altman, “a genius, and we’re not the same kind of director. But Bob taught me how to stop being a writer and trust the actors and accept change, let the movie breathe. Bob freed me. He was going through hell doing a film and he’d come back to our little Lions Gate screening room above a garage and tell us how great ‘Late Show’ was. It was inspiring.”
He chuckles and adds, “Bob sometimes enjoys me, sometimes can’t stand me. He wanted a guy to follow him into the trenches, wearing a helmet, ducking studio bullets. Well, sometimes you die. I’m not that kind of guy.”
Benton came up from Waxahatchie, Texas, and first made a film name by writing (with David Newman) the epochal “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), a huge lightning rod for debate on film violence. Today, Quentin Tarantino catches the angry voltage for “Kill Bill,” the difference in Benton’s mind being that...
“Tarantino shoots blanks, an artistic decision that works. It’s not real violence and it’s funny. If you measure greatness as a matter of influence, Tarantino is a great director. He has changed the structure of film. And he gets great laughs. Whereas in ‘Bonnie,’ we had funny talk in the car and then suddenly Clyde shoots the guy right in the face and the audience gasped from the stunning shock of it.”
The recall still has a recoil. Some memories are good forever.
David Elliott is the movie critic of The San Diego Union-Tribune. © 2003 by the Copley News Service