Writer Scott Holleran met with writer and director Robert Benton during the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, where Benton was an honored guest, to talk about his distinguished career. This includes the two movies which TCM screened during the festival, 1984’s Places in the Heart starring Oscar winner Sally Field and Kramer vs. Kramer starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman.
Texas native Benton, who co-wrote the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), made his directorial debut in 1972 with Bad Company starring Jeff Bridges and wrote and directed The Late Show (1977) starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin. 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer won the Best Picture Academy Award and earned Benton two Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Director. Places in the Heart earned him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He also directed Nobody’s Fool (1994), which he adapted from the novel by Richard Russo and for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay. Holleran first interviewed Benton for Box Office Mojo when Benton directed Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins in 2003’s The Human Stain and later upon the release of his last movie, Feast of Love (2007) starring Morgan Freeman, Jane Alexander and Greg Kinnear.
The interview took place at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: Is Kramer vs. Kramer your “crowning achievement” as TCM’s tribute suggests?
Robert Benton: There are things about Kramer vs. Kramer that I love. Places in the Heart is more personal to me and holds a special place in that sense. To go back to the [Texas] town I grew up in — that I [felt like I] couldn’t wait to get away from — and, once I was away from it, realized how much I love it…Places holds a special place for that reason. Places is a highly fictionalized version of my family. There’s writing where you know the characters, you know the voice, you know the language — it’s easier to slip into gear with that [type of writing]. You know when to move from second to third [gear], when to move down, when to stop. I think the best pictures I’ve done are the pictures where I’ve dealt with things that are familiar to me. Kramer vs. Kramer was about being a parent. Places is about this small town and my family. Late Show is about my father. It’s fictional but I drew from my father for Art Carney’s role. I feel like it takes me a long time to get into a world. Once you’re in it, it’s good, but if you don’t know the language and emotions of the people, then it’s really difficult. My first picture that I directed was a movie called Bad Company and it was really it was a kind of semi-Western but about a partnership — a male friendship. It was the anti-Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid] — and I love Butch Cassidy — in the sense that they quarreled all the time but it wasn’t charming. It was dirty and cold and the West was not a glorious place. It was just endless prairie. When I can find something familiar to me [which] captures my imagination — that’s the best work I do. When I try to do things outside of that, it just doesn’t work. I can think of a number of things that I’m not going to mention. Too many people worked too hard on them.
Scott Holleran: So, it sounds like you’re saying that Kramer vs. Kramer, which turns 40 next year, was more demanding?
Robert Benton: Yes. I’ll say this: before I started the movie, I said to my wife and to our 11-year-old son, when this is over, we’re gonna go away. I’d always said we would learn to ski. My wife Sallie knows how to ski and my son wanted to learn. So, I said we’ll go to this place in northern Italy or in Switzerland and we’ll have this lovely holiday and we’ll learn to ski. That sounded great. At one point, in the middle of shooting Kramer, I came back and said to my wife, ‘cancel the vacation, not only is the picture not any good, I’m probably never going to work again’. Then, I forgot about it. When the picture ended, I said, ‘OK when are we leaving?’ And she said ‘you cancelled the trip, remember?’ I said ‘OK I’ll have to remember not to ever do that again’. Don’t do a movie and live by your day to day emotions about it.
Scott Holleran: Do you have a favorite Kramer vs. Kramer scene?
Robert Benton: I often admire the skill of the people that worked on the scene. But, sometimes, I admire the architecture of a movie and in Kramer vs. Kramer the amount of storytelling that went into the first French toast scene and the last French toast scene told [the audience] without being soppy about it what the picture had been about. And I thought it worked. The actors knew how to work in it. As I said before the picture started, Justin Henry [who played the son Billy Kramer] was an unbelievably good actor — an unbelievably good actor! — he held his own against those other actors. So, I like the [overall] architecture of the movie, the character change that happens — I love the ordinariness of their lives. There’s a little, tiny scene at the beginning where [father and son are] having breakfast together. Billy [Justin Henry] is watching I Dream of Jeannie or something and Ted [Dustin Hoffman] is eating Entenmann’s donuts or something. They’re not talking but they’re comfortable with each other. The best scenes are the scenes that don’t need words to explain them. They just happen. They make every father — or mother — in a scene connect with it — [and think] oh, yeah, I know what that’s like. A movie like Bonnie and Clyde makes [the lead characters] ordinary in some way to show that they’re not all mad dog killers to give them a life outside of the life you expect them to have — so that they’re not just defined by what they’re doing, they are also defined by who they are, just by being.
Scott Holleran: Kramer vs. Kramer won Best Picture, was among the biggest box office hits of 1979, and it’s widely known and associated with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. What are the most overlooked aspects of the movie?
Robert Benton: That’s a very good question. All I can say is that the scenes that mean the most to me are the scenes like I said of Billy and Ted just sitting and eating — or the scenes that I connect with in my own life, to the ordinariness of being a parent. The loving part of being a parent or the terror of being a parent. When our son John was once in a sledding accident, I didn’t run with him to the hospital [as Ted Kramer does with Billy Kramer after a traumatic event in the movie]. I caught him and I sat with him as they put stitches in his head. That was to me the day to day experience of being a parent — that you’re going to sit and watch your child go through such pain and you’re not going to be able to do anything about it, you know, except hold his hand. I also think Justin Henry’s performance is so good that everyone forgets he’s acting. They just think ‘he’s this kid’. They believe the character. And that’s supremely good acting. He’s a very good actor. I sort of cursed him that he was in this kind of picture. He’s the thing that makes you forget you’re watching a movie. One of my favorite scenes has almost nothing to do with the plot. It’s the scene where Ted and Margaret [Jane Alexander] are walking down the street after Christmas and she’s telling him that she and her husband are going to get back together. It’s so small but it’s a huge thing for me because [he knows that] he’s now going to be alone — it makes him alone — it’s just a scene between two friends. There’s no drama to it. But I think one of the tricky things about dramas is that they lend themselves to acting. If you make things small and ordinary, they are just as powerful. Sometimes more so.
Scott Holleran: How would casting Kate Jackson as Joanna Kramer have changed the film?
Robert Benton: I love Kate Jackson. She would have been good. I would have been satisfied with that choice. She would have been very good because she’s a wonderful actress.
Scott Holleran: At the time, she was co-starring in ABC’s top-rated Charlie’s Angels as Sabrina Duncan, the so-called smart angel, and she projected a kind of intelligence —
Robert Benton: — Yes. That’s what I really wanted. You can act some things and you can’t act others and you can’t act intelligence. That’s exactly what she was — and you would [have known] that [her character, Joanna] left Ted not because she was crippled but because she was smart enough to know that [the marriage] was unsustainable. I would have been totally happy with Kate Jackson if Meryl had never shown up. I’m sure she would’ve gotten a nomination. She was terrific. She really was terrific and she has that kind of empathy and intelligence. She would have changed the picture. She would have made it almost as good. Meryl is just one of those miracles that happens.
Scott Holleran: She later played the lead in Scarecrow and Mrs. King on CBS and the wife of a closeted gay man in Making Love. Do you think Kate Jackson as Joanna Kramer would’ve helped the audience see Ted and Joanna as equals — as more of a couple?
Robert Benton: I think that’s correct. It would be more convincing. You didn’t know Meryl Streep and you didn’t know when she was going to come back and if she was going to come back. [There’s] that unknown quality about Meryl and that fact is that she took you by surprise. When we were doing the picture, about the second or third week — because there was a long hiatus where Meryl was not in the picture and then she came back for the courtroom — that I didn’t like — I liked the substance of the speech I had given her in the courtroom. But I felt that the language was a man trying to write a woman. Because I respected her so much, I said ‘will you take this speech and make the points I made but put it in a woman’s language?’ And then I forgot I’d said it. On the day we started shooting, which was toward the end of the picture, we were all exhausted. [Meryl] came to me and said ‘here, I rewrote this scene like you wanted me to’. And I thought ‘oh, God, what have I done?’ She gave me this page and a half of what was handwritten on a legal pad and it was brilliant, except for the fact that it was too long and we had to cut about a third of it out. When we cut it together, it was perfect: “I’m his mommy”. I could never have written “I’m his mommy”. That she understood — she found that. It was genius that she would find those details. When we came to shoot it, it had to be covered from every angle — wide shot, slightly closer — it was one of the most important scenes in the picture. There was a closeup on her and then another closeup on her and then tight on her and then you had to do a reverse on the people listening to her — it was an enormous amount of work to do. I said, Meryl, look, you’re wonderful and I think you’re great. But you haven’t done that many movies and remember that this movie is gonna play in the closeup so, as they say in Hollywood, save it for the closeup. The other stuff is just mechanical and she said OK and we started with a wide shot and she was so good that there was just silence when I said ‘Cut!’ Then, I said ‘Meryl, please remember …’ and she said, ‘it’s OK’ and [we did it] and it had the same level of intelligence and intensity. It was a brilliant performance. And she did it time and time again. By the fifth time she did it, I suddenly realized I was afraid of Meryl Streep. She was so good. I could’ve gone home and she would have been just as good. She just knew the character. She was brilliant.
Scott Holleran: Had you read the Avery Corman novel?
Robert Benton: Yes, I had. It’s a different novel from the picture. I made a central change which is to make Joanna sympathetic. She is more unsympathetic in the novel. I think Avery Corman felt — and I think he’s been quoted on this, saying — it was an anti-feminist novel. I think it took him a while to get used to the fact that [the movie] is, if not feminist, at least more balanced.
Scott Holleran: Is the novel worth reading?
Robert Benton: Yes. It’s good — it’s different. It starts with and follows their marriage. I started it at the moment where she leaves because I didn’t have the luxury of that [expository] time.
Scott Holleran: What’s the best thing about Avery Corman’s novel that you brought into the film?
Robert Benton: He told a story about a father’s love for his child and how he learns to be a good father and that is a lovely story. He did it very, very well. I’ve used his scenes sometimes word for word. What made me want to do this was really the relationship between Ted and Billy and how Ted Kramer learns — there’s a great sense of this man learning — what it means to be a parent. I thought ‘that’s a great story.’
Scott Holleran: Kramer vs. Kramer producer Stanley Jaffe told you during an appearance at the festival that he thinks your artistic mark lies in your rendering moments that play out — that you allow “reality to take its time”. In thinking his compliment over, do you agree and, if so, why?
Robert Benton: I agree. I don’t know if I’m as good as he thinks I am — I’d love to think he’s right — and it is the in-between moments that make things real [in movies]. If you go from one high to another and then another, you begin to be watching a machine — so the scene has to play out. When we shot Ted carrying Billy to the hospital, the accident happened on a playground I used to take my son to and he ran all the way to the hospital, which was Lenox Hill on the Upper East Side. We had a steadi-cam — it was the first time I’ve worked with this — and we broke it into sections but the running is real. We tightened it up a little bit, but it was very important. I knew that ER, I knew the little operating rooms they have there, I knew that we could make it real. There are times when you don’t want to move a picture along, when you just want the picture to dictate to you what it is. So, I’d like to think that what he said is true. There are directors that I admire — French directors — who do that, too. One of the directors I admire the most is an Italian director — who is largely unknown — named Ermanno Olmi. He did a brilliant picture [in 1978] called The Tree of Wooden Clogs in which almost nothing happens and everything happens. He did another picture called The Fiancés (1963) which did the same thing. It was about a working class man and his girlfriend and he can’t get work so he has to go to Sicily. So, they’re apart. It’s a love story about being apart and the [accompanying] loneliness. And he does it! He lets time [pass] … There’s a difference in a movie that’s [intended as a] distraction and keeps you moving and a movie that just says this is what it feels like to be lonely — this is what it’s like to live in a place where you have no friends — you have people you know and people get along with, but you have no friends or family. It’s heartbreaking and it’s beautifully done. There’s no fancy, stylistic stuff at all. There’s one of the most wonderful scenes beginning in a dance hall. There’s music. Then, people start to dance, one or two couples, and then two women start to dance together — just because they can’t get men to dance — and it takes a long time but it pulls you into that world. The world that a picture takes place in has to be believable and the things that are believable are believable in tiny increments. One of my favorite moments in acting — and one of my favorite moments in Places in the Heart — is a little moment at the end of the film, at the very end in church, and [the Ed Harris character] starts to sing this hymn — or they’ve been singing a hymn — and Ed Harris and Lindsay Crouse are there and they’re singing the hymn and they get to the last verse. Ed closes the hymnal before they start to sing [the last verse] because he knows it so well he doesn’t need to keep it open and I thought [the audience] is gonna believe and never gonna understand why that guy is a regular churchgoer. They’re gonna believe. It’s behavior in acting. And behavior is what you’ve got to get to — when Ted Kramer goes across the room to get the phone [after the fifth ring], it makes him more real. It makes the phone call more credible, not more dramatic.
Scott Holleran: Speaking of Places in the Heart, what do you imagine happens to Moses, the character played by Danny Glover?
Robert Benton: Moses probably got hung somewhere along the line. He didn’t have a good end to his life. He really was like the wandering Jew. He was somebody who loves a family and wants a family and [for a time] he had a family. [The racist mob] just forced him to move on — he doesn’t want to [leave] but he has to do it. I like to think that the happiest he ever was in his life was the period of time he spent working [at the cotton farm]. Places is about family. It begins with a family that’s shattered and [its theme is that after the loss] then you make another — you find a family for yourself — you make your own family. I think if my films are about something, they’re about family. They’re about the human need for closeness, whether it’s Bad Company, which is about two guys who are opposite and somehow come out of it together or The Late Show in which a man who is isolated comes to have a tentative relationship with another person who’s isolated.
Scott Holleran: The Human Stain as well — ?
Robert Benton: Yes. I think [bestselling author] Philip [Roth] was not happy because I made something very different from his book. I couldn’t help it, I mean, it’s — it’s about the need to love, the need to care.
Scott Holleran: Does the murder of your father’s two brothers impact your movies?
Robert Benton: In Texas, I grew up in in a world where violence could happen. Shocking as it was, it was not fictional. It was something that could [in fact] happen. It was not something that a writer made up, or an actor acted or a director directed. That violence that stays beneath the surface in America is something that has always interested me. We’re a very violent country. I live in a way that, so far, I’ve been very protected from it. But I think I’m aware of the necessity that if you’re going to talk about America, talk about the violence. The shooting of the sheriff [which opens Places in the Heart is based upon the time] when a young black man shot my great-grandfather. They chased him down, surrounded him in an alley and just blew the hell out of him and dragged his body through the town. The off-handedness of the violence at the beginning of Places is the casualness of the violence. It was an accident. But the beating of Moses — my father told me this story of growing up in a town in Texas. His father ran a saloon and he would get there early in the morning because he would open the saloon. [My father] would bring breakfast to his father [and one morning] as he was going there, in the town square, there was a black man who’d been hung. It was just ordinary. He never forgot it. It just was what happened in that world.
Scott Holleran: How do you regard Sally Field as an actress?
Robert Benton: She’s a great actress and I’m fortunate that we’re also friends. But even if we weren’t friends I’d walk through burning coals to work with her again. She works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s intelligent in the way that self-educated people are intelligent, which I respect. She’s a brilliant actor who doesn’t make a show of being brilliant and she inhabited that role. On the first day of shooting [Places in the Heart] I walked in and there was Sally — and she was somehow wearing my grandmother’s perfume. I thought: how does this happen? How does she know to do that? There’s not a false moment — not a moment that I had to retake — or even thought I had to retake — in that picture.
Scott Holleran: During the festival, some interviewers suggested that you were being too modest. What moves you to credit others for your own achievements?
Robert Benton: My son John had a long talk with me about that, as a matter of fact. He pointed out to me that being too modest is another form of narcissism. I live in a profession in which people spend their lives talking about how wonderful they [suppose they] are and, you know, I do recognize that I have a number of films and some pieces of work that I really like but I don’t like to think [consciously] about it. What my life is about to some large degree is about making things. The satisfaction you get when you write something and you look back and think: that was good. That’s the deepest satisfaction. That moment when you push yourself back and think this is good. Now, the next day you might not think so but that moment of satisfaction is worth more than an Academy Award. It’s just you to you. Believe me, I’m very grateful for nominations and awards but the struggle [to make art] — it’s with yourself, not with anything else.