DALLAS—Robert Benton turns 75 on Saturday. He’s an avuncular man, soft-spoken and gentle of nature, and when you talk with him you can’t help but see him as a particularly cool grandpa.
Even when much of the conversation consists of sex and violence.
Of course the two subjects, long intertwined in movie discussion, aren’t chosen at random. His new film, “Feast of Love,” isn’t shy about showing skin. And back in the `60s he co-wrote the screenplay to “Bonnie and Clyde,” widely seen as a watershed in depicting carnage onscreen. (The film celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.)
During a recent stop in Dallas, where he still has old friends, the Texas-born Benton approached both subjects with a sense of reason that could stand to be bottled and distributed.
First, the sex.
“Feast of Love” is hardly softcore porn. Based on the novel by Charles Baxter, the film tells of various loosely connected Portland, Ore., residents—played by Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear, Radha Mitchell, Selma Blair and others—falling into and out of love.
“I think it’s more about the complications of life than anything,” he says. “It’s about the tragic side of love, the comic side of love, old love and young love and enduring love and foolish love.”
To Benton it stands to figure: If you’re going to show romantic love, you’re going to show sex. In “Feast” this can lead to some awkward collisions between sentimentality and raw passion. But at least the scenes don’t fade to black when the characters’ lips touch.
“Most love—some love—has its erotic side,” he says. “To talk about that erotic or intimate side you need to be able to show it, and that’s most often expressed in moments of intimacy in which people are not fully dressed.”
Suddenly Benton becomes the interviewer.
“Have you ever been in love?” he asks. “Have you ever had a physical relationship with someone you’re in love with? How often did you do it with your clothes on? It’s that simple. I admire people who do it; it takes great ingenuity. But I’ve never been able to do that.”
That’s settled. On to the violence.
Benton and his co-writer David Newman weren’t expecting big things from “Bonnie and Clyde.” “David and I used to joke that we’d be 80 years old, standing on a street corner trying to peddle the script to `Bonnie and Clyde,’” he laughs.
But the film struck a chord in Vietnam-era America, and it still resonates today. The combination of banjo music and exit wounds, bank robbery and folk heroism, baffled many critics (some of whom quickly reconsidered their original harsh assessments). In the hands of director Arthur Penn, “Bonnie and Clyde” all but redefined the way we look at screen violence, for better or worse.
“The violence in the film comes with one line in the screenplay that says `in this movie, when people get shot it should hurt,’” Benton says. “Up to that point, when people got shot in movies they would grab their chest and they would roll their eyes and collapse on the ground and have a death scene. It was very theatrical, but it wasn’t realistic. What Arthur did with that line was brilliant. He took that one line and from it he created this new aesthetic of violence.”
The legacy of that aesthetic is still debated, most recently in a lengthy essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in August. To Benton, the violence in “Bonnie and Clyde” unnerved because of the characters committing it: likable outlaws who consider themselves “just folks” robbing banks at the nadir of their popularity during the Great Depression.
“You weren’t able to put them at arm’s length and say they were psychopaths,” says Benton. “You weren’t able to make them dark, demented people because they were likable. They’re like us, and therefore when they start killing people, we’re trapped morally in that car with them. That was the thing that unstrung people, the likeability of the people who went around shooting people.”
Benton has done plenty between “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Feast of Love,” winning Oscars for 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and 1984’s “Places in the Heart.” But his earliest and his latest works speak directly to the hot button issues that never wander far from cultural argument.
Pretty edgy stuff for such a nice old man.