Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Director Robert Benton

Happy Birthday, Robert Benton.  He has given us some sterling work on the big screen.  Mr. Benton has directed Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Sally Field in Oscar-winning performances.  Hoffman and Streep were Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs Kramer which also took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1979.  Benton won for Best Director.  Sally Field won her now-famous "You like me" second Best Actress Oscar for Places in the Heart.  Not only a director, Benton won Oscars for his Kramer vs Kramer and Places in the Heart screenwriting.  He was nominated for his influential Bonnie and Clyde screenplay of 1967 and his often overlooked gem of a comedy/murder mystery screenplay, The Late Show.  That fun movie, starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin, is one of the best films of 1977 with its jazzy pairing of two actors from different generations totally clicking as an unlikely couple solving a Hollywood murder.  He's a retired private eye.  She's a kooky struggling actress who hires him to find her cat.


Over the summer, I was in New York for a few days of auditions and job interviews.  I stayed with my friends, Adrienne and Tony.  They urged me to watch a Robert Benton movie with them.  I hadn't seen The Human Stain when it was released in 2003.  Benton directed Nicole Kidman....
....Anthony Hopkins, Wentworth Miller (formerly of TV's Prison Break), Kerry Washington (currently of TV's Scandal) and Anna Deavere Smith in some strong material based on a Philip Roth novel.



The movie is about race, class, sex -- and truth.  One movie critic wrote that "The Human Stain doesn't quite wash..."  Not every movie released can be perfect and please everybody.  For me, The Human Stain packed a punch.  I'm so glad and grateful that Adrienne and Tony introduced me to this film.  It's got some acting that grabbed my heart and some situations that I deeply felt in my soul.  If you haven't seen it and may be interested in renting it, I'll not give away major plot revelations.  I can tell you that it opens with Hopkins as a college professor unjustly accused of racism and none of his fellow academics comes to his defense.  He's accused of using a racially insensitive old slang term referring to two black students.  However, he doesn't the students are black.  He doesn't know what color they are because they have never shown up in his class.
The teacher's life changes.  He recruits a writer, played by Gary Sinise, to help him tell his story.  The teacher is in love with a younger, complicated woman.  She's divorced from a war veteran who seems to have stalker issues.  Versatile Ed Harris, whom Benton also directed through Places in the Heart, is in very fine form in The Human Stain.




                                                                                                                                                                  The teacher tells the writer about his youth and how race affected him as a young man.  Wentworth Miller plays Anthony Hopkins' character in his early years.

How does it feel to be black in America?  Do you automatically get better treatment because you're white in America?  Are you happy to be a black person when you're treated like a second class citizen?  Can we sit together comfortably at the same table?  One of the reasons I highly recommend you see this movie is for the solid, strong performance by one of the supporting players.  Robert Benton got one hell of a good performance out of Anna Deavere Smith.  She co-stars as the registered nurse and black working mother who declares, "You need to be proud of your race."  She's like a beacon that cuts through some cultural fog and, for this performance, Anna Deavere Smith should have been an Oscar contender for Best Supporting Actress.

I've seen her do a one-woman show on stage in New York City.  I've stood next to her on a crowded subway train in New York City.  I saw her two years ago on stage at San Francisco's Berkeley Rep in her one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy.

She was simply on fire in this film role.  She really brought it home for me because my mother was a registered nurse.  Mom dressed for work exactly the same way Smith's character did.  I knew that uniform.  I grew up with that character's attitude and I heard similar words because my black mother is just as proud of her race.  Again, I highly recommend you experience Anna Deavere Smith in The Human Stain.  She's illuminating.

The whole cast is good.  Kidman gives an intensely passionate performance as this tough and weary working class woman in love with and emotionally soothed by an older man.

For classic film fans, it is obvious that director Robert Benton and his cinematographer closely watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat (1935).  Coleman (Anthony Hopkins) is another film character whose spirit was impressed with, lit up by the sight of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.  He was a Fred Astaire fan -- like Ted Danson's character in Body Heat, Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man, Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.

In a spontaneous burst of joy, the teacher coaxes the writer to dance -- to dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the iconic "Cheek to Cheek" number in Top Hat.


The beauty of this sequence is that Benton copies angles from the actual dance number in Top Hat, a 1935 classic original Hollywood musical comedy.


It's a lovely and inspired visual reference in The Human Stain.

Today, I wish Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Robert Benton a most groovy 81st birthday.  If you haven't seen any of those movies of his that I mentioned, treat yourself.


4 comments:

  1. I remember seeing THE HUMAN STAIN when it was first released in '03. It was on a snowy, winter blizzard night here and I braved the elements to go see at at my local arthouse theatre. I think I must have been the only person in the theater that evening. Anyhow, it was worth it. I think it's a terrific film and I am quite surprised how largely it's been forgotten over the years. The whole cast is terrific, as well, and I remember being quite surprised by the movie's plot twist - so much so that my reaction was like, "Wow, I didn't see that coming and I don't recall seeing any surprise like this in the movies ever". With the exception of a movie which came out the year before - Irish director Neil Jordan's THE CRYING GAME. That movie had a surprise plot twist that shook me to the rafters. I m glad your friends were able to introduce you to this film. They have good taste in movies.

    By the way, great analogy, too, with the comparison to TOP HAT. That is why I enjoy reading your articles when I can.

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  2. Correction. THE CRYING GAME was released in 1992, not 2002.

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  3. Thomas, I could watch the movie again in a heartbeat. Wow. I really liked it. What a shame that smart, smaller films don't get the attention they used to 20 years ago. They're obscured in the marketplace by the huge action movies and such. Solid acting in THE HUMAN STAIN.

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