If you haven't heard of Robert Benton, the director and screenwriter admits it's his own fault. His new movie "The Human Stain" is the first film he's written in five years and his 10th as a director.
"I have always been slow. I write a lot of stuff, but I make a lot of mistakes," he says. "I've written a screenplay about my family ... and I realized I didn't have the ending. I once tried to write a movie about the life of Jesus, and I felt that if I'd done that, it was not only a bad movie but ... a cardinal sin."
While the average moviegoer may not know his name, Benton has made his mark in Hollywood. Benton won an Oscar for writing and directing "Kramer vs. Kramer," a 1979 Best Picture. He also co-wrote the screenplays for "Superman" (1978) and for "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), which launched his career.
He says he's particularly interested in adapting novels, which is why he signed on for "The Human Stain," based on Philip Roth's 2000 book. "I read the novel ... and loved it," he says. "It had this great character who was dynamic and strong and had kind of a mystery to him."
In "Stain," Anthony Hopkins stars as Coleman Silk, a classics professor who is accused of racism and harbors a painful secret. He meets and falls in love with a janitor (Nicole Kidman) who's been victimized her entire life and is being harassed by her ex-husband (Ed Harris). "I believe this movie really belongs to the actors," Benton says. "One thing that I loved in [the story] are the long soliloquies, giving really good actors a chance to let loose."
"Stain" offers a commentary on social intolerance and the inner struggles of being different. "The young Coleman is always saying, 'I'm not a part of a group. I am an individual,' " Benton says. But, life tells him, " 'none of us are complete individuals' ... as our shadow follows us, so does our community follow us."
The unconventional love story between Kidman's and Hopkins's characters also resonated with him. "This is this man's last love story. I think what he sees in her is that they are both outcasts."
Hopkins may not seem the obvious choice to play a romantic lead, Benton admits. "[Hopkins] said to me, 'I've never kissed a woman in a movie before,' " he says. "There's a kind of excitement about doing something you've never done before."
Benton says one of his biggest challenges as a screenwriter is creating a film that lives up to the book. While adapting "Nobody's Fool," he didn't want to lose Richard Russo's voice, so filmmakers asked Russo to help pen scenes. "[Russo] would rewrite and fax me the page, and because I'm naturally a deeply competitive person, I would rewrite and then send it back to him. And ... we'd go back and forth for about three days." But "those are the best scenes in 'Nobody's Fool.' "
Because he couldn't work with Roth on "Stain," he preserved the author's voice as best as he could. "There were places I erased stuff, but I didn't add much."
Though Benton is an avid reader, he used to struggle with dyslexia. "I got through high school because my mother played bridge with most of the high school teachers," he says, jokingly. Then he fell in love with an English major while attending the University of Texas. "I followed her into a survey of Western literature. Can you imagine what it's like to be dyslexic and be given the 'Magic Mountain' to read in two weeks? I was hopeless, but it instilled in me a desperate desire to be able to read."
He later was offered a job as an art director at Esquire magazine. It was there that he met David Newman, and the two penned "Bonnie and Clyde." Looking ahead, Benton is writing a few screenplays, including an adaptation of John O'Hara's "Appointment in Samarra." He's not sure when it will debut. First, he says grinning, he has to finish writing it.