The Directors: Robert Benton & Barry Levinson

Another in a series about film directors.

Robert Benton and Barry Levinson both started as screenwriters who later moved into film direction, each winning Academy Awards for directing.

Robert Benton has only directed 11 full-length films, and written or co-written 15 screenplays. He has collected three Academy Awards, two for writing, one for directing.

Portrait Of Newman & Benton
Bonnie and Clyde writers Thomas Newman and Robert Benton.

Not bad. His first produced screenplay was Bonnie & Clyde (1968), a rather iconic film, and yes, he was nominated for an Academy Award for it.

His film resume: The Ice Harvest (written), Feast of Love (directed), The Human Stain (directed), Twilight (written and directed), Nobody’s Fool (written and directed), Billy Bathgate (directed), Nadine (written and directed), Places in the Heart (written and directed), Still of the Night (written and directed), Kramer vs. Kramer (written and directed), Superman (written), The Late Show (written and directed), It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! (TV Movie) (written), Bad Company (written and directed), Oh! Calcutta! (written), What’s Up, Doc? (written), There Was a Crooked Man…(written), Bonnie and Clyde (written).

Morgan Freeman, who has worked with Benton said of him, “He’s warm, he’s giving, he’s allowing—we all respond to that.” Benton has directed eight actors who were nominated for Academy Awards for roles in his films. Among them are Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Sally Field, John Malkovich and Paul Newman. He’s an actor’s director.

Kramer vs Kramer and Places in the Heart are his most commercially and critically successful films. Both are great, but neither are among my favorite Benton films.

Benton usually directs dramatic stories, stories of struggle, stories of finding the characters most inner vulnterability. Actors can go deep in Benton films. He puts his characters in offbeat situations, such as the classic screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, an unusual genre choice, considering his usual subject matter.

Benton, is one of the few writer/directors who has created not one, but two, solid noir films: The Late Show and Twilight. Both are intricate who-done-it stories of double-cross and lives gone sour resulting in murder. Benton would have been perfect in 1940s Hollywood, but he’s done well in his own time period. My only problem with him is how little he’s worked for such a talented storyteller.

The Late Show starred Art Carney has a semi-retired private investigator who meets Lily Tomlin while tracking down the killer of his former partner.  Carney is the Geritol Sam Spade who weaves in and out of a variety of odd characters in a very stylish homage to detective films of the 1940s era.  Carney was enjoying a late career surge of popularity and Tomlin was just getting started in films.  Benton wrote and directed his charming old school film.

Barry Levinson started writing for television variety shows (Tim Conway, Marty Feldman and Carol Burnett). He then worked with Mel Brooks on High Anxiety, History of the World, Part I and Silent Movie, and with his then-wife Valerie Curtin on Best Friends, Inside Moves, Unfaithfully Yours and the Oscar-nominated…And Justice for All.

Levinson with Robert Redford, The Natural.

In 1982, he directed his own script, Diner, a critical and commercial success. It was the beginning of several films he wrote and directed about memories from his city of Baltimore: Tin Men and Avalon would follow.

Tin Men is set in 1963 and features two battling aluminum siding salesmen, out to top each other in a battle of wits and a fight over the wife of one of them.  Stylish and an effective slide of America, the film contains numerous scenes that are less about the plot but more about the times.  Imagine a group of men sitting in a diner discussing Sunday night television including the Cartwright family from Bonanza.  The film pulsates with nostalgia.

He also was hired to direct films he did not write such as The Natural, Young Sherlock Holmes, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Bugsy, Disclosure and Sphere. He won the Academy Award for Best Direction for Rain Man. He was nominated three times for writing.

During a 20-year period, Levinson was one of the top three directors in Hollywood, working with A List actors like Robert Redford, Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Al Pacino, Bruce Willis, Ben Kingsley, Samuel L. Jackson, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Richard Dreyfuss and Donald Sutherland.

By the end of the 90s, his star had cooled, but he kept directing the occasional theatrical film, but moved into producing series television, and lately, television films. His recent television films include: You Don’t Know Jack (Jack Kervorkian), Phil Spector, The Wizard of Lies (Bernie Madoff) and Paterno (Joe Paterno).

Levinson, like Benton, finds, or writes, good stories about very interesting and memorable characters. Anyone can write about odd, quirky characters; talented writers pull you into their lives and make you care for them, warts and all.  For both filmmakers, it starts with the story; then casting the roles with good actors and let them do their jobs. Whether in film or television, the core is good storytelling.  Write them smart dialogue and trust your actors to do their best work, letting the camera embrace their work.

Above, from left: Barry Levinson, Robert Benton.

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