Writing in The New Yorker in 1977, Pauline Kael called the director Robert Benton "a sensitive craftsman infatuated with a painted whore." The movie in question was Benton's homage to the 1940s private-eye genre, The Late Show, an excellent film but one noticeably absent either of paint or whores. I wonder, then, what Kael would have made of Benton's newest—the filmed-in-Portland Feast of Love. In the three-time Academy Award-winner's vision of our city, Portlanders kiss passionately in public, something I don't think I've ever seen in any of my rounds; Mississippi District baristas shoot a porn film to snag a little rent money (are NoPo tippers really that bad?) and the camera feasts lovingly upon each one of the four young actresses—Alexa Davalos, Selma Blair, Stana Katic, and Radha Mitchell—as they bare all in the service of movie art.
I caught up with Benton a few times over the summer, and for a man who'll turn 75 on September 29 (the day after Feast of Love opens nationwide) he can be surprisingly tough to catch. Once in Benton's company, however, his generosity becomes instantly apparent: He's quick to praise the actors and cinematographers he's worked with, often crediting his films' innovations almost entirely to his collaborators. The critic Sheila Benson has said that, "His decades of writing and directing have created the most lasting and most meaningful body of work about the American experience." In looking back at Places in the Heart, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Bonnie & Clyde, I wouldn't dispute the claim.
Charles Baxter's novel The Feast of Love was set in Ann Arbor. Filming there was too expensive, so Benton's crew came west. "By the afternoon of the first day, I knew we were going to shoot in Portland," the director says, the drawl of a native Texan softening every cadence. He liked that Portland "wasn't too polished. It has that life that isn't Banana Republic." Benton, who studied art at the University of Texas in Austin, found in P-town "the same quality of being an improvised city. All the outcasts in the world go to Portland, and they're welcomed here." The resulting movie plays peek-a-boo with local landmarks, tantalizing our eyes with Union Station's "Go By Train" clock tower in blue twilight or the Broadway Bridge panoramically spanning a sunlit Willamette River. There's also Morgan Freeman, pricelessly explaining that "supernatural forces" may be at work in Radha Mitchell and Greg Kinnear's Mount Tabor love nest.
But the movie's home base is The Fresh Pot; from its large, clear windows, North Mississippi Avenue stands out as piercingly familiar. Kinnear's character owns the coffeehouse, which in the film has been dreadfully re-christened "Jitters." It's here that Freeman dispenses sage advice to Kinnear and Davalos, and where foxy java-slingers fret over the making of an erotic video. Michael Brooks, general manager of The Fresh Pot, hopes "that our baristas earn enough in wages and tips" not to have to stage a porno, though "we've always joked that we should open another café inside the Ace of Hearts and call it 'The Flesh Pot.'"
On the nudity in Feast of Love, Benton states that he was "very clear about what the boundaries were. In the case of Radha, I told her, 'If I were your father, I wouldn't let you do this.'" I asked him if Mitchell, an adventurous performer from the get-go, needed any coaxing for the full frontal fight sequence where she and her married lover (Billy Burke) have at it. Not at all. "Radha wanted to do a second take, and I thought, 'Are you insane?' I've learned when an actor says, let's go again, to do it. There's a little moment when she's smoking after lovemaking, and they're laughing together. I had nothing to do with that scene, except saying 'Action' and 'Cut.' What you see is an intimacy that gives all the other stuff a weight it wouldn't have without it," adding that Mitchell wins the award for "the bravest person I know."
Feast of Love marks only the eleventh time in Benton's 40-year career that the director's chair has belonged to him. He's been averaging three movies a decade since the 1970s. "I didn't mean it to be that way," Benton laughed, "but I guess that's how it worked out. In theory, I take a long time in between directing because I spend a long time writing, and I re-write and put something aside and try something else and go back. It takes pictures years to form themselves in my head. Occasionally I find a script by someone else that I want to do, but if I'm writing and directing, I spend an enormous amount of time on the screenplay." Was he tempted to re-write Allison Burnett's Feast of Love adaptation? Surprisingly no; instead, he commends Burnett's faithfulness to Baxter's words and "voice."
Of all the creative partnerships that Benton has forged over the decades, I've always been the most intrigued by his work with the late cinematographer Néstor Almendros, with whom he shot five films between 1979 and 1991, and by his somewhat adversarial stint under director Robert Altman, who produced Benton's The Late Show. This underrated comedy-mystery paired Lily Tomlin as Margo, an LA flake who's only selling drugs until she can get her shrink paid, and Art Carney as Ira Wells, a washed-up gumshoe whom Margo lures out of retirement. Although the roles seem tailor-made for Tomlin and Carney, Benton actually wrote them with Diane Keaton and Jimmy Stewart in mind.
WW: When you were working with Robert Altman on The Late Show, if I understood this correctly, he would fire you but keep hiring you back.
Benton: Three times. If you ask people who know me, I have the ability to piss people off more than anybody you can imagine, OK? I really do tend to drive producers crazy. I think I’m a very nice guy, but apparently I’m not. Altman, during the whole shooting, was phenomenal. We’d come in at the end of the day, and he’d be standing there saying “The dailies are great”; he would pick up our spirits. He knew psychologically how to make everybody feel extraordinary, an enormous gift. After the picture was shot and in the cutting, he and I disagreed: He insisted that I show the picture before it was ready to Warner Bros. Warners hated it. They would have been happy to put it on a shelf, but a young executive named Paula Weinstein liked it, so they turned it over to her. Paula and I and the editor worked on the film day and night. We would screen it once a week, have people come and look, and we’d see where we were, learn what we needed to and keep on going. It’s a process that I started then that I’ve continued since. But Altman hated that. His idea of doing a film was you do it, you then put on your helmet and get in the trenches. You lob hand grenades at the studio, and they lob hand grenades back at you, you do the picture, and that’s it! He just found the fact that I would listen to criticism, that I would pay attention to the studio—he found something disgusting about it. It got to him. He would get drunk at night, call me up and say, “Benton, I just can’t take this shit from you any longer! You’re fired!” I’d have a sleepless night, then the next morning he would hire me back. In all of this, I think his affection for me was very great. And mine was, and remains, for him. We just—I loved his films, but our temperament was so different that it was very hard for him to cope with me in that particular part of the process. I made a picture that wasn’t the picture he thought I was gonna make. That’s really what it was about. He wanted me to make a more Altmanesque picture, and I didn’t. Although I’m more influenced by Altman than any other director, roughly, of my generation. Without Nashville, there would’ve been no Places in the Heart, no Nobody’s Fool. Without Short Cuts, there would be no Feast of Love. Altman invented a form. I can’t think of many filmmakers who actually invented a new genre in cinema.
WW: Would you talk about Néstor Almendros and his input, specifically on Places in the Heart? You have a lot of wide-angles in that movie in very intimate situations, such as the two sisters hugging on the front porch after Sally Field’s husband has been shot. Somebody else might have used close-ups, but it really speaks to the engulfing of emotions when you can see that on a wide canvas, whereas pulling in tight over the women’s faces wouldn’t have the same effect.
Benton: I had worked with Néstor, by the time of Places in the Heart, in two other pictures, Kramer vs. Kramer and Still of the Night. In all of the pictures we spent a lot of time talking about relevant paintings or other visual inspirations. On Kramer, we talked about Piero della Francesca for the light, almost pastel palette that the picture has. The clouds painted on the walls in the little boy’s room were Néstor’s idea. He did far more than act as a traditional cinematographer. I never looked at a camera with Néstor; I never suggested a lens; I never suggested a placement for the camera. He knew much more about that than I knew. When I hired him, he was one of the world’s great cinematographers, and I was not about to interfere with him. I did my best to make a platform in which he could work with some freedom and space. On Still of the Night, at the end of the picture, when Néstor saw it, he said “I shot one film, and the editor edited a different film.” And that struck me, so from then on I made certain that I sat with the cinematographer and the editor. The three of us talk about the rhythms and the mood of the film so that there are no surprises for anybody. In Places, [editor] Carol Littleton and Néstor and I spent a lot of time, and I forget whose idea it was, it wasn’t mine, but one of them said this film is all about relationships. Whenever possible, you should hold the picture in two shots or in over the shoulders. The image should always have in it a fragment of the other character and it should have a sense of place. Because everybody agreed that that town [Waxahachie] was a character in the film. So there should always be a sense of the space that people occupy, whether it was the town or the house.
WW: I’m also remembering that sensational image after the tornado, when Ed Harris is standing with the wreckage of the one-room schoolhouse at his feet. You can see so much detail, all the smashed little desks on the ground, yet what he’s feeling at that moment is so clear.
Benton: I think it was one of those times when all the stars were in alignment, as people would say. Néstor lit the actors—I don’t mean he made them look pretty, although they certainly looked good—but he lit their faces so that you could really see, even in that shot of Ed, what was going on in his face. Néstor was so careful to do that. He was a great actor’s cinematographer. He would sit there during the shot and not look at the scene, he would listen to the scene. He loved the films he worked on, and his attention to detail, not just the camera, but to the sound, to the nature of the material…he was wise and smart and selfless, one of the most modest people I’ve seen in my life.
Meanwhile, back on the set of Feast of Love, Benton has no problems in eliciting persuasive performances from Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander as an old married couple. "What I try to do is stay out of their way," Benton has said, of his method of working with actors. "In the first picture I ever directed, Bad Company, I thought, well, I'm the director. I have to direct the actors, and I have to direct the table where they're sitting, and I have to direct the silverware on the table. It took me longer than it should've to learn that the secret is to be very patient and hire good actors—not the most expensive ones, but the ones who are the closest fit in your head. Dustin Hoffman used to say there's acting and there's behavior, and you cannot act behavior. You cannot act a sense of wit. Paul Newman, who I dearly love, tells the worst jokes of any human being, and he tells them badly. But he has this extraordinary sense of wit that invades every single thing he does. He has it in the character—it's just part of him. You can't get that out of somebody as an actor."