Robert Benton’s Tiny Whispers

The explosive Bonnie and Clyde changed everything in movieland when it was released in 1967, ushering in the era of the auteur, and kicking off a decade that would introduce the names of young punks like Bogdanovich, Coppola, Scorcese and Friedkin. “I believe there are conversations filmmakers have with one another that they don’t have across the table,” said Mr. Benton. “I believe Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid] is a conversation that Will Goldman was having with Bonnie and Clyde. Its a conversation that can only be done through work.”

In August of this year, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott took the 40-year-old film to task for its depiction of violence and its role as a precursor to future cinematic bloodbaths.

“I think it was very smart,” Mr. Benton said of the article. “I think given the fact that there is the law of unintended consequences, that it’s a legitimate thing to say… Part of me wanted to say there’s two issues here: one is the aesthetic of violence, which comes from Bonnie and Clyde, but Bonnie and Clyde took it from Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, so if you’re going to hang somebody hang Kurosawa, don’t hang Arthur Penn. Second thing is, he’s right. We did something difficult—we made Bonnie and Clyde so ordinary, and that’s what’s disturbing. What made Pulp Fiction work is that there was something about Bruce Willis or John Travolta that was just like us. We understood them. And there’s something about The Godfather that was just like us. We’re drawn into the complicity of violence and that’s what’s disturbing.”

Mr. Benton has lived in the same apartment on the Upper East Side for four decades with his wife of 43 years, Sallie, an artist. He continues to go to the movies regularly. “There are directors that I’m jealous of,” he said. “In America [directed by Jim Sheridan], I’m jealous of that one. The Lives of Others [directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck]—I could never have made that movie. I’m jealous of the last shot at the end of Babel [directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu], when the father finds his naked daughter on the balcony. It’s comforting and deeply unsettling. I love that.”


MR. BENTON SAID HE’S STILL LOOKING for ways to play with narrative in cinema. “I’m trying to figure out how you work in the second and third person in film,” he said. “I’m curious how to do different voices in terms of the camera. I don’t think we’ve begun to deal with that yet.”

“He’s got a bit of the devil in him, which I particularly like,” said Mr. Russo. “He’s impish in the Shakespearian sense: He likes to stir up a little trouble…He reminds me of Mark Twain in the way he recognizes human nature in all of its foibles. And I think the devil in him is that he enjoys those foibles—in himself and in his friends. He loves to laugh and he loves to chortle, which is a different kind of thing. Chortling at our weakness, our collective weaknesses, our individual weakness, in those wonderful moments in sheer glee at our fallible human nature—those are the moments we love in his movies. That’s the kind of thing Benton just lives for.”

Earlier Mr. Benton had told me: “The only thing I have to fear is my own despair. That’s my enemy, not anybody else. Not my inabilities. But if I give up. That is still to this day my biggest fear. My biggest enemy. Myself.”

Robert Benton’s Tiny Whispers