Robert Benton’s Tiny Whispers

On a recent rainy Tuesday evening at an empty screening room in Times Square, writer and director Robert Benton arrived

On a recent rainy Tuesday evening at an empty screening room in Times Square, writer and director Robert Benton arrived without fanfare—good-naturedly waving away all talk of a car service to pick him up—to screen Feast of Love, which opens September 28. The 74-year-old, more salt than pepper in his hair and neatly trimmed beard, had a youthful twinkle in his light eyes. He doesn’t enjoy watching his finished films. He hasn’t seen Bonnie and Clyde, for which he co-wrote his debut screenplay, since 1969. He added that this private screening of this new film for The Observer would undoubtedly be his last. The lights went down and the 102-minute-long film began, and Robert Benton crossed his legs, silently watched his work and didn’t so much as shift in his seat until the final credits rolled.

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Feast of Love, based on the novel by Charles Baxter, has the earmarks of previous Robert Benton pictures such as The Late Show, Places in the Heart, Kramer vs. Kramer and Nobody’s Fool: a talented cast, including Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear and Jane Alexander; a thoughtful, economic script about love in a small town; and hilarious and heartbreaking small moments found in the every day. After the screening, over a dinner of linguine and clams, Mr. Benton was troubled by a scene where he felt the sound wasn’t at the proper level, but effusive in his praise of his cast. “I really do think that this picture, more than any other, is the actors’ picture,” he said.

“Once we cast Morgan,” he said, “I was aware that we had to cast everybody in that weight class. Acting is like a sport: If you have a heavyweight, you can’t bring in a middleweight. The middleweight can’t come up in weight class, the heavyweight has to come down.”

He ran through the rest of his cast’s attributes: Jane Alexander, whom he had previously worked with in the Oscar-laden Kramer vs. Kramer, was brought on to play Mr. Freeman’s wife; Greg Kinnear (“I think he’s like this generation’s Jack Lemmon; he makes you cry, he’s funny, he never lets you see the acting”); Radha Mitchell (“She has a kind of skittishness—very sexy, but very skittish. There was a discomfort in her that I liked very much for her character”); and young unknowns Toby Hemingway (“He was exactly right”) and Alexa Davalos (“She was extraordinary. She’s going to be a star”).

Casting is extremely important to Mr. Benton. “When I was going to direct the first time, I remember walking behind two people talking and thinking, How can I get actors to just talk and not act? And the secret was to hire good actors.”

And he has: he’s directed Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Sally Field, John Malkovich and Paul Newman in Oscar-nominated performances. He said he takes his time when casting. “Dustin used to say, ‘There is acting, and there is character, and you can’t act character,’” he said. “When I read actors, I talk to them for a while, so you can see a little bit of who or what they are. Not if I like them or not—though inevitably that’s a part of it—and not about how talented they are—though that’s a big part—but what else it is they are going to bring with their character? You cannot act wit. You cannot act intelligence.”

Author Richard Russo, who became a good friend during his collaboration with Mr. Benton on the adaptation of his novel Nobody’s Fool, followed by two further screen writing collaborations, said, “Benton prides himself on his casting, and I think he always casts his movies very well. But when you take pride in casting, that’s another form of self-effacement. Even when an actor who would not have been his choice is forced on him by a studio, they’ll end up doing well, because the screenplays are written so well. Even a miscast actor will come across very well in a Robert Benton movie. That’s not because he cast it well, it’s because he’s a good director and his screenplays—by the time he starts shooting them—are probably better material than that miscast actor has had in a long time.”

Mention the name Robert Benton to anyone who has worked with him and then duck while the superlatives fly.

“He’s sweet, isn’t he?” said Morgan Freeman at a special presentation of Feast of Love (and who, amazingly, really does speak in that booming voice all the time). “I adore him. Robert is one of those directors that has a clear understanding of his job as a director. One of the big draws of a director for actors is how far out of your way he’s going to be. The best directors I’ve worked with—and I’ll call him one of the best directors—keep out of the way. It’s not that they’re not there to offer you the help you think you need. He’s warm, he’s giving, he’s allowing—we all respond to that.”

“I would do anything Robert asked me to do,” said Jane Alexander. “He’s just one of the great directors that we have today in America. He knows exactly what he wants, he casts the roles exactly as he wants them. If he has anything to say, it’s a tiny little whisper in your ear, a tiny little drop. He sits there like a guru, meditatively to the side, listening to his headphones and then maybe he’ll come up quietly like, ‘Let’s do it again.’ It’s a wondrous experience, calm and joyous.”

Robert Benton’s Tiny Whispers