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Robert Benton's Top Movie Directing Tip: Stay Out of the Way

Legendary filmmaker Robert Benton has coaxed Oscar-winning performances out of some of the biggest stars on the planet on the way to picking up three statuettes himself.

But the famously self-effacing 85-year-old's secret to directing A-listers? Stay out of the way and let them do their thing, the "Kramer vs Kramer" director says.

"There's so much about acting that you can't put into words. I think people who can put it into words are not actors," he told fans at a discussion panel in Hollywood on Saturday.

"There's a thing you've just got to gamble with, and when you see it and it works, it's brilliant."

Benton spent an hour onstage at Hollywood's iconic Roosevelt Hotel -- site of the first Academy Awards in 1929 -- regaling attendees at the annual TCM Classic Film Festival with anecdotes from a career spanning more than half a century.

He revealed that his friend and fellow director Robert Altman ("The Player," "Gosford Park") taught him that listening to actors was one of the best skills a filmmaker could learn.

"He said the secret is not to figure out a language to tell the actors what to do, but to hire good actors to begin with," Benton recalled.

"There are directors who can get great performances out of actors. I am not one of them," the filmmaker once said.

He was challenged on the quote by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, who pointed out that Benton had directed Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and Sally Field to Academy Awards, and other actors including Paul Newman to Oscar nominations.

- Luck, judgment, instinct -

"I have found actors -- through luck, through the judgment of casting directors or through my own instinct -- that are extraordinarily good," he confided.

Asked how he got some of Tinseltown's biggest stars to perform for him, he deadpanned: "I tried not to get in their way... that's not so easy." 

Benton co-wrote Arthur Penn's groundbreaking crime thriller "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) with David Newman, but is probably best known for his script and direction on "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979) and "Places in the Heart" (1984), winning Oscars for both.

He and Newman co-wrote Peter Bogdanovich's "What's Up, Doc?," which was released in 1972, the same year that he made his directorial debut with "Bad Company."

In 1978, Benton re-teamed with Newman and Newman's wife Leslie to write the screenplay for "Superman" (1978) starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and Margot Kidder. 

Benton recalled how as a boy his dyslexia drove him to cinema as a means of understanding storytelling and the world around him, and how he would visit the picture house with his father three or four times a week.

He described how John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) "opened up the world to me" while he thought of "Singin' in the Rain" as "the perfect movie."

"I couldn't read. I had dyslexia right from the first grade. But I could draw, I could keep concentration for a long time," he said.

"And I learned narrative from movies, not from reading books. Consequently, I would see movies again and again and again."

Source: Agence France Presse


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