Writers are known as wordsmiths, imagined as devourers of literature, but well into his adulthood, WGA Screen Laurel honoree Robert Benton was anything but.
“I grew up in a small town in Texas, and I was seriously dyslexic before anyone knew what dyslexia was, so it was very difficult for me to read,” the 64-year-old Benton recalls. “I always thought of myself as seriously stupid, and most of the people in my town would have agreed with me.
“My father, unlike anybody else, when he would come home from work, instead of saying, ‘Have you done your homework?’ would say, ‘Do you want to go to the movies?’ So I would.”
Watching films two or three times a week, Benton learned about writing without reading. He learned about story, about narrative, about “how visual movie writing is, and how there is a kind of writing that takes into account the camera.”
Yet it wasn’t until he was in his 30s, after a stint as art director of Esquire, that he attempted his first “fade in,” with another rookie, David Newman.
Years later, the result of that first attempt was a “Bonnie and Clyde” screenplay that many regard as a watershed in the history of cinema — as Benton calls it, “an American movie that was designed to be a New Wave film.”
Benton went on to receive eight WGA nominations (including four wins) for authoring or co-authoring “Bonnie,” “Bad Company,” “What’s Up, Doc?” “The Late Show,” “Superman,” “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Places in the Heart.”
“Among other things, he just has had a very varied career in a day and age when people have to know how to write a lot of things,” WGA West prexy Patric Verrone says. “This is a guy who has written virtually every kind of screen genre there is and done them all pretty well.”
Benton prides himself on his inclination for collaboration, saying that “I listen to the people I work with, and when they have good ideas, I’m shameless about taking them” — and unabashedly points out the kind of help he needed to make it out of his hometown.
“I graduated from high school only because my mom played bridge with the other teachers,” Benton says, “and it would have broken up the bridge game if I hadn’t.”