Robert Benton is best known as a screenwriter (Bonnie and Clyde, What’s Up Doc?,and Superman), and director (The Late Show, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Nobody’s Fool), but before he lost it at the movies, Benton was the art director of Esquire in the late Fifties through the early Sixties. He not only made vital contributions to the aesthetic sensibility of the magazine, but along with a young editor named David Newman—who would later be his screenwriting partner—Benton introduced The Dubious Achievement Awards to the world in 1962. Dubious became the magazine’s signature statement of provocative, wise-ass irreverence—they took the Mickey out of everyone. Benton’s time at Esquire, when Harold Hayes and Clay Felker battled to see who would replace founding editor Arnold Gingrich, prepared him for the combustible mix of collaboration and ego that awaited him in Hollywood.
Alex: What brought you to New York?
Robert Benton: New York was big enough and wide enough that it allowed for reasonably eccentric people like me to thrive. It was a perfect place for me. Everybody thought New York was this hard, cruel place, and I found it to be an extraordinarily wonderful place filled with the most interesting people. Although I had a few jobs that I didn’t like, or quit, or got fired from, I really loved New York from the moment I got here and I never stopped.
Alex: In his memoir, New York in the Fifties, Dan Wakefield called New York at the time the biggest small town in the world. Did you find that to be true?
Benton: Yes. There was a kind of cultural life in New York that wasn’t as solidified as it is now, it wasn’t as money-driven. If you look at the size of the successful art galleries compared to the size of galleries now—there was no such thing as the Gagosian Gallery or Pace Gallery. But it was a time when magazines were a vital part of American life, and Esquire gave me a free pass to every world—I could get to the art world, the theater world, the movie world. It allowed you to roam through the cultural life of New York City.
Alex: Were you an Esquire reader growing up?
Benton: It was a girlie magazine. I remember the Varga girls and the Petty girls, the pin-ups. I can remember exactly the moment when I saw the redesigned Esquire by Henry Wolf. I had a girlfriend and we were going to meet for lunch and I got there early and was killing time at a magazine stand—that was when they allowed you to stand around and read magazines for awhile. I looked at Vogue, which I loved, and Glamour and Seventeen, which were great, and then, I don’t know why, something about the cover made me pick up Esquire, and it was a revolution in the notion of design. It was design that was about typography and a kind of cleanness and simplicity. It applied a European notion of poster art to magazines.
Alex: Were you a big magazine reader?
Benton: Every since high school I’ve been drawn to magazines. I remember seeing the first photographs by Irving Penn and [Richard] Avedon in an issue of LIFE magazine that talked about these two young geniuses. I lived in a little town in Waxahachie, Texas, went down to the drugstore and said, “Do you have Vogue magazine?” They looked at me as if I were out of mind. I went to the library and they didn’t have it. Finally, when I was in Dallas going to art school, I could look at magazines and became interested in design. I was dyslexic as a child and it took me years to get passed that. I read a lot but it was hard and that didn’t go away until my early-to-mid-twenties. So really what I was looking at were the photographs and the illustrations in magazines.
Alex: What was it like when you became art director of Esquire and got to work with some of the incredible photographers of the time?
Benton: The thing I loved the most about being art director was picking the photographers and working with them. There were a rash of brilliant photographers in New York. I remember seeing Robert Frank’s The Americans and thinking I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I remember seeing the Alexey Brodovitch book on ballet—and still believe it’s one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever seen. After the war, photography came alive, in part because everybody started to use the 35mm camera, and worked on the street instead of in a studio, and that made an enormous difference in not only how photographs looked, but what they were about. Richard Avedon started as a street photographer, so did Irving Penn. It was an extremely exciting time, and, remembering it, it has not lost its glamour. There were a lot of times that were not very good, like there always are, but the good ones really lasted, they were terrific.
Alex: What was the atmosphere like at Esquire in the late Fifties?
Benton: Esquire was not simply about one thing—sports or travel. It was about the political and cultural life in this country, and in Europe, too. The magazine began to focus on the changes in American culture. Esquire was a visual magazine. There was an edginess to it, a sexiness to it without being like Playboy. We were all trying to make the magazine alive. And sometimes we disagreed with one another but we all had the same goal in mind and that was wonderful. Esquire at the time of Clay Felker and Harold Hayes was great. They were both, in very different ways, great editors.
Alex: That period, when Felker, Hayes, and, for a period, Ralph Ginzberg, were all vying to succeed founding editor Arnold Gingrich, resulted in a vibrant product. What was it like behind the scenes?
Benton: There was a meeting once a week—Harold, Clay, Ralph—and there was blood all over the walls. It was merciless. Arnold just sat there and listened to it and didn’t get caught up in it. Clay wanted a brand new kind of magazine. Which is what New York magazine was years later. But Harold wanted a magazine that was a highly styled New Yorker or Harper’s or The Atlantic. He wanted a reading magazine. I remember getting into a long argument with Harold about the difference between humor and wit. We had very different points of view about that. I came down on the side of wit, and Harold came down on the side of humor. Neither one of us was right.
Alex: What is the difference between wit and humor?
Benton: What’s the difference between The New Yorker and Mad Magazine? They’re both valid but there’s a big difference. You either come down on the side of one or the other. People who go for humor are wonderful because they do great humor. People who go for wit and end up with humor are people who have made a mistake.
I co-wrote a little book with Harvey Schmidt called The IN and OUT of Humor, which was about the importance of style over substance. I thought substance was vastly overrated. Style tells you a lot more about the truth than substance, because it comes at the truth in an oblique way, it comes in on a slant, it doesn’t tell you what it is. It’s unexpected and it makes you laugh and think. It’s hard for me to describe it. Style is a way of talking about yourself.
Alex: That’s just the sort of thing that George Frazier wrote about in Esquire, as well as John O’Hara, right?
Benton: Style mattered to O’Hara. He would describe characters in terms of their style. It was like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so you would know who they were without literally having to say they were this or they were that. I think he’s one of the most astounding writers there is. O’Hara was brilliant. I spent two years working on a project that never got made of Appointment in Samara. I really went through that book and studied O’Hara’s writing. It’s artless and so direct. The greatest style is when you can’t see the style though you walk away knowing it was there. It’s like a perfume—there but not there.
Alex: So you are really talking about two different things when you discuss style and taste.
Benton: One doesn’t have anything to do with the other. It’s the difference between wit and humor. Taste has nothing to do with style. Style is the most ephemeral thing I know. It’s not about how effective you are it’s about how you are effective. George Clooney has taste, Cary Grant had style. Style lasts forever and taste doesn’t. It’s like beauty doesn’t have anything to do with prettiness. Beauty has to do with something else; it gets into an area where words can’t go. It’s interesting that there are places that words can’t get to.
Alex: How did your time at Esquire prepare you for working on movies?
Benton: It taught me to work with other people and to understand that sometimes other people have better ideas. Clay was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. I remember one time I had an idea, and he said, “What’s the idea?” I said, “No, no, it’s not ready.” He said, “You know something, you nitwit, you’ll never get a new idea until you get rid of this one.” That changed my life. Having one perfect thing was less important than having a range of ideas, realizing they were all taking you in a certain direction.
Alex: Was this around the time you and David Newman, a young editor at the magazine, started collaborating together?
Benton: I got to be less interested in the design of the magazine and more interested in the content. I was an OK designer but I wasn’t that good. David was this kid who’d come in and they asked him to work with me on a few things and we got along very well.
Alex: How did Dubious Achievement come about?
Benton: Dubious was Harold’s idea. It came from the year he spent at Harvard because the Harvard Lampoon did something similar to it and Harold just lifted it for Esquire. It was great fun to do. That’s when I was moving away from being an art director to being a contributor in a different way.
Alex: What led to you and Newman to write the script that would become Bonnie and Clyde?
Benton: We both loved the French New Wave, and spent all of our time talking about movies. We finally decided to write one together. We didn’t know how to write a screenplay but wrote a description of a movie that sometimes included shots and talked about what a scene was about without having any actual dialogue. I couldn’t sit down and write a novel or a short story—even now—because of my dyslexia. But I learned narration through movies. And movie narration in the forties was radically different than the narrative involved in books. There was a lot I didn’t know—a huge amount I didn’t know—but I did know something about the narrative of movies, and so did David. He was brilliant about that and a lot of things. The music in Bonnie and Clyde was all David’s idea.
Alex: Style is the movie’s subject, just like it was in Goddard’s Breathless, and it is particularly expressed through Dede Allen’s editing.
Benton: Bonnie and Clyde was exactly about style. Dede Allen deserved a writer’s credit as much as anybody. Boy, she was good. When I saw Jules et Jim, it just haunted me. I saw it maybe 20 times. It was the invention of the movie; it was the unwillingness to be bound by convention. It both respected the form of films and threw it away at the same time. The script for Bonnie and Clyde came out of that time at Esquire. It came out of being in a place that looked for something new, to discover something that was unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Alex: I can’t resist asking you about what it was like working with Art Carney on The Late Show.
Benton: He was a very good guy, very friendly, always there. He wanted to work the way he worked in television, which was fine. And Lily wanted to work in a kind of freewheeling way. He never understood that but he never complained, and he did everything he was asked to do. Finally, on the last day of shooting it took Lily and me almost all day to get Art out of his trailer to shoot his final scene. It meant too much to him. He’d loved playing the role. As an actor, it’s your life, and then, you stop and go back to sitting in a closet. It’s a hard thing for actors to go through.
Alex: What about Robert Altman, who produced the movie?
Benton: Altman wanted The Late Show to be more like The Long Goodbye but I just didn’t have that in me. But he was an enormous influence on me. Truffaut, Altman, and Howard Hawks were my biggest inspirations as a director. Hawks more than anyone because his movies are about relationships, whether it’s Rio Bravo, or The Front Page, orBringing Up Baby. Those are exquisite movies about relationships.
Altman taught me to listen to actors. He told me early on, stop telling actors what to do, listen to them, there’s a moment when they know the characters much better than you do, and if you don’t pay attention to them you shouldn’t be directing. He was right. He freed me from some kind of burden that I carried as a writer that I had to make everybody dot the I’s and cross the T’s in a screenplay. Suddenly, Lily could do what she wanted to do and I could do what I wanted to do. I didn’t regard the script as a religious text. And the picture began to have a flow and it was more open, and all of that was because of Altman. I owe him an enormous debt. And he fired me three times over the course of that picture. I just drove him crazy. A lot of the reasons were legitimate. I agree and I agree and then I go off and do what I’m going to do anyway. He’d get drunk and call me in the middle of the night and fire me. I’d call my agent, who was Altman’s agent, and he’d talk him down, and I’d be working the next day. But when the dust settled I felt I owed him a debt I’d never fully be able to repay him.