- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

“We tried our best to stay as close to the novel as possible,” observes director Robert Benton, summarizing his and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel of 2000, “The Human Stain.” Their film version, which co-stars Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman but seems to do more for newcomers named Wentworth Miller and Jacinda Barrett, opens today.

This has turned into something of a haunted year for Mr. Benton, 71, one of the more thoughtful and ingratiating figures in the movie business. The cinematographer of his movie, Jean-Yves Escoffier, died in the spring. The end credits include a dedication to him.

Mr. Benton’s first screenwriting collaborator, David Newman, also a writing partner on humorous magazine and theater pieces in the early 1960s before the production of their “Bonnie & Clyde” screenplay changed the nature of their professional careers, died of a massive stroke in the summer.

“I always thought of him as so much younger than me,” Mr. Benton reflects about his collaborator, five years his junior. “He was so vital. I just don’t understand it. Some things you expect. Others you’re never prepared for. He seemed to be in great shape. It’s as if we’d all stepped across a threshold, much sooner than I expected.”

In recent years Mr. Benton has shared screenwriting projects with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo, an association that began when the filmmaker was adapting the Russo novel “Nobody’s Fool,” distilled into one of the most quietly authentic and satisfying American movies of the 1990s.

Mr. Benton regards Mr. Russo as a fast friend and expects them to collaborate on movie scripts again, but it had been years since he found himself being a director for hire, working on a script already completed by someone else. “I viewed that situation with great trepidation, but I have known Nick Meyer for a long time and that helped,” he recalls. “When I read his screenplay, I realized that he had done a remarkable job, especially in transposing episodes and taking out subplots. I removed even more. It was important to concentrate on the two romantic relationships that define the principal character, Coleman Silk, one when he’s a widowed professor played by Anthony Hopkins, and the other when he’s a young man played by Wentworth Miller.”

Mr. Benton has Nicole Kidman as an adornment in the wake of her Academy Award for “The Hours.” He had cast her in a film version of E.L. Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate” 12 years earlier. He regards that movie as one of his mishaps, but he always had confidence in Miss Kidman.

“I thought she was an incredibly accomplished actress at that time,” he says. “Go back even further to ‘Dead Calm,’ right at the start of her movie career. What was she? Maybe 20. That was an amazing screen performance. I was especially fond of her work in ‘To Die For.’ I thought that was a hugely underrated performance. She became invisible. She knows how to disappear into a role. She’s a great instinctive actress who is also willing to listen, making her a director’s actor as well.”

Miss Kidman plays Faunia Farely, a troubled, solitary young woman who is haunted by a tragic past and menaced by a homicidal ex-husband, played by Ed Harris. “Nicole visited Roth to talk about Faunia,” Mr. Benton remarks.

“Evidently, there was a woman who was the prototype for the role. All those conversations were strictly private, between novelist and actor. He came up to the Williams College campus in Williamstown (Mass.) one day while we were shooting. He was very gracious. He approved of the screenplay, and he’s seen the movie and appears to be pleased with it. My impression is that he does not suffer fools gladly, so I assume he’s telling us the truth.”

Mr. Benton’s greatest success with adapting contemporary novels came at the end of the 1970s, when he won Academy Awards for best direction and screenplay with “Kramer vs. Kramer,” also an Oscar-winner for co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep and the logical choice as best movie of the year.

His directing career began in 1972 with a small-scale Civil War yarn, “Bad Company.”

A native Texan, he was an aspiring painter at the outset. Shortly after being discharged from the Army in the middle 1950s, he was hired by Esquire magazine. He was the art director from 1958 to 1964, then a contributing editor. These posts coincided with the David Newman partnership. Among other brainstorms, they launched the magazine’s annual “Dubious Achievements” feature.

There’s a trick racial element in “The Human Stain.” Coleman Silk has been hiding a secret for 50 years: the fact that he deliberately estranged himself from his black family in New Jersey to pass as white. Or, in his estimation, someone unhindered by any particular racial identity. Accepting Anthony Hopkins in this ambiguous role takes some doing, but Wentworth Miller, the virtual unknown cast as the young Coleman, embodies the part with complete believability.

“He is of mixed race,” Mr. Benton explains. “A white mother and black father, if I recall correctly. He’s done very little acting. He graduated from Princeton, majoring in literature, and he spent several years in Hollywood, but working for a production executive rather than trying to act. I think he kind of dabbled with acting. Then at one point he decided to concentrate on the acting.

“Essentially, it’s his first role, but he persuades you that he might possess the authority of an Anthony Hopkins in the fullness of time. Right now I’d use him as an example of the power of being still. He knows how to own scenes through stillness. I think it’s an amazing, fabulous performance.”

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