Another One From the Heart

Love is a many-splintered thing.

Picking up the pieces with near picture-perfect poignancy is Robert Benton, the Oscar-winning director who has a special place in his heart for the foibles and fears that show love doesn't so much make the world go round as it makes it wobbly, with a wonderful panache that wields its own weapons of mass distraction.

Ah, what a bounty of beauty and bonhomie is Benton's latest effort, "Feast of Love," which opens this Friday.

It is his valentine to valiant lovers caught in Cupid's cross hairs trying to determine whether they welcome the arrow of ardor … or should sue clueless Cupid for malpractice.

No, nothing as bitter or as biting as that. Just a cross section of lovers — some star-crossed — but none played better than Morgan Freeman, whose Harry is a soul mate made in heaven to Jane Alexander's Esther, as the two matchless actors serve as voices of reason to the sense of treason others feel betrays their hearts.

Of course, when Harry met Sarah in the book by Charles Baxter — on which the film is based — he was Jewish and also named Ginsberg, not Stevenson, as Harry is here. But then, maybe Miss Daisy drove him crazy so he absorbed some of her genteel Jewish genealogy as Freeman plays the part perfectly.

Well, says a bemused Benton of the Jewish perspective, it's a perfect fit for what author Baxter is after. In a way, adds the director, "it's a kind of a midrash on the story of Abraham and Sarah."

And a rush to judgment that attends hearts attacked by emotions too overwhelming to get over. Such is the case with Greg Kinnear's Bradley, a bumbler of a multiple-marrier who finds that love is not so much having to say you're sorry as to say "I Do" — which he does — over and over again.

It's all a smorgasbord of the smitten and the smacked-down, relationships in which the heart is a lonely hunter — and trying to duck the Dick Cheneys of the chastened.

"Love," muses Benton. "At its heart, it's a mystery. Something more that we're always looking for, but we'll never find."

Find it he has often — at home, where he's happily married, and on screen, where Benton's put love through the lens and found the focus-finder frequently fuzzy, forever freeing.

And, at times, a killing field of frenzy.

How would "Bonnie & Clyde," the murderous mobsters who picked off an Oscar for Benton as the film's screenwriter, handle love in all its ramifications?

"They'd just shoot 'em," he smiles.

And he's not just shooting from the hip: Benton's conceit that the two robbers would make for a bankable script was influenced by information from his own Dad, who had actually attended the funerals of the real Bonnie and Clyde.

From gunslingers to gumshoes ("The Late Show"), Benton's shoots have been historically haimisch. Nobody's fool, he knows when finesse is called for and when it's time to just let his stars light up their talents and set the fireworks on film, as has been the case with Paul Newman ("Nobody's Fool"); Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep ("Kramer vs. Kramer"); and Sally Field ("Places in the Heart").

But even Benton's bio is besmirched — "The Human Stain," where Anthony Hopkins portrayed a black professor, passing for white/Jewish — albeit not by much.

But if Benton has a different read on characters and the love that lights up their lives in ways that would boondoggle Debbie Boone, maybe it's also because what he sees is a perspective different from most. In a way, he reveals and revels in the thought that he is always the outsider directing outside the box.

Why does he see it that way?

"I grew up dyslexic," he says, "before people knew what it meant."

And what it meant to Benton was being the target of bias: His neighbors "thought I was a slow, but hyperactive kid. Lucky I grew out of that."

Actively pursuing excellence is nothing to grow out of; indeed, Benton's growth as director/ screenwriter has been one of Hollywood's most evolved success stories.

'Not So Easy and Simple'
If "Feast of Love" is a paean to a pain that pulses the heart, Benton understands the kind that breaks it forever as well: Both of the director's uncles on his father's side were murdered.

But then, getting the big picture — even for such a big director — is a cosmic quandary: "Life and love are not so easy and simple."

Which is why he is so intrigued by conveying its complexity. "Love may end badly, yet we cannot live without it," he avers. "Hope is critical in life, and love is the engineer of hope."

All aboard! Benton's train of thought pulls out all the stops in his new film. If all the characters involved spin a Web site all their own, it's one Benton can log on to.

"Love and family … I've spent my life looking for that," says the white-haired wizard of odds and ends that function — and dysfunction — as family.

And the movie set, too, is a family "that I'm drawn to," he adds fondly of "that group of people bound together."

Bound for glory? There's already considerable Oscar buzz about "Feast of Love," which is bountiful in its portrayal of love as a buffet even as it buffets some hearts and bruises others.

All ya need is love? Maybe, but maybe what one needs even more is a better understanding of intimacy, says Benton: "Intimacy is a terrifying thing, one of the scariest things in the world. You have to find a way to live with it. Everyone fears it."

Even as a screenwriter/director on intimate terms with Oscar, Benton is beneficent when bragging — about others.

"I'm a pretty good screenwriter, but I can't write prose," he says, while adding that the pro he truly admires is Robert Towne and his "Chinatown."

"That's the only screenplay I loved better than the movie."

What could be better than the feast of love Benton's about to attend as his latest film debuts? Pull a chair up to the table; the chairman is about to dish on his success.

About to celebrate his 75th birthday, Benton's diamond year is aglow with polish on each of its multiple facets.

"I've lived a life that has been more generous to me than I've been able to give back," says Benton from that place he is oh-so-familiar with — the heart.



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