Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films
Yale University Press (January 2017)
“Everything about me is in my films.” Steven Spielberg
There is substantial truth in Steven Spielberg’s observation, as Molly Haskell indicates in this brief but remarkably comprehensive biography in which she correlates especially significant details in Spielberg’s personal life with many of the themes that he examines in most of his films. For example, he once observed when recalling his youth, “I was not like everyone else. I just wanted to be accepted. Not for who I was. I wanted to be accepted for who everyone else was.”
According to Haskell, later in life, “what makes the films Spielbergian is the way he folds the family story with its ethnic roots into the universal story of a boy coming of age in America.” In years to come in the films he directed, “Spielberg would get to play vicariously and imaginatively all the roles denied him and other Jews not just in life but on the Hollywood screen.”
I struggled when deciding how to organize the material in this brief review and finally decided to share a few of the passages that caught my eye.
When Spielberg, a seventh grader, began work on a World War II film, Fighter Squadron: “What was remarkable, according to all who knew him, was the focus and intensity Steven displayed, the absolute confidence on the ‘set,’ how coolly he went about telling his ‘cast’ and ‘crew’ (family and friends) what to do.” (Page 28)
During the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which he appeared, François Truffaut “pinpointed as well as anyone’s Spielberg’s gift for giving ‘plausibility to the extraordinary.’ This he attributed to the director’s care ‘in shooting all the scenes of everyday life to give them a slightly fantastic aspect while also, as a form of balance, giving the most everyday quality to the scenes of fantasy.’ To Spielberg’s huge disappointment, Close Encounters wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award.” (78)
On his state of mind after Empire of the Sun: “At this time, Spielberg, another boy-man possessed of an overactive metabolism, was behaving as one associate put it, like a man who’d drunk four cups of coffee; having — in Kathleen Kennedy’s words — ‘an idea every thirteen seconds.’ And although he had been true to his vow to take more time off to be with the adored Max [his son], his compulsion to work took the form of producing a number of films with other directors, many ill-advised, while amassing an empire of his own.” (123)
Contrary to Spielberg’s expectations, “Saving Private Ryan racked up $479 million worldwide and won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Spielberg’s second Oscar for directing.” (164)
In fact, Spielberg did win that Oscar but Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for best film in 1999. Errors such as this are inexcusable.
After completing Bridge of Spies, correlations with James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks: “Too much has happened. The kids are preoccupied with their own lives. Neither they nor his wife can know what he has gone through. A weary Donovan ascends the steps. Like Jamie in Empire of the Sun or Elliott in E.T., he is alone with a lingering sense of loss. The deeper bond lies elsewhere, with the alien and soul mate who has returned to the mother ship.” (204-205)
My own opinions are, first, that Steven Spiegel‘s talents as a storyteller are unsurpassed by any other film director and the talents of only a few others are comparable with his, notably (listed in alpha order) Frank Capra, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Ernst Lubitsch, and William Wyler — and if we expand the term to include filmmakers, certainly Walt Disney and George Lucas.
Also, I think one key element of his greatness is that as a director — as is also true of all great actors — Spielberg has the talent and the skills to “go large” or “go small” according to what the given situation requires. He is a master of intimate human interactions that evoke joy but also of epic encounters that evoke awe.
Finally, whenever I watch a Spielberg film (especially among a theater audience) I feel much more engaged in what happens on the screen than I do watching most other directors’ films. Those in his league include (again in alpha order) Joel and Ethan Coen, Akira Kurosawa, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorcese, and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve tried – and failed — countless times to close my eyes and only listen to their films. It is impossible NOT to watch what they have created.