Steven Spielberg (born 1946) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful movie-makers in Hollywood. The director of such elaborate fantasies as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial, he was regarded as a man who understood the pulse of America as it would like to see itself.
Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 18, 1946. He was the oldest of four children. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer who worked in what was then a newly emerging field: computers. His mother, Leah, had been a concert pianist. The only boy among his siblings, he was doted on by his mother and three sisters; therefore, it is not surprising that he grew up having his own way and feeling that he was the center of the universe. Indulged throughout his childhood at home, he was not so treated at school where he displayed little enthusiasm for his studies and was rewarded with average grades at best.
Like many American families of the postwar years, the Spielbergs moved frequently. Spielberg's father was an executive and corporate promotions caused the family to move to Haddonfield, New Jersey; then to suburban Phoenix; and thereafter to the emerging bedroom communities of what would be known as "Silicon Valley" near San Jose, California. The original name of this region, "The Land of the Heart's Desire," provided an interesting counterpoint when one considers the sorts of movies that Spielberg would make, for it seems as though almost all of his films, even ones that he does not actually direct, were a combination of technical wizardry (highlighted by gadgets and toys) and wee-ripened sentimentality.
Learning to Use a Camera
The first film that Spielberg recalled seeing in a movie theater was The Greatest Show on Earth, a spectacular 1952 circus epic directed by Cecil B. De Mille. Little Steven began shooting 8mm films with his family's home movie camera. He recorded camping trips and other such cinematic ephemera but soon grew dissatisfied with them. He began to film narrative movies, attempting to actually set up shots with different angles and primitive special effects. By the time he was 12 years old he actually filmed a movie from a script using a cast of actors. At age 13 he made "Escape to Nowhere," which lasted 40 minutes and was about a war. He grew increasingly ambitious and three years later filmed a feature-length science fiction movie which he entitled "Firelight." This movie was 140 minutes long and had a complex plot involving astronomers, eerie lights in the evening sky, and a rather violent encounter with some aliens.
At this point in his life Spielberg may have had cause to regret his, at best, lackadaisical efforts toward schoolwork. His poor grades in high school prevented him from entering the University of Southern California or U.C.L.A. He was accepted at the California State College at Long Beach, from which he was graduated in 1970 with a B.A. in English. In lieu of a film program, he went to the movies and saw every film that he could. He also cajoled his way past the guards at Universal Studios and watched major projects being filmed.
He continued to make films, though, and prepared a short subject, "Amblin'," which he later used at the 1969 Atlanta film festival. It also won an award at the Venice film festival, and got him a seven-year contract at the studio whose gates he used to crash—Universal. Studio executives had been so impressed with "Amblin'," a simple story about a boy and girl who hitchhike from the Mojave Desert to the ocean, that they released it with Love Story, a major hit of 1970.
Spielberg began his career as a professional by directing several episodes for television programs that were being shot at Universal. First among these was the pilot episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, which starred the legendary Hollywood star Joan Crawford. He went on to direct episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Owen Marshall, Columbo, The Psychiatrists, and The Name of the Game. The first "movie" that he directed professionally was a film made for television, Duel; it was released theatrically in Europe and Japan to rave reviews. Here in the United States it was generally regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made for television. It starred Dennis Weaver as a hapless suburbanite involved in a deadly battle of wits with an 18-wheeler. It was a variation on the "heart of darkness" theme, which showed how easily the smooth skin of civilization peeled off, revealing the human savage underneath.
Spielberg made two other movies for television, Something Eviland Savage. By that time he was being courted by every studio in Hollywood due to the phenomenal success of Duel. The made-for-television movie, which had cost only $350,000 to produce, grossed between $5,000,000 and $6,000,000 in its foreign releases. Spielberg was not overwhelmed, however, by the quality of the properties that he was offered and withdrew from the studio mainstream for a year in order to develop a project of his own.
Directing What He Wanted
What he came up with was The Sugarland Express, a drama about a gritty and determined, if somewhat dim, woman, played by Goldie Hawn, who browbeats her husband into breaking out of jail in order that they may kidnap their baby from its foster home. A spectacular car chase ensues after the couple steals a police cruiser. The film was a critical success but a commercial failure. Nonetheless, it led to the breakthrough film of Spielberg's career, the spectacularly successful Jaws (1974).
Even by this stage of his career, certain salient features had emerged. Jaws would spiral hopelessly over budget. There would be enormous technical difficulties, which Spielberg would overcome brilliantly, but at a staggering cost. The studio executives would later lament that they had a property which no one knew how to film. The haphazard approach and free and easy financing would be a hallmark of film making through the rest of the decade. Directors reigned supreme as several studios went into bankruptcy. Spielberg felt quite comfortable in this atmosphere wherein his every whim was dutifully responded to as though it were holy writ.
Despite bringing in Jaws at 100 percent over its $3,500,000 budget, Spielberg became Hollywood's anointed director of the moment when the film grossed over $60,000,000 in its first month. The film was as popular with critics as with the public. It was an unabashed triumph. Spielberg was now in a position to do whatever he wanted. He embarked on a film whose subject had obsessed him since his childhood.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was perhaps his most personal film. It dealt with the heroic efforts of average middle-Americans to make contact with visitors from another planet. For all of its staggering special effects, its power derived from its strongly human base, its exploration of what people will do when they find that they have the opportunity to make their dreams come true. Perhaps no other film of Spielberg's had come so close to capturing the wonder that he seems to be seeking in the medium that Orson Welles called "the ribbon of a dream."
The next film that he directed, 1941, was an overblown disaster. It was a case study in overdoing the "erector-set" approach to filmmaking. Despite the accusation of the most important film critic in America, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, that he was responsible for infantilizing American culture, Steven Spielberg was responsible both for many successful films of his own direction and for the creation of dozens of film projects. He helped to define the film of the post-studio era, in that he was one of the young directors responsible for the power of the director in our time.
The "Indiana Jones" trilogy (1981-1989), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and The Color Purple (1985) exemplified Spielberg at his best and worst. The "Indiana Jones" pictures mixed a loving affection for old-time movie serials with a contemporary sensibility—one with an unfortunately high tolerance for excessive violence, however. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the second installment of the series, necessitated the creation of a new rating code, "PG-13," due to its gratuitous gore. E.T. (1982) swept the nation, and its catchphrase, "Phone home!" was heard around the world. Less successful was the reception of The Color Purple. Spielberg was accused of patronizing African-Americans and prettifying rural Southern poverty. He attempted to defend himself by citing his fidelity to Alice Walker's novel, but this tack satisfied neither his film detractors nor the fans of the book.
Spielberg was a great favorite among his fellow directors, such as George Lucas and John Landis. He stood by the latter when he was implicated in the deaths of three cast members of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a film which Spielberg also worked on. In 1991 Spielberg directed a big-budget movie about Peter Pan, called Hook. As Spielberg continued to direct and produce he seemed to grow more and more powerful. The fact that he was never satisfactorily recognized by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences seemed less and less relevant. He was able to make any film that he wanted and seemed totally uninterested in courting the public or the critics. The tremendous wealth that he gained from making his films as he saw fit would seem to be his justification.
The subject of one of the longest and most intensive pre-release hypefests in film history, was the media blitz surrounding Spielberg's 1993 mega-hit Jurassic Park. The story centered around a present day theme park that featured genetically engineered dinosaurs as the main attraction. The movie was a box office and home theater success. Spielberg released the sequel entitled The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997.
Perhaps the most poignant of Spielberg's movies was the black and white, critically-acclaimed Schindler's List. Released in late 1993, the movie was filmed in Poland, and was a lengthy, Holocaust drama. It was a fictionalized account of real life instances in which an amoral German businessman had a change of heart and saved the lives of thousands of Jews who worked in his factory. The movie brought respect to Spielberg as both a film maker and an individual. The picture won the 1993 Best Picture Academy Award and Spielberg won for Best Director.
Spielberg married actress Amy Irving in 1985. They had one son, Max, before a 1989 divorce. He later married actress Kate Capshaw, and they had five children.
Further Reading on Steven Spielberg
There was a critical account of Spielberg's cinematic product by Donald R. Mott and Cheryl M. Saunders, Steven Spielberg (1986). It was an overwritten and unsatisfactory text. One would do better to consult The Steven Spielberg Storyby Tony Crawley (1984). Chapters on Spielberg appeared in The Movie Bratsby Michael Pye and Linda Myles (1979) and in A Cinema of Loneliness by Robert P. Kolker (1988). Spielberg was also discussed in Stephen Farber's Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the "Twilight Zone" Case (1988). For an in-depth portrayal of Spielberg, see "Peter Pan Grows Up" by Richard Corliss and Jeffery Ressner in Time (May 19, 1997) magazine. □