Spielberg, Steven (1946—)

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Spielberg, Steven (1946—)

Reviewing Steven Spielberg's first theatrical film, Sugarland Express, in 1974, critic Pauline Kael wrote, "The director, Steven Spielberg, is twenty-six; I can't tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality … but he has a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy … He could be that rarity among directors—a born entertainer." The next year, Spielberg came out with Jaws, the blockbuster that helped launch a new era in Hollywood, and put Spielberg on the road to becoming the most successful filmmaker of his time. By the 1990s, not only was he considered by many critics to be one of the most talented filmmakers in history, but he had broken three modern box office records (with Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park), owned his own studio, and was reportedly worth almost $2 billion.

Steven Allan Spielberg was born on December 18, 1946 (not 1947, as traditionally reported) in Cincinnati, Ohio. His youth—displaced from Ohio to New Jersey to Arizona to California, obsessed with movies, television, and comic books, bullied by anti-Semites, and culminating in his parents' divorce—seems to form the subtext of many of his films. Crucial to his success has been his ability to invest the horror, science fiction, and other Hollywood genres he has continually recycled with the emotional force of his childhood obsessions. His early family difficulties, for example, seem to have provided raw material for a filmography crammed with broken homes, abandoned children, and wayward, would-be, or substitute fathers.

Spielberg started making amateur films at age ten. He made the amateur 8mm sci-fi feature Firelight in 1964, at age 17. Rejected from the prestigious film schools at the University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles, he attended California State College at Long Beach. While contemporaries such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese became the first "Film School Generation," Spielberg was essentially self-taught, spending three days a week during college hanging around the Universal lot, observing and hobnobbing. His last amateur film, the short Amblin' (1968), won him a directing contract at Universal, prompting The Hollywood Reporter to call him the youngest filmmaker ever contracted to a major studio. For the next two years, he directed television programs like Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D., and Columbo.

Spielberg's professional feature debut, the made-for-television road thriller Duel (1972), made an international splash, prompting LA Times television critic Cecil Smith to remark, "Steve Spielberg is really the wunderkind of the film business." Spielberg quickly established himself as a leading figure in American mass culture. In nine years, he made five of the highest grossing films of his era, a feat certainly unsurpassed in film history. Jaws, essentially a horror film starring a huge mechanical shark, was so successful that it helped transform the whole American film industry from the post-studio dispersion of the 1960s to "the blockbuster mentality" of the 1980s. It also marked Spielberg's debut as an impresario of cutting-edge special effects. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg transformed the 1950s movie alien from a monster into a saint. Ray Bradbury called it a religious film; Jean Renoir called it poetry. The more nakedly commercial Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its two sequels (1984 and 1989) re-popularized the adventure serial genre with tongue planted firmly in cheek. With E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), a fairy tale about a boy's friendship with an alien stranded on Earth, Spielberg made what is probably the most cherished film of modern times. It made him a celebrity in his own right, and even garnered him a United Nations Peace Medal. Spielberg's influence on American culture in this period cannot be overestimated. Indiana Jones, E.T., and the shark became durable American icons, helping to transform the national Zeitgeist from the turbulence of the 1960s to the high-tech nostalgia of the 1980s.

In 1985, Spielberg began a series of attempts to break away from the kind of genre-dominated filmmaking that had previously defined his career. The Color Purple (1985) was his first feature entirely about people (no car chases, sharks, or aliens). He took a huge risk in tackling Alice Walker's historical novel of black female liberation, and the results were ambiguous. While successful with the mainstream of American viewers and critics, The Color Purple was the first in a series of "serious" Spielberg films accused by a vocal minority of substituting sentimentality for an honest engagement with historical and political realities. The apparently perfect marriage between art and commerce that Spielberg had attained in his earlier genre films began to founder. Empire of the Sun (1987), Always (1989), and Hook (1991) met with mixed reviews. In 1993, Spielberg regained commercial and critical success, though not in the same film. First came another box office smash, Jurassic Park, a return to the horror genre, with computer-generated dinosaurs instead of a mechanical shark. Then came Schindler's List, a self-consciously European-style Holocaust film in black and white, and winner of seven Academy awards, including Best Picture and Spielberg's first for Best Director. This alternating pattern repeated with two films in 1997: a Jurassic Park sequel, and Amistad, the true story of a maritime slave revolt. It remains to be seen whether Saving Private Ryan (1998) signifies a reunion of Spielberg's commercial and artistic ambitions.

Considering their authorship by a variety of screenwriters and their mass appeal, Spielberg's films display a striking degree of thematic and stylistic unity. In Spielberg's world, the highest ideal is childlike innocence—embodied by children themselves, endangered by monsters and villains, defended by heroes, reclaimed by grown men, and symbolized by flying. Human relationships in the films are based on the model of the family broken and mended. Emotions tend to the extremes of terror and wonder. Stylistically, Spielberg's talent for visual composition is unsurpassed. With his embrace of high technology, his blending of genre and art cinema traditions, his prodigious quotation of other films, and his increasing concern with themes of vision and artifice, Spielberg is a consummate postmodernist. During the 1990s, his thematics and stylistics have tended to become unified under the banner of excessive, if sometimes historically justified, violence.

While Spielberg's directorial career alone would guarantee him a place in the history of mass culture, he has also made his mark as a film producer, studio mogul, and civic personality. He formed the highly successful production company, Amblin Entertainment, in 1984, producing or executive producing such films as Gremlins (1984), Back to the Future (1985), An American Tail (1986), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and such television series as Tiny Toon Adventures and ER.

In 1994, Spielberg launched both Dream Works and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. DreamWorks SKG, co-founded with film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen as the first new major Hollywood studio since the 1930s, produces film, television, music, and computer-based entertainment. With Schindler's List, Spielberg publicly reclaimed his Jewish heritage and proclaimed his civic ideals. Seeded with $6 million from his Schindler's List earnings, the Shoah Foundation set out to videotape 50,000 testimonies by Holocaust survivors around the world, to catalogue them, and to make them available for research and education via a sophisticated interactive computer system.

Thematically, economically, and ideologically, Spielberg's truest predecessor was Walt Disney. For many, he represents Hollywood at its best. For some, he represents it at its worst. His films have been criticized as both infantile and manipulative—essentially as theme park thrill rides. His adherence to a liberal political agenda has been accused of masking a retrograde paternalism in both his films and his business dealings. The new Hollywood he helped create has been viewed as the embodiment of the most greedy and destructive tendencies of capitalism. Even his Shoah Foundation has been criticized for Hollywood-izing history. A genius without, as Kael put it, "a mind," Spielberg embodies the contradictions of late twentieth-century American mass culture.

—Joshua Hirsch

Further Reading:

Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. New York, Citadel, 1995.

Kael, Pauline. For Keeps. New York, Dutton, 1994.

Loshitzky, Yosefa, editor. Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997.

McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.