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Steven Spielberg
(1947 - ) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, producer /Born: December 18, 1947, Cincinnati, OH /Education: California State College (now University), Long Beach (English)


Though critics and audiences have yet to reach a firm consensus on the merits or even the defining character of his work, Steven Spielberg is arguably the most important figure to emerge from the creative ferment of American cinema in the 1970s. For better or worse, he has changed the way movies are made and what they are made about. Spielberg is the Western world's most famous living filmmaker; as a producer and director, he has become a household word and a veritable brand name.

Seven of Spielberg's films as a director&emdash;including JAWS (1975); CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977); RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and its two sequels, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), are among the highest grossing in film history. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), Spielberg's ultimate kidpic, reigned as the all-time box-office champ until JURASSIC PARK (1993) lumbered upon the scene and broke all the records, earning nearly $1 billion worldwide. Spielberg's production company, Amblin Entertainment, is responsible for such hits as GREMLINS (Joe Dante, 1984), BACK TO THE FUTURE (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (Zemeckis, 1988). Most impressively, Spielberg has succeeded in combining the intimacy of a personal vision with the epic requirements of the modern commercial blockbuster but his astonishing success has invalidated him as an artist in many eyes. Issues of the marketplace aside, Spielberg certainly travels in some august creative company: Like Welles, he was celebrated and penalized for precocity; like Hitchcock, he has been alternately praised and damned as a master of emotional manipulation; and like Griffith, Chaplin, Borzage and Capra, he has been criticized for shameless sentimentality. Perhaps Spielberg's most important spiritual predecessor is actually Walt Disney, another creative producer who made himself into a brand name in the process of attending to the serious business of making "frivolous" entertainments.

Several Spielberg films have become landmarks in the development of special effects, both in their visual and aural aspects. However this filmmaker is no technocrat nor does he display the serious intellectual interest in science fiction one finds in some of Stanley Kubrick's films. Spielberg may utilize elements of sci-fi and fantasy but he tends to eschew heavy ideas in favor of sublime feelings, particularly childlike awe and trust. Indeed, his work has decisively influenced the emphasis in contemporary science fiction film on the sensibility of youth. His films often succeed in spite of their blatantly sentimental aspects, because the director is able to sustain even the shakiest narrative with masterful use of emotionally potent visual imagery. Spielberg possesses, in short, an uncanny knack for eliciting and manipulating audience response.

Perhaps more than any mainstream filmmaker since the glory days of the French New Wave, Spielberg makes extensive use of reflexivity and intertextuality to deepen the meaning of his films. These narrative tools make his powerful images more resonant and seemingly archetypal even as they often serve as an auto-critique of the works' thematic content. Reflexivity may be understood as the process by which a work reveals and comments on the conditions of its production and reception, e.g. the mine car/roller coaster chase in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM; the mothership landing in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as a metaphor for the popular filmgoing experience; and the resurrection of dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK as a metaphor for the process of making modern blockbusters. Intertextuality describes when more than one "text" co-exists simultaneously within a work. For Spielberg, this strategy is manifested by his films' meaningful allusions to and quotations from other movies, TV, and popular culture artifacts so as to create new meanings and provide thematic insights. The abundance of examples throughout his work include references to GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) in EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987); THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) and PINOCCHIO (1940) in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; THE QUIET MAN (1952) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) in E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL; and CITIZEN KANE (1941) in SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993). Whereas many of his contemporaries include such references as in-jokes, Spielberg uses them creatively as a crucial part of his artistic palette. Beyond their unparalled qualities as entertainment, Spielberg's films clearly offer ample sustenance for every level of filmgoer ranging from the restless kid to the serious scholar.

Unlike George Lucas, John Carpenter and other successful young American filmmakers of the last two decades, Spielberg did not attend one of the major American university film programs. Largely self-taught, he made his first feature, a two-hour science fiction movie entitled FIRELIGHT, at the age of 16, and a local movie house in Phoenix, Arizona, consented to run it for one evening. In 1969, his short film, AMBLIN' earned him a job with Universal Studios' television unit, where after debuting directing the formidable Joan Crawford in the TV-movie pilot for Rod Serling's NIGHT GALLERY, he went on to direct episodes of such weekly series as "Columbo," "The Psychiatrist," "Owen Marshall: Counselor At Law" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." He also made three television movies, one of which, DUEL (1971), was released theatrically in Europe, where it garnered both critical praise and commercial success. Its story, of a salesman (Dennis Weaver) pursued by a giant diesel truck whose driver is never seen nor motive explained, is conveyed with a sure handling of suspense.

Spielberg's first theatrical film, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974) was hailed by Pauline Kael as "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies." Based on the true story of a lumpen Texas woman and her escaped convict husband fighting the law to regain custody of her baby, the film anticipates the emphasis on family in Spielberg's subsequent work; his choreographed car chases and deft handling of suspense and comedy marked him as a director to watch. Poorly marketed, this memorably entertaining and poignant feature failed at the box-office. Spielberg's second feature, JAWS, helped usher in the modern age of movie blockbusters and bested the former box-office champ, THE GODFATHER (1972). This troubled production&emdash;a young, inexperienced director, a disgruntled crew, and a malfunctioning mechanical shark&emdash;emerged as a classic adventure yarn that propelled Spielberg to the A-list of Hollywood directors.

Spielberg's transcendent follow-up, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, revealed the first flowering of his cinematic interest in the world of childhood. He shares this affinity with the late director François Truffaut (THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS, 1959, THE WILD CHILD, 1969, SMALL CHANGE, 1976), a key figure in the French New Wave, who played the head scientist in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS with an open faith in the existence of extraterrestrials. Though initially terrifying, the aliens in that revisionist work, in fact, look like nothing so much as strange and wondrous children, a much more benign representation than the common view of monstrous conquerors in almost all of the science fiction movies of the 50s.

Spielberg infused his early films with his memories of a 50s and early 60s childhood in American middle-class suburbia. He has remarked that the experience was like "growing up with three parents&emdash;a mother, a father and a TV set." Characters in his films are frequently awash in the detritus of bourgeois America and they are rarely at ease with their surroundings. When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has his first encounter, which causes his company truck to shake like one of the many battery-operated toys that fill the film, he acknowledges the existence of greater powers in the universe. Alien beings offer the promise of life beyond the restrictions of conventional middle-class life; the spaceships in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS unheedingly pass the toll booths on the state highway, markers of boundaries that signify the earthbound vision of middle-class America. Neary's departure aboard the mother ship for unknown adventures is the film's final grandiloquent embrace of the possible.

Riding high after two back-to-back blockbusters, Spielberg decided to try his hand at a form that enjoyed its last vogue in the early 60s&emdash;the colossal big-budget comedy. The result was 1941 (1979), a loud, sprawling and wildly uneven film about paranoia in a small coastal southern California town after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though it ultimately turned a profit, 1941 was perceived as a huge and indulgent flop for the young director. He vowed that his next feature would be shot quickly under the watchful eye of a tough producer. Indeed, Spielberg considered himself a hired gun on what would turn out to be one of his signature films, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Here with producer George Lucas and Harrison Ford, he introduced the world to Dr. Indiana Jones. The celebrated archeologist, beloved teacher, and intrepid adventurer became the most popular screen hero since James Bond. During the production, Spielberg was so wearied by the rigors of location shooting that he would relax by concocting a story for a little personal film that would feature a couple of kids and a lost alien. This set the stage for E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL&emdash;the work for which Spielberg may well be best remembered. An instant classic, the film had the feel of a masterpiece, the culmination of all that went before in the director's work. This emotionally overwhelming film experience transformed its maker's career.

Spielberg's ability to portray imaginative possibilities beyond the realm of reason is a result of his kinship with a childlike sense of wonder. In 1982 he admitted, "I feel I'm still a kid. I'm 34 and I really haven't grown up yet." It is no surprise, then, that his segment of TWILIGHT ZONE&emdash;THE MOVIE (1983) is a remake of a Richard Matheson scripted episode about old folks who can become children again if they only wish strongly enough. (Interestingly he reverses the original ending by having all but one of the seniors choose to remain old and face their mortality.) In E.T. the imagination of youth can soar to both literal and poetic heights, as the kids do on their bicycles, despite the narrative inconsistency. Spielberg cleverly maintains the point of view of the 12-year-old Elliott throughout the film with clever camera placements and angles.

In most Spielberg films, anything that threatens the family and its routine existence is evil. In JAWS, the normally safe harbor of a patrolled public beach becomes threatening because of a great white shark, a giant "eating machine" similar to the truck in DUEL. The heroes of THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and the INDIANA JONES trilogy are transported from normal life to a world of exciting adventure though, in the former, the consequences are tragic. As a young filmmaker, Spielberg seemed to favor the child's world of harmless adventure as featured in his production THE GOONIES (Richard Donner, 1985) to the violence and hardships of the real world. Significantly Spielberg presented WWII through the eyes of his youthful protagonist in EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), a transitional work, and oversaw an Oedipal fantasy as the producer of BACK TO THE FUTURE, in which a son remakes his parents from nerds into successful yuppies.

Such a vision, inevitably, was politically naïve. The Lucas collaborations&emdash;INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, in particular&emdash;have aspects that some find embarrassingly racist, imperialist, and misogynistic. Even his affecting adaptation of Alice Walker's novel THE COLOR PURPLE (1985), although dealing with racism, wife-beating and (briefly) lesbianism, recreates the air of an old-fashioned Disney film. That Spielberg co-produced and co-wrote but did not direct POLTERGEIST (Tobe Hooper, 1982) is significant, for it presents the dark underside of suburbia that is only hinted at in his own films as director&emdash;"my personal nightmare," he has remarked&emdash;and suggests that Spielberg was, to some extent at least, aware of the limited perspective expressed in his work up to that point in his career.

There was a marked shift in Spielberg's artistic and commercial concerns beginning in the mid-80s. He began devoting more time to producing than directing. With the notable exception of the continuing INDIANA JONES franchise, the projects he chose to direct were a departure from the material that gained him fame and fortune and few rivaled the level of commercial or critical success of his previous blockbusters. By the end of the 80s, the accepted wisdom was that Spielberg had become more important to the industry as a producer than as a director. Nonetheless the films represented a successful artist's admirable efforts to expand the horizons of his cinematic world.

Some politically-minded critics condemned THE COLOR PURPLE for its "whitewashing" of Walker's novel. While Spielberg was an unlikely director for this material, one must acknowledge the basic courage of this commercially risky project. No subsequent mainstream Hollywood drama has featured a largely black, female and unknown cast. Nor has Hollywood rushed to adapt other works of serious black fiction. While the intelligentsia quibbled, audiences&emdash;especially black women&emdash;embraced the opportunity to see an aspect of African-American history given the fullscale Hollywood treatment. To the surprise of the industry, the film grossed over $100 million and made stars of Walker, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN displayed the filmmaker working on an epic canvas worthy of David Lean. Again he chose far riskier material than the norm for contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. Without resorting to stars or adorable aliens, Spielberg and screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard managed to reconcile the seemingly contradictory thematic concerns of the quintessentially American filmmaker and British novelist J.G. Ballard. A child's-eye view was utilized to explore the effects of colonialism embattled European hegemony, and war. Traditional Spielbergian imagery&emdash;strong back lighting, rapturous depictions of child-like awe and wonder&emdash;was deployed subversively to suggest an imaginative and resourceful child tottering on the brink of madness in his attempts to ally himself with any force powerful enough to ensure his survival.

ALWAYS (1989), Spielberg's first romantic feature, revealed the aging "wunderkind" finally confronting issues of emotional commitment, loss, and mortality. Even INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE broke new ground for the director. Deftly avoiding the blithe racism of its predecessors, the locale shifts to Europe and the emphasis to Dr. Jones's own family dynamics. Significantly, while the action sequences were largely uninspired, the spiky father-son banter between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery was the film's highlight. Spielberg seemed to have outgrown INDIANA JONES.

Through Amblin, Spielberg continued to oversee the production of a series of popular escapist fantasies, animated features, and conventional genre films throughout the 80s and into the 90s. He even diversified into TV with the fantasy anthology series, "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-1987), which he executive produced and provided with many of its stories. Spielberg lured major film talents to direct for TV including Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Paul Bartel, Danny De Vito, Joe Dante, and Clint Eastwood. Though lavishly produced and often dealing with Spielberg's characteristic themes, too many of the stories were slight and unsatisfying. He achieved far greater success with the daily children's cartoon series, "Tiny Toon Adventures" (syndicated, 1990- ) which attempted to resurrect the style and sensibility of classic Warner Bros. animation. Spielberg also lent his name prestige as an executive producer of the lavish undersea adventure series "SeaQuest DSV," which debuted in the fall of 1993.

HOOK (1991) was Spielberg's long-awaited return to fantasy material. A lavish yet quirky update of the Peter Pan story, the film displayed its maker's increased concern with the responsibilities of parenting, the therapeutic aspects of regression, and preparing for death. Budgeted at over $60 million, the film garnered mixed reviews and decently impressive box-office but&emdash;due to an unprecedented deal brokered by Creative Artists Agency wherein Spielberg and his stars, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Julia Roberts split a huge cut of worldwide revenues up front&emdash;failed to make much money for its studio.

Spielberg of the 90s is once again making directing a top priority, lending the strength of his name to various Amblin products while leaving the hands-on producing chores to others. JURASSIC PARK (1993), a $70 million adaptation of Michael Crichton's dinosaur disaster novel, represented a return to the kind of muscular adventure that served Spielberg so well in the past. The film was a special effects breakthrough and boasted awesome action sequences though the characters were unusually shallow even by Spielbergian adventure standards. It seemed as if the filmmaker's creative energies were not fully engaged with the project. Intriguingly Spielberg did relatively little publicity for one of the most aggressively marketed films in history. He had juggled post-production work on JURASSIC PARK in Paris&emdash;with George Lucas reportedly lending a hand stateside&emdash;with filming his long-awaited WWII Holocaust drama, SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) in Poland. Filmed in black-and-white, without big boxoffice stars and few slick stylistic touches (e.g. no crane shots), and adapted from Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize-winning 1982 novel (based on a true story), the bleak SCHINDLER'S LIST marked a dramatic change-of-pace for him. For once, he went against his natural instincts and made an impressively restrained, documentary-styled drama that built to a shattering yet life-affirming conclusion. The resulting film earned Spielberg the most respectful notices of his career. As New York Times film critic Janet Maslin observed, "It should be noted, if only in passing, that Mr. Spielberg has this year delivered the most astounding one-two punch in the history of American cinema. JURASSIC PARK now closing in on billion-dollar grosses, is the biggest movie moneymaker of all time. SCHINDLER'S LIST, destined to have a permanent place in memory, will earn something better." Spielberg was widely hailed as one of the masters of world cinema, and SCHINDLER'S LIST would go on to win nearly every film industry award of 1993, including honors from the Director's Guild of America, the Golden Globe awards, and seven Academy Awards (out of twelve nominations), including Oscars for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. After establishing a reputation as the premiere proponent of childlike wonder, the "wunderkind" had finally grown up, and with his newfound maturity, Spielberg found himself at a turning point in his phenomenal career. Following the triumph of SCHINDLER'S LIST, Spielberg resumed his duties as a producer of such lavish mainstream entertainments as THE FLINTSTONES (1994), but vowed to take a full year's break from directing until the right project presented itself to fire his cinematic passions.

In the fall of 1994, Spielberg, along with mogul David Geffen and former Disney executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, announced the formation of Dreamworks SKG, a new studio that would produce features, TV, and multimedia projects at a more cost efficient level than the major studios. The once awkward outsider&emdash;who once unsuccesfully attempted to get on the set of Hitchcock's FAMILY PLOT (1976) to watch his hero at work&emdash;had become the ultimate insider and generally acknowledged as the most powerful person in Hollywood.

 

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