December 18, 1997
Steven Spielberg celebrates his 50th birthday today. If he
never directed another film, his place in movie history would
be secure. It is likely that when all of the movies of the
20th century are seen at a great distance in the future--as
if through the wrong end of a telescope--his best will be in
the handful that endure and are remembered.
No other director has been more successful at the box
office. Few other directors have placed more titles on
various lists of the greatest films. How many other directors
have bridged the gap between popular and critical success?
Not many; one thinks of Chaplin and Keaton, Ford and
Hitchcock, Huston and de Mille, and although the list could
go on, the important thing is to establish the company that
Spielberg finds himself in.
Now he owns his own studio, DreamWorks. A few other
directors have grown so powerful that they could call their
own shots: in the silent days, Griffith, Chaplin, de Mille
and Rex Ingram. Since then, not many, and those who have
founded studios, like Francis Coppola, have lived to regret
their entry into the world of finance. But Spielberg's
success has been so consistent for so many years that even
the mysteries of money (in some ways, so much more perplexing
than the challenge of making a good film) seem open to him.
Consider some of his titles--Spielberg has made a dozen
films known to virtually everyone: ``Jaws,'' ``Close
Encounters of the Third Kind,'' ``E.T., the
Extra-Terrestrial,'' ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' ``Indiana
Jones and the Temple of Doom,'' ``Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade,'' ``The Color Purple,'' the two ``Jurassic Parks,''
and his 1993 Oscar winner for best picture, ``Schindler's
List.'' Consider his current release, ``Amistad,'' concerning
a trial about the moral and legal basis of slavery; he has
used his success to buy the independence to make films that
might not otherwise seem bankable.
If Spielberg had never directed a single film, however, he
would still qualify as one of Hollywood's most successful
producers. Look at these titles: ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit,''
the three ``Back to the Future'' movies, ``An American
Tail,'' ``Gremlins,'' ``Twister'' and many more. Yes, he has
had failures (``1941,'' ``Always,'' ``Hook'') but more often
than not when Spielberg makes a movie, it finds one of the
year's largest audiences.
To make a good movie is very difficult. To make a popular
movie is not easy. To make both, time after time, is the holy
grail which Hollywood seeks with the same fervor that Indy
Jones devoted to the ark of the covenant. Talking to
Spielberg over the years, and particularly during a four-
hour conversation in the spring of 1996, I got the feeling
that his success is based on his ability to stay in touch
with the sense of wonder he had as a teenager--about the
world, and about movies.
``I'm greedy about trying to please as many people, all in
the same tent, at the same time,'' he told me. ``I've just
always wanted to please, more than I've wanted to create
controversy and exclude people. And yet, when I made `E.T.,'
I really thought I was making it, not for everybody in the
world, but for kids. I actually told George Lucas that
parents would drop their kids off at `E.T.' And the parents
would go off and see another movie playing a block away.''
And yet he made a movie that more people have seen,
perhaps, than any other. What deeper need did it fill than
simple entertainment? Why does the story of a little boy and
a goofy-looking extraterrestrial make people cry who never
cry at the movies?
``From the very beginning,'' Spielberg said, `` `E.T.' was
a movie about my childhood--about my parents' divorce,
although people haven't often seen that it's about divorce.
My parents split up when I was 15 or 16 years old, and I
needed a special friend, and had to use my imagination to
take me to places that felt good--that helped me move beyond
the problems my parents were having, and that ended our
family as a whole. And thinking about that time, I thought,
an extraterrestrial character would be the perfect
springboard to purge the pain of your parents' splitting
It's that deeper impulse, that need, that operates under
the surface of ``E.T.,'' making it more emotionally complex
than the story itself might suggest. And in the third Indiana
Jones movie, there's that bond between Indy (Harrison Ford)
and his father (Sean Connery). In ``Close Encounters,'' the
hope that alien visitors might be benign, not fearsome as
they always were in science-fiction movies. And in ``The
Color Purple,'' again the impulse to heal a broken family.
Spielberg may begin with a promising idea, but in his best
films, he doesn't proceed with it unless there is also a
connection to his heart. That may be why his Holocaust film,
``Schindler's List,'' is not only about horror, but about
help, about man's better nature even in the worst times.
Spielberg told me that he got into the movies by sneaking
onto the lot at Universal Studios. He'd buy a ticket for the
tour bus, jump off the bus and hang around. After a while,
the guards had seen him so often (always dressed in his bar
mitzvah suit, not T-shirt and jeans, so that he didn't look
so much like a kid), they waved him through.
By then he had already made a lot of movies. His first
involved his Lionel train set. ``The trains went around and
around, and after a while, that got boring, and I had this
8-mm. camera, and I staged a train wreck and filmed it. That
was hard on the trains, but then I could cut the film a lot
of different ways, and look at it over and over again.''
And what boy wouldn't rather make a movie than have a