Biography captures Spielberg, 'the nerd who became king'
Steven Spielberg. By Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster. 508 pages. $30.

May 18, 1997


Steven Spielberg is a self-invented man.

He was an ambitious prodigy who started making movies shortly after leaving the womb;he wormed his way onto the Universal Studios movie lot as a teenager. Along the way, as chronicled by former Wauwatosan Joseph McBride in his new biography, "Steven Spielberg," the wunderkind displayed a habit of embellishing his own life. Contemporary culture's most successful mythologist, McBride reports, is part fiction himself -- he has idealized and rearranged the events of his own life to reflect some all-American ideal. And his movies are like this idealized self writ large.

It is a little shocking to confront the inadequacies of someone who, in retrospect, is so professionally complete, but McBride uncovers numerous discrepancies in the way Spielberg -- whom McBride interviewed over the years but who did not cooperate in the book -- presents the events of his life compared to the way others, including his father, recall the facts.

For instance, McBride says Spielberg repeatedly lied about his age when he got to Hollywood, perhaps to enhance his prodigy image. McBride's discovery led to a lawsuit against Spielberg for claiming he was underage when he signed a contract, as a way of not fulfilling the agreement.

McBride repeats an anecdote in which Spielberg as a boy, distressed at missing Christmas because he was a Jew, dressed like Christ and posed on the front porch of the family home. His performance was accompanied by a light show, "a precursor of the lighting effects that would herald the arrival of the extraterrestrial creatures" in Spielberg's films "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," McBride suggests.

This anecdote, told by Spielberg to another reporter, never happened, Spielberg's father tells McBride, but "I can visualize him doing that." McBride concludes that the event, true or not, illustrates "the creative process by which (Spielberg) took his painful feelings of being different (Jewish) and learned to transform them into art."

Spielberg, his father tells McBride, "is a lucky bit piece of synergy," a hybrid of his mother's creativity and indulgence, his father's technical interests, his family's "archetypal Jewish-American journey" and the popular culture of comic books, television and movies.

In grade school, Spielberg got an 8mm film camera, learned he could make movies to make friends and made several films before graduating from high school. He never attended film school, but after befriending someone at Universal he worked his way from gofer to indispensable. His short film "Amblin" led to TV work on shows like "The Psychiatrist," "Columbo," "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "Night Gallery," on which his inventive visual style was obvious but not always welcome.

The TV movie "Duel" led to "Jaws," an arduous and technically complicated film, his formulaic "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the disastrous "1941." His struggle to combine technical prowess and personal statement led to "E.T." and culminated, in 1993, with "Schindler's List," in which he embraced the heritage he sought to repress as a boy.

Spielberg's films are a road map of references to his past and to himself: Richard Dreyfuss is his alter ego in "Always," "Close Encounters" and "Jaws." The tree outside his boyhood bedroom shows up in "Poltergeist." His suburban, broken-home background is the setting for "E.T." An incident in which his father dragged him into the desert to see a meteor shower is re-created in "Close Encounters."

McBride, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, is a former Variety reporter, author of books on Frank Capra and Howard Hawks and president of the Los Angeles Film Critics.

His thoroughness here reflects his background as a researcher and reporter and results in a superior book that is far above the usual kiss-and-tell, cut-and-paste celebrity bios.

McBride sets the facts straight and turns in a fully rounded portrait of the "gangly boy with big ears and bulging Adam's apple" driven to succeed -- "the nerd who became king."

Duane Dudek is the Journal Sentinel film critic.

succeed -- "the nerd who became king."

Duane Dudek is the Journal Sentinel film critic.