Steven Spielberg: An intelligent entertainer
Steven Spielberg made his first feature in 1974. It was "The Sugarland Express" with delightful Goldie Hawn. The Express steamed in during the era of directors in Hollywood, that of studios and their bosses having been long over. Legends such as David O' Selznick had passed into history. So too had stars like Viven Leigh and Clarke Gable and Humphrey Bogart.
Spielberg's entry into the hallowed portals of Hollywood could not have come at a better time. It could not have come at a worse time either.
Audiences were no longer enamoured of the stars of the time: Carry Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Omar Sharif, Julie Andrews and Peter O'Toole among others had begun to slip into the shadows.
But, it was also when established helmers like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian de Palma had got out of the restrictive studio system, much like their "god" Orson Welles, who filmed "Citizen Kane" without his production bosses snooping around his set. These auteurs had become strong brand names and were almost monopolies.
Spielberg walked into this mood, switched on the lights, got the camera rolling and pushed "The Sugarland Express" into what he then felt was unknown terrain. But his reels of film surged ahead, picking amazing speed. Which showed little sign of slowing down. Which still show no fatigue or hesitation.
Spielberg made many movies, the most interesting -- for, of course, varied reasons -- being "Jaws" (1975), "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), "The Color Purple" (1985), "Schindler's List" (1993), "Jurassic Park" (1993), "Amistad" (1997) and
"Saving Private Ryan" (1998).
"Jaws" and "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" highlighted Spielberg's showmanship. But they were not just mass hype. They had an impressive degree of class.
To dismiss Spielberg as just an entertainer, even a stylistic entertainer, would be unfair to the history of cinema. He was undoubtedly an artist: remember his "The Color Purple" and "Schindler's List" where a fusion of form and content, elegance and emotion tugged your heart strings. It appealed to your eye as it did to your mind.
Yet, it took Hollywood almost two decades to honour Spielberg with an Oscar: it came for "Schindler's List", Best Director and Picture.
He was ignored in the era of directors, but recognised, as it were, at a time when market ruled and stars were once again riding out of their Beverly Hills enclaves.
Why was Spielberg cast away ? He had made equally captivating films before Mr Schindler compiled his list. "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park" were stunningly novel. "The Color Purple" was fascinating.
We would never know, as we would never know why Sean Penn was ignored till "Mystic River". Was he not many shades better in "Dead Man Walking" ?
For Spielberg, many awards followed the Oscars. He has just been made the Knight of the French Legion of Honour, the highest trophy from the Gallic nation, for his fight against hatred and intolerance.
His battle continues relentlessly. With two years to go before he turns 60, he has not slowed down. His "Terminal 2004" is on, where Tom Hanks plays an immigrant fleeing a war that is destroying his European nation. He is stranded in a New York airport when his country no longer exists. This leads to a dilemma, for his passport and visa are invalid.
"Indian Jones 4" will follow "Terminal 2004". Spielberg's camera perseveres and persists to freeze moments of magnificence. In 1998, Time listed him as one among the 100 best artists and entertainers of the century. It wrote: "In the history of the last third of 20th century cinema, Spielberg is the most influential figure, for better and worse. In his lesser films he relied too much on shallow stories and special effects for their own sake. (Will anyone treasure 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park' a century from now ?) In his better movies he tapped into dreams fashioned by our better natures."
There were essentially two elements that contributed to his success: wonder and hope. They came to him as a child, one night, in fact, when his father woke him up in the middle of the night, bundled him into a car and took him to a park, where Spielberg watched in utter amazement a shower of meteor. The cosmic occurrence soothed him, did not frighten him. What did was being woken up !
When you watch Spielberg's works these two feelings keep cropping up. There is great wonder at what man is capable of creating in "Jurassic Park".(Remember the spellbinding first glimpse of the living dinosaurs.) There is hope in what he can dare in Schindler's List". Spielberg draws you to discovery, and the key shot in many of his films is the revelation of wonder.
Well, Spielberg struggled and fought to give us all this. He was denied admission in movie schools. So he studied English, and went on a tour bus around Universal Studios.He jumped off it, wandered around the back yard, made friends with janitors, found an abandoned closet, turned that into his office and at age 24 was the youngest to be signed to a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio.
The Spielberg express races on.
(This story was posted on the website on September 15 2004)