no other filmmaker has blended art and commerce quite like Steven Spielberg.
Just as Spielberg has melded blockbusters with socially relevant films, he has
also conflated his own image as a Jewish outsider who buys whole-heartedly into
American consumer culture. Molly Haskell’s new book on Spielberg, Steven
Spielberg: A Life in Films, published by Yale University Press, takes a deep
dive into these issues in a concise, enjoyable and informative read. As part of Yale’s’ Jewish Lives series,
Haskell is front and center analyzing each Spielberg project from his
background as a Jewish kid growing up in 1950s Arizona who wondered why his was
the only house on the block without a Christmas Tree, embarrassed by his
traditional grandparents. Spielberg is certainly not the only outsider, Jewish
or otherwise, to mine his loneliness into a cinematic career, but as Haskell
illustrates in this monograph, he is the most successful film director to do so.
the text, Haskell describes several occasions where Spielberg consciously
creates his own public persona, actions most similar to Walt Disney, one of
Spielberg’s cinematic heroes- and someone he is often compared to. However, Haskell
compares Spielberg to another giant of classic Hollywood- David O. Selznick.
Selznick balanced his output of popcorn fare and meaningful epics in a career
that matches Spielberg, especially during the 1980s when Spielberg began
producing films of up and coming directors that he had faith in. However,
Haskell lays out times it was difficult for Spielberg to be a mogul. These
include the shooting of Poltergeist where on-set witnesses say Spielberg
directed sequences of the film as opposed to the movie’s credited director,
Tobe Hooper (these accusations hurt Hooper’s career) and later during
Spielberg’s partnership in DreamWorks.
Haskell’s strength lies is in describing in detail how some of Spielberg’s most
iconic films are rooted in his childhood. While it is easier to see this in E.
T. and Close Encounters, it is harder to discern this in the films based on
source material such as Empire of The Sun and Catch Me If You Can. In fact, in
reading this book I was surprised to learn that Spielberg as his most personal
movie cited Catch Me If You Can, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as real life
forger Frank Abagnale, Jr. The changes
made when the film was adapted from Abagnale’s memoir reveal why this is the
case: Frank Jr’s mother is given a lover that leads to the break-up of the
family, the singular event that happened in Spielberg’s own young life that he
never really got over. In addition,
Frank Sr. (played by Christopher Walken) still plays a role in the younger
Frank’s life, whereas in real life Abagnale never saw his father again.
Although such changes might be those of the screenwriter Jeff Nathanson,
Spielberg’s execution of the scenes as director adds a personal touch that
another filmmaker might not give the material.
layout of the book informs the filmmaker’s life: there are four beginning
chapters, describing Spielberg’s early life and childhood, arrival at Universal
and his forays into their television department. Then the author gives a
chapter each for Jaws and Close Encounters of The Third Kind. Each subsequent
chapter is titled with at least two, sometimes three of the director’s films.
After Close Encounters, the only chapter that contains as its title a single
film is Empire of The Sun. Haskell cites this movie as Spielberg’s most
meaningful film. With it’s boy protagonist, separation of families, and war
time setting, the movie can be seen as a powerful bridge between Spielberg’s
early family movies and his later, socially important films such as Schindler’s
List and Saving Private Ryan.
Spielberg: A Life in Films is an excellent book and is a must-read for any fan
of Spielberg’s work. It is also an important work for anyone interested in how
the background and childhood of a director gets infused in their film work.