Considering the staggering success of Steven Spielberg—the youngest director to sign a long-term studio contract, mastermind of the summer blockbuster, co-founder of his own studio, and a filmmaker with enough Oscars to fill a knapsack—it’s hard to imagine that this Hollywood wunderkind nonpareil has spent much of his life suffering from acute fears. “Yes, I’ve always had shpilkes,” he told an interviewer from Entertainment Weekly in 2011, using the Yiddish term for pins and needles. “I have it now. I had it then. It is my fuel, basically.” That was the same charmed year in which Spielberg released both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, and was in preproduction on his latest historical epic Lincoln. It doesn’t much matter that he remains the most frequently thanked individual in speeches given at the annual Academy Awards. It’s all about the fears, many of them formed in childhood.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio just a year after World War II had ended, Spielberg was raised in suburban New Jersey and Arizona. As a young boy, he was so smitten by the radiant light coming from the television screen—which, unlike the radio, didn’t frighten him—that he is said to have stood right in front of it incessantly (not unlike the little girl in Poltergeist, which he produced and for which he supplied the story, a few decades later). For years, he cowered at the sight of the shadow-laden branches of the maple tree that stood outside his bedroom window in Haddon Township, New Jersey. His father, an engineer at RCA in Camden, was often absent, leaving young Steven at home alone with his three sisters and mother; his parents would eventually split. Although he grew up in a mixed neighborhood, Spielberg often felt ethnically and socially ostracized. “Being a Jew meant that I was not normal,” he later recounted. “I just wanted to be accepted. Not for who I was. I wanted to be accepted for who everybody else was.”
By the time his family relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona, when Steven was nine years old, those yearnings hadn’t vanished. There he was “a wimp in a world of jocks,” the target of bullying, a kid who preferred making home movies with his Super 8 camera to hanging out in the high school weight room or at the local arcade. His first efforts with the camera included a nine-minute Western titled Gunfight (marking his lifelong fascination with guns) and a World War II combat film called Fighter Squad, in which Spielberg stood in to play a Nazi. While still in high school, he completed his first feature, Firelight, about the invasion of a UFO. It was shot with a Bolex Sonerizer, using sync sound; he wrote the near seventy-page screenplay and crafted the soundtrack himself. When the film enjoyed a premiere at a Phoenix movie theater, in March 1964, his mother Leah dubbed her son Cecil B. DeSpielberg.
Molly Haskell recounts facets of this story in the first chapters of her slender, uncommonly absorbing critical biography, Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, which chronicles with exquisite care and wonderfully animated prose the path leading from the ancestral milieu of mid-century Cincinnati, where Spielberg’s paternal grandfather had worked as a pushcart peddler, through the various triumphs (and intermittent misfires) in the Hollywood dream factories. Along the way, we revisit his early successes, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., eventually reaching Bridge of Spies via Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, and others. Because the book is part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series, Haskell is obliged to place due emphasis on that strand of Spielberg’s life and career—the chapter on Schindler is thus a good bit longer than the others—but she does so with the same diligence and rigor applied throughout.
Haskell was an early champion of European art cinema and its prized auteurs, and is one of the great feminist film critics; her pioneering study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, originally published in 1974, earned a third-edition printing this past year. The match between her and a mainstream director like Spielberg was not exactly natural. “We both had our blind spots,” she admits early on:
The problem was, Spielberg’s blind spots were my see spots, and vice versa. He readily acknowledged that he had no feeling for European films. He always wanted his films to “arrive” someplace. But brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings, things left unsaid, and the erotic transactions of men and women are the very things that drew me to the movies in the first place. His subjects—children, adolescents—and genres—science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure—were stay-away zones for me. Even his forays into history were inspirational rather than ironic or fatalistic, the work of a man who favored moral clarity, was uncomfortable with “shades of gray.”
For Spielberg, cinema wasn’t so much about creating a signature style, or telling artistically driven elliptical tales, as it was about entertaining a mass audience, and perhaps finally achieving that long-desired acceptance. “I don’t want to make films like Antonioni or Fellini,” he told a reporter at his college newspaper in the late 1960s. “I don’t want just the elite. I want everybody to enjoy my films.” While researching her book, Haskell came across a YouTube clip from a talk that Spielberg gave in 1978, suggesting that the skepticism was mutual. “You just have to have confidence,” he told an audience at the American Film Institute. “You can’t worry if critics like Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell don’t like your movies.”
Haskell’s story begins with a Hollywood set piece from the early 1970s. The scene takes place at one of the “week-long drug-fueled soirees” held at the beach house of producer Julia Phillips, author of the tell-all memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Among the regulars at these gonzo gatherings are celebrity actors Robert Redford and Liza Minelli, writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and the latest crop of film school upstarts, the cool kids, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma. Off in a remote corner, away from the spotlight, is Spielberg, hiding beneath the brim of his trusty baseball cap, neatly dressed in a pressed shirt and jacket, and straight off the lot of the television unit at Universal. Unlike his self-consciously hip counterparts, Spielberg hadn’t studied film at USC or NYU—he went to the far less glamorous California State College at Long Beach—and generally steered clear of the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll that defined the age.
While Haskell warns against the “neat divisions between hip and square,” just as we should be leery of a “strict separation between Hollywood and independent cinema,” it’s hard not to rely, at least provisionally, on this kind of journalistic shorthand. Even if Spielberg measured his own success on occasion against that of Orson Welles—he owns the Rosebud sled, which he counts among his most cherished possessions—his work lies more squarely in the (admittedly, unhip and classical) Hollywood tradition. Think Victor Fleming of Gone with the Wind, the subject of Haskell’s last film book; think Michael Curtiz of Casablanca, which Spielberg himself hailed as “one of the best-told narratives I’ve ever witnessed.”
Taking his cues from the old Hollywood masters, Spielberg was from the beginning a populist and a dazzler. “He could be that rarity among directors,” wrote Pauline Kael after watching his debut feature The Sugarland Express in 1974, “a born entertainer.” For her, it was Spielberg’s innate sense of motion pictures, one that didn’t demand technical virtuosity or highbrow taste, that most impressed her. “His films would always be a blender of high and low influences,” observes Haskell, “from the cheesiest television serials to the sublime imagery of John Ford. Past and present would intermingle, with memories from the storehouse of childhood viewing as vivid to the adult Spielberg as those he borrowed and reworked from movies he screened each night after a day of shooting.”
What this meant, in practical terms, is that from the start of his career onward his movies had an uncanny knack for tapping into the viewers’ fantasies and anxieties, their needs for thrills and excitement. Audiences went wild for Jaws, his skillful adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, which broke the box-office records previously set by The Godfather. They returned to watch it over and over again. But despite its unprecedented popularity, or maybe because of it, critics were less sanguine. “It’s a noisy, busy movie that has less on its mind than any child at the beach,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. Haskell herself reviewed it in the Village Voice, insisting that the film made her “feel like a rat being given shock treatment.”
Naturally, not everything Spielberg touched turned to gold. He once fleetingly hoped to direct a film called Crapper, a story featuring the inventor of the toilet. And his hamstrung attempt at making the comedy 1941, which revolved around a Japanese attack on Los Angeles during the Second World War and starred a post-Animal House John Belushi (with a supporting cast that included Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune), was a general flop. Its vague, misguided origins lay in a series of late-night binges, with Belushi and bad-boy director John Melius, at the famous Tommy’s chiliburger joint—food fights, vomiting contests and all—that Spielberg captured on a Super 8 camera.
The other charge often leveled against Spielberg is that he’s a company man, a purveyor of “junk food cinema” who privileges the bottom line over all else. A closer look reminds us that he hasn’t always shied away from taking risks. For instance, it required courage, and considerable maturity, to make The Color Purple, his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their first screen roles. Critic J. Hoberman speculated, in his review in the Village Voice, that it might be regarded as “an apology for the rampant white male supremacism of Indiana Jones.” Regardless, the film was amply rewarded, as it garnered close to a dozen Oscar nominations and took in $94 million at the box office.
And then, of course, there was Schindler’s List, his effort to depict what for some defied representation. Haskell quotes Elie Wiesel to express this very dilemma: “How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told?” One could, as French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann had done in his epic documentary Shoah (1985), allow the voices to speak for themselves. (Following the completion of Schindler, Spielberg would devote three years to establishing the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation). Or, as cartoonist Art Spiegelman would do, one could allegorize a personal story of the Holocaust in graphic form. Instead, Spielberg offered something different, more mainstream and glossy perhaps, aimed at a wider audience. “For the masses of people who have not read Maus or seen Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour film,” writes Haskell with trademark grace and generosity, “for all of us, there is room for a more accessible telling of the story, and Spielberg has found it honorably.”
Arguably the most valiant achievement of Haskell’s Spielberg is that, without too much coaxing, she manages to convince her readers, myself among them, to return to the individual films and to reappraise them on their own terms. Like Haskell, I’ve never been a major fan of Spielberg. I often find his movies too efficient, too epic, and somehow too easy. But I was inspired to go back and watch his earliest pictures, including Duel and Sugarland Express, both road movies from the 1970s. Duel especially stands out for me, a low-rent portrait of a salesman driving through the desert as he’s terrorized by a deranged, homicidal trucker. Although it may be his least known work, the movie’s raw psychological intensity anticipates contemporary existential road sagas like Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1972), and harbors muted affinities with Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway (1949). In the case of Sugarland, he worked with ace Hungarian cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond, who captures the Texas landscape and the figures that populate it with the sharp eye of an outsider.
Even if she may not like all of Spielberg’s films equally well—she may never develop a soft spot for some of his boyish sci-fi flicks (and nor may I, for that matter)—Haskell does not hold back her praise or her trenchant, frequently illuminating criticism. “Rather than bury those shaming moments of childhood vulnerability, as most of us do,” she observes early on, “he nourished their memory, translated them into bold cinematic images, and projected them onto a terrified audience ... So powerful was the urge—and so successful the exorcism—that as a director he would aim for nothing less than whole theaters full of spectators biting their nails, or blissed out with shock and awe at the close encounters of the paranormal.” In the end, he may well be the one director who, as she puts it, “has given more pleasure to more people than any other filmmaker in history,” even as he himself has endured the nagging fears to do it.