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Steven Spielberg
1946 -


No director or producer has ever put together a more popular body of work. That's why the movies we're now seeing are made in his image

By ROGER EBERT for Time Magazine


Steven Spielberg's first films were made at a time when directors were the most important people in Hollywood, and his more recent ones at a time when marketing controls the industry. That he has remained the most powerful filmmaker in the world during both periods says something for his talent and his flexibility. No one else has put together a more popular body of work, yet within the entertainer there is also an artist capable of The Colour Purple and Schindler's List. When entertainer and artist came fully together, the result was E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, a remarkable fusion of mass appeal and stylistic mastery.

Spielberg's most important contribution to modern movies is his insight that there was an enormous audience to be created if old-style B-movie stories were made with A-level craftsmanship and enhanced with the latest developments in special effects. Consider such titles as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Jurassic Park. Look also at the films he produced but didn't direct, like the Back to the Future series, Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Twister. The story lines were the stuff of Saturday serials, but the filmmaking was cutting edge and delivered what films have always promised: they showed us something amazing that we hadn't seen before.

Directors talk about their master images, the images that occur in more than one film because they express something fundamental about the way the filmmakers see things. Spielberg once told me that his master image was the light flooding in through the doorway in Close Encounters, suggesting, simultaneously, a brightness and mystery outside. This strong backlighting turns up in many of his other films: the aliens walk out of light in Close Encounters, E.T.'s spaceship door is filled with light, and Indy Jones often uses strong beams from powerful flashlights.

In Spielberg, the light source conceals mystery, whereas for many other directors it is darkness that conceals mystery. The difference is that for Spielberg, mystery offers promise instead of threat. That orientation apparently developed when he was growing up in Phoenix, Ariz. One day we sat and talked about his childhood, and he told me of a formative experience. "My dad took me out to see a meteor shower when I was a little kid," he said, "and it was scary for me because he woke me up in the middle of the night. My heart was beating; I didn't know what he wanted to do. He wouldn't tell me, and he put me in the car and we went off, and I saw all these people lying on blankets, looking up at the sky. And my dad spread out a blanket. We lay down and looked at the sky, and I saw for the first time all these meteors. What scared me was being awakened in the middle of the night and taken somewhere without being told where. But what didn't scare me, but was very soothing, was watching this cosmic meteor shower. And I think from that moment on, I never looked at the sky and thought it was a bad place."

There are two important elements there: the sense of wonder and hope, and the identification with a child's point of view. Spielberg's best characters are like elaborations of the heroes from old Boy's Life serials, plucky kids who aren't afraid to get in over their head. Even Oskar Schindler has something of that in his makeup — the boy's delight in pulling off a daring scheme and getting away with it.

Spielberg heroes don't often find themselves in complex emotional entanglements (Celie in The Colour Purple is an exception). One of his rare failures was Always, with its story of a ghost watching his girl fall in love with another man. The typical Spielberg hero is drawn to discovery, and the key shot in many of his films is the revelation of the wonder he has discovered. Remember the spellbinding first glimpse of the living dinosaurs in Jurassic Park?

Spielberg's first important theatrical film was The Sugarland Express, made in 1974, a time when gifted amateurs like Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, De Palma and Malick ruled Hollywood. Their god was Orson Welles, who made the masterpiece Citizen Kane entirely without studio interference, and they too wanted to make the Great American Movie. But a year later, with Jaws, Spielberg changed the course of modern Hollywood history. Jaws was a hit of vast proportions, inspiring executives to go for the home run instead of the base hit. And it came out in the summer, a season the major studios had generally ceded to cheaper exploitation films. Within a few years, the Jaws model would inspire an industry in which budgets ran wild because the rewards seemed limitless, in which summer action pictures dominated the industry and in which the hottest young directors wanted to make the Great American Blockbuster.

Spielberg can't be blamed for that seismic shift in the industry. Jaws only happened to inaugurate it. If the shark had sunk for good (as it threatened to during the troubled filming), another picture would have ushered in the age of the movie best sellers — maybe Star Wars, in 1977. And no one is more aware than Spielberg of his own weaknesses. When I asked him once to make the case against his films, he grinned and started the list: "They say, 'Oh, he cuts too fast; his edits are too quick; he uses wide-angle lenses; he doesn't photograph women very well; he's tricky; he likes to dig a hole in the ground and put the camera in the hole and shoot up at people; he's too gimmicky; he's more in love with the camera than he is with the story.'"

All true. But you could make a longer list of his strengths, including his direct line to our subconscious. Spielberg has always maintained obsessive quality control, and when his films work, they work on every level that a film can reach. I remember seeing E.T. at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played before the most sophisticated filmgoers in the world and reduced them to tears and cheers.

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 best films he tapped into dreams fashioned by our better natures.


The most commercially successful filmmaker in Hollywood history, Steven Spielberg was born December 18, 1946, in Cincinnati, OH. A lifelong cinema buff, he began directing his first short movies while still a child, later studying film at California State University and winning notice for his 1969 short feature Amblin'. He first made his mark in television, directing Joan Crawford in the pilot for Rod Serling's Night Gallery and working on episodes of Columbo and Marcus Welby, M.D. Spielberg's first feature-length effort, 1971's Duel, a taut thriller starring Dennis Weaver, was widely acclaimed as one of the best movies ever made for television. The film proved so successful on the small screen, in fact, that it later was the recipient of theatrical distribution throughout Europe, where it proved to be a major box-office hit.

Spielberg permanently graduated to feature films with 1974's The Sugarland Express, but it was his next effort, Jaws, which truly cemented his reputation as a rising star. The most successful film of 1975, this tale of a man-eating Great White shark was widely recognized as the picture which established the summer months as the film industry's most lucrative period of the year, heralding a move toward big-budget blockbusters which culminated two years later with his friend George Lucas' Star Wars. Spielberg's follow-up, 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was another staggering success, employing state-of-the-art special effects to document its story of contact with alien life.

With the 1979 slapstick-war comedy 1941, Spielberg made his first major misstep, as the star-studded picture performed miserably at the box office. However, he swiftly regained his footing with 1980's Raiders of the Lost Ark, a homage to the serial cliffhangers of yesteryear. Produced by Lucas, the film was one of the biggest hits of the decade, later launching a pair of sequels as well as a short-lived television series. However, it was Spielberg's next effort which truly asserted his position as the era's most popular filmmaker: 1982's E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the touching tale of a boy who befriends an alien, was hailed upon release as an instant classic, ultimately becoming one of the most commercially successful movies of all time.

After 1984's Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg went against type to direct The Colour Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker's much-honoured novel exploring the lives and struggles of a group of African-American women during the Depression years. The film went on to gross over $100 million at the box office, later securing 11 Academy Award nominations. On Oscar night, however, it won nothing, a shut-out widely attributed to industry resentment over Spielberg's staggering success. A 1987 dramatization of J.G. Ballard's novel Empire of the Sun was his next picture, and was one of his few box-office disappointments. A similar fate met the sentimental Always, a remake of the wartime weeper A Guy Named Joe, but Spielberg returned to form with 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

With 1991's 60-million-dollar production of Hook, Spielberg again fell victim to negative reviews and lackluster box-office returns, but in 1993 he returned with a vengeance with Jurassic Park, a special-effects extravaganza which ranked among the most aggressively marketed films of all time. The result was a global blockbuster of mammoth proportion, with receipts coming in at over one billion dollars. That same year, he released Schindler's List, an epic docudrama set during the Holocaust. Again, a number of Oscar nominations were forthcoming, but this time Spielberg was rewarded for his accomplishments -- the picture won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director honours.

As befitting his role as a major Hollywood player, Spielberg and his company, Amblin Entertainment, also produced a number of highly successful features, including 1982's Poltergeist, 1985's Back to the Future, and 1988's groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He also diversified into television, beginning in 1985 with the anthology series Amazing Stories and later supervising the animated series Tiny Toon Adventures and the underwater adventure Seaquest DSV. However, in the wake of Schindler's List, Spielberg's status as a power broker grew exponentially with the formation of Dreamworks SKG, a production company he headed along with former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen; consequently, Spielberg spent much of the mid-'90s behind the scenes, serving as executive producer on films such as Twister (1996), Men in Black (1997), and two 1998 films, Deep Impact and The Mask of Zorro. He returned to the director's chair with the 1997 smash The Lost World, the inevitable sequel to Jurassic Park. The same year, he was rewarded with several Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Amistad, a slavery epic for which he served as both director and producer. Whatever disappointment Spielberg may have felt over not actually winning any of the above awards was most likely mollified the following year with Saving Private Ryan. The World War II epic, which Spielberg both directed and produced, won international acclaim, garnering a staggering 11 Academy Award nominations. Eventually winning five, including Best Director, Best Cinematography (for Janusz Kaminski), and Best Editing (for Michael Kahn), the film lost out to Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture, a slight that was the subject of a heated feud between Dreamworks and Miramax, the company behind Shakespeare. Ryan did win a Golden Globe for Best Picture (in the Drama category), as well a Best Director nod for Spielberg.

After taking the helm for a short documentary chronicling American history for the milleninial New Years Eve celebration broadcast, Spielberg took another shot at summer blockbuster success with the sci-fi drama A.I.. Featuing Oscar nominated child actor Haley Joel Osment in the role of a robot boy who longs to be human, and adapted from an original idea from Stanley Kubrick, the high-concept film received a decidedly mixed reception at the box office. Though critics and audiences seemed intrigued by the ideas presented in the film and the collaboration between Kubrick and Spielberg, its unconventional pacing and execution ultimately prevented the polarizing film from becoming the classic that it may have had it been ever slightly more accessible. The following year, however, would find Spielberg once again coming out on top with two remarkably upbeat chase films. Adapted from a short story by revered science fiction author Phillip K. Dick and starring Tom Cruise as a the head of an elite "pre-crime division" of police officers who use a trio of psychics to predicts criminals' crimes so that they can be arrested before they have a chance to commit them, Minority Report proved an exhilarating sci-fi action epic that left audiences hungering for more. Arguably even more high concept that A.I. and undoubtedly better paced and executed, the film fared remarkably well among the heated summer box office competition. Hitting with a powerful one-two punch a mere six-months later, Spielberg's fast-paced crime adventure Catch Me If You Can adapted the real life exploits of legendary con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. to the big screen to the delight of audiences hungering for an entertaining and lightweight holiday release. With heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent who remains tirelessly on the trail of the elusive scammer, the film, combined with the success of Minority Report, swiftly proved that it would be some time before Spielberg gave up his reigns as a master blockbuster filmmaker.

2004 saw Spielberg team with Hanks yet again, this time for the lighthearted comedy The Terminal. Also starring Catherine Zeta Jones, the film centred on a man without a country who takes up residence in an American airport. The following year found the director diving back into the big-budget sci-fi genre with War of the Worlds. Starring Tom Cruise, the ambitious film was adapted from H.G. Wells classic alien-invasion novel of the same name. After this Hollywood juggernaut, Spielberg cinematically visited his Jewish heritage for the first time since Schindler's List with 2005's critically acclaimed Munich. Beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics at which 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and later murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, the film follows the small group of Mossad agents recruited to track down and assassinate those responsible. Praised for its sensitive and painful portrayal of ordinary men grappling with their new lives as killers, Munich earned Spielberg a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, reminding audiences and critics alike of the filmmaker's ability to go far beyond the realm of simple adventure and fantasy.

In 2006 he produced Clint Eastwood's two films about WWII, Flags of Our Fathers, about the American soldiers at Iwo Jima, and Red Sun, Black Sand, which takes a look at what life was like for men in the Japanese military.


Steven Spielberg (born 1946) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful movie-makers in Hollywood. The director of such elaborate fantasies as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial", he was regarded as a man who understood the pulse of America as it would like to see itself.

Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 18, 1946. He was the oldest of four children. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer who worked in what was then a newly emerging field: computers. His mother, Leah, had been a concert pianist. The only boy among his siblings, he was doted on by his mother and three sisters; therefore, it is not surprising that he grew up having his own way and feeling that he was the centre of the universe. Indulged throughout his childhood at home, he was not so treated at school where he displayed little enthusiasm for his studies and was rewarded with average grades at best.

Like many American families of the postwar years, the Spielbergs moved frequently. Spielberg's father was an executive and corporate promotions caused the family to move to Haddonfield, New Jersey; then to suburban Phoenix; and thereafter to the emerging bedroom communities of what would be known as "Silicon Valley" near San Jose, California. The original name of this region, "The Land of the Heart's Desire," provided an interesting counterpoint when one considers the sorts of movies that Spielberg would make, for it seems as though almost all of his films, even ones that he does not actually direct, were a combination of technical wizardry (highlighted by gadgets and toys) and wee-ripened sentimentality.

Learning to Use a Camera

The first film that Spielberg recalled seeing in a movie theatre was The Greatest Show on Earth, a spectacular 1952 circus epic directed by Cecil B. De Mille. Little Steven began shooting 8mm films with his family's home movie camera. He recorded camping trips and other such cinematic ephemera but soon grew dissatisfied with them. He began to film narrative movies, attempting to actually set up shots with different angles and primitive special effects. By the time he was 12 years old he actually filmed a movie from a script using a cast of actors. At age 13 he made "Escape to Nowhere," which lasted 40 minutes and was about a war. He grew increasingly ambitious and three years later filmed a feature-length science fiction movie which he entitled "Firelight." This movie was 140 minutes long and had a complex plot involving astronomers, eerie lights in the evening sky, and a rather violent encounter with some aliens.

At this point in his life Spielberg may have had cause to regret his, at best, lackadaisical efforts toward schoolwork. His poor grades in high school prevented him from entering the University of Southern California or U.C.L.A. He was accepted at the California State College at Long Beach, from which he was graduated in 1970 with a B.A. in English. In lieu of a film program, he went to the movies and saw every film that he could. He also cajoled his way past the guards at Universal Studios and watched major projects being filmed.

He continued to make films, though, and prepared a short subject, "Amblin'," which he later used at the 1969 Atlanta film festival. It also won an award at the Venice film festival, and got him a seven-year contract at the studio whose gates he used to crash - Universal. Studio executives had been so impressed with "Amblin'," a simple story about a boy and girl who hitchhike from the Mojave Desert to the ocean, that they released it with Love Story, a major hit of 1970.

Spielberg began his career as a professional by directing several episodes for television programs that were being shot at Universal. First among these was the pilot episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, which starred the legendary Hollywood star Joan Crawford. He went on to direct episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Owen Marshall, Columbo, The Psychiatrists, and The Name of the Game. The first "movie" that he directed professionally was a film made for television, Duel; it was released theatrically in Europe and Japan to rave reviews. Here in the United States it was generally regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made for television. It starred Dennis Weaver as a hapless suburbanite involved in a deadly battle of wits with an 18-wheeler. It was a variation on the "heart of darkness" theme, which showed how easily the smooth skin of civilization peeled off, revealing the human savage underneath.

Spielberg made two other movies for television, Something Eviland Savage. By that time he was being courted by every studio in Hollywood due to the phenomenal success of Duel. The made-for-television movie, which had cost only $350,000 to produce, grossed between $5,000,000 and $6,000,000 in its foreign releases. Spielberg was not overwhelmed, however, by the quality of the properties that he was offered and withdrew from the studio mainstream for a year in order to develop a project of his own.

Directing What He Wanted

What he came up with was The Sugarland Express, a drama about a gritty and determined, if somewhat dim, woman, played by Goldie Hawn, who browbeats her husband into breaking out of jail in order that they may kidnap their baby from its foster home. A spectacular car chase ensues after the couple steals a police cruiser. The film was a critical success but a commercial failure. Nonetheless, it led to the breakthrough film of Spielberg's career, the spectacularly successful Jaws (1974).

Even by this stage of his career, certain salient features had emerged. Jaws would spiral hopelessly over budget. There would be enormous technical difficulties, which Spielberg would overcome brilliantly, but at a staggering cost. The studio executives would later lament that they had a property which no one knew how to film. The haphazard approach and free and easy financing would be a hallmark of film making through the rest of the decade. Directors reigned supreme as several studios went into bankruptcy. Spielberg felt quite comfortable in this atmosphere wherein his every whim was dutifully responded to as though it were holy writ.

Despite bringing in Jaws at 100 percent over its $3,500,000 budget, Spielberg became Hollywood's anointed director of the moment when the film grossed over $60,000,000 in its first month. The film was as popular with critics as with the public. It was an unabashed triumph. Spielberg was now in a position to do whatever he wanted. He embarked on a film whose subject had obsessed him since his childhood.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was perhaps his most personal film. It dealt with the heroic efforts of average middle-Americans to make contact with visitors from another planet. For all of its staggering special effects, its power derived from its strongly human base, its exploration of what people will do when they find that they have the opportunity to make their dreams come true. Perhaps no other film of Spielberg's had come so close to capturing the wonder that he seems to be seeking in the medium that Orson Welles called "the ribbon of a dream."

The next film that he directed, 1941, was an overblown disaster. It was a case study in overdoing the "erector-set" approach to filmmaking. Despite the accusation of the most important film critic in America, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, that he was responsible for infantilizing American culture, Steven Spielberg was responsible both for many successful films of his own direction and for the creation of dozens of film projects. He helped to define the film of the post-studio era, in that he was one of the young directors responsible for the power of the director in our time.

The "Indiana Jones" trilogy (1981-1989), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and The Colour Purple (1985) exemplified Spielberg at his best and worst. The "Indiana Jones" pictures mixed a loving affection for old-time movie serials with a contemporary sensibility - one with an unfortunately high tolerance for excessive violence, however. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the second installment of the series, necessitated the creation of a new rating code, "PG-13," due to its gratuitous gore. E.T. (1982) swept the nation, and its catchphrase, "Phone home!" was heard around the world. Less successful was the reception of The Colour Purple. Spielberg was accused of patronizing African-Americans and prettifying rural Southern poverty. He attempted to defend himself by citing his fidelity to Alice Walker's novel, but this tack satisfied neither his film detractors nor the fans of the book.

Spielberg was a great favorite among his fellow directors, such as George Lucas and John Landis. He stood by the latter when he was implicated in the deaths of three cast members of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a film which Spielberg also worked on. In 1991 Spielberg directed a big-budget movie about Peter Pan, called Hook. As Spielberg continued to direct and produce he seemed to grow more and more powerful. The fact that he was never satisfactorily recognized by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences seemed less and less relevant. He was able to make any film that he wanted and seemed totally uninterested in courting the public or the critics. The tremendous wealth that he gained from making his films as he saw fit would seem to be his justification.

The subject of one of the longest and most intensive pre-release hypefests in film history, was the media blitz surrounding Spielberg's 1993 mega-hit Jurassic Park. The story centred around a present day theme park that featured genetically engineered dinosaurs as the main attraction. The movie was a box office and home theatre success. Spielberg released the sequel entitled The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997.

Perhaps the most poignant of Spielberg's movies was the black and white, critically-acclaimed Schindler's List. Released in late 1993, the movie was filmed in Poland, and was a lengthy, Holocaust drama. It was a fictionalized account of real life instances in which an amoral German businessman had a change of heart and saved the lives of thousands of Jews who worked in his factory. The movie brought respect to Spielberg as both a film maker and an individual. The picture won the 1993 Best Picture Academy Award and Spielberg won for Best Director.

Spielberg married actress Amy Irving in 1985. They had one son, Max, before a 1989 divorce. He later married actress Kate Capshaw, and they had five children.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008