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Steven Spielberg: A Biography - Joseph McBride
Member Name: Jake Speed
Steven Spielberg: A Biography - Joseph McBride
Advantages: Well written, film stuff is good
Disadvantages: Takes a few pages to get into
Steven Spielberg: A Biography was written by Joseph McBride and first published in 1993 before being updated in 2011. Spielberg is the most famous film director in the world but always seems like a slightly vague character in real life (Woody Allen, for example, is notoriously private but I feel like I've heard Allen talk about his own life and work far more than Spielberg) so makes an interesting subject for a biography I think. He was the youngest director to ever be given a contract by a major studio and is responsible for some of the highest grossing films of all time (Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park). As he got older, Spielberg started to make more dramatic films like Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Schindler's List (which finally won him an elusive Oscar), Munich, and Amistad. But is he taken seriously as an artist? Schindler's List aside, his "serious" films have not been greeted with universal praise and certain critics it seems will always look down their nose at him. The author tells that writing about Spielberg's character and work is no easy task because he's like a one man studio (he is both a director and a producer) and exceptionally powerful in Hollywood. Some people in the film industry who have worked with him are understandably reluctant to discuss the director out of loyalty and (I suppose) fear of scuppering their future employment prospects. The author tells us that although Spielberg declined to be interviewed, the biographer was deemed to be kosher and so managed to get a decent amount of sources from which to frame his book. His main solution to the Spielberg puzzle though was to talk to people who knew the director when he was growing up. He asserts that personality is formed in childhood and formative years are the key to understanding someone. So nearly half of the biography is taken up by Spielberg's childhood and early years and while I usually find the start of biographies deadly dull and yearn to skip forward the early years of Spielberg are surprisingly engrossing and provide a plausible explanation for the core themes that would feature in his films.
Spielberg's parents did not have a happy marriage (they split up when he was around college age) and his father was often absent. The family moved around a lot so Spielberg always felt like an outsider and he also experienced anti-Semitism. Many of Spielberg's films feature men who are detached from their family or children who have an absent father or no father at all. His outsider perspective was responsible for his early penchant for making films from the perspective of a lonely child (most famously E.T). He also used this device to generate a sense of wonder and try to make the audience feel like children again too. His father was an electrical engineer and worked on computers (obviously computers were very different back then) and so it was this that gave Spielberg his love of technology and gadgets and access to a Super 8 camera when he was eight years old. He would make Westerns with it and cast his friends in his amateur films. McBride says Spielberg's grades were not good enough for the best universities but it didn't really matter that he did a lesser film course. His talent was always very apparent from the amateur films he shot himself. One thing I found interesting here was that the author debunks the story about Spielberg just sneaking in uninvited at Universal Studios and moving into an empty office he found. The truth was far less brazen and far more prosaic. Spielberg's father used his influence to get him a job as an editor at Universal and once he had his feet under the table (so to speak) it was obvious that he was remarkably talented for his age. If anything, we gather that Spielberg was regarded to be something of a freak. This geeky young twentysomething directing no lesser figure than Joan Crawford in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery for the studio. It was certainly unusual for someone so young to be in such a position.
The main appeal of the book though I think is when we move into Spielberg's film career and his astonishing rise in the mid to late seventies. He put himself on the map with the television film Duel and his first theatrical feature Sugarland Express but it was of course Jaws in 1975 that made Spielberg a hot ticket and in a position to do anything he wanted to. I love reading about Jaws and McBride is very good when it comes to the film stuff. Much better than someone like John Baxter for example. Jaws was an adaptation of a potboiler thriller novel by Peter Benchley and wasn't really expected to be the huge success that it became. The shoot was incredibly troubled and went over schedule and over budget - mostly because the mechanical shark they were given kept conking out and frequently proved to be useless. Spielberg took to calling the mechanical contraption "the giant turd" during the aquatic sequences and had his hands full trying to get any footage at all that looked good. It was remarkable really that with all these problems and his tender age he managed to deliver one of the greatest films ever made. One thing you do gather from the biography is how savvy the young Spielberg was in declining to direct the sequel to Jaws (despite great pressure from the studio) and deciding to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind instead. He's not even thirty and he has two of the biggest grossing films of all time on his CV. It seems fairly obvious in hindsight but it's interesting to read how the actor Richard Dreyfuss was his alter ego and essentially played Spielberg in both Jaws and Close Encounters. This is like the golden age of Spielberg. When his overblown World War 2 comedy 1941 is a box-office dud and critical misfire he makes Raiders of the Lost Ark with George Lucas super-fast on a low-budget and redeems himself instantly. Then he turns his proposed sci-fi horror film Dark Skies (it was going to be about aliens who terrorise a family at a remote farmhouse) into the family friendly E.T.
The author suggests that Spielberg was a victim of his own success. When E.T made $400,000,000 it gave him four of the biggest blockbusters ever made but he was seen as a commercial lightweight filmmaker who was technically brilliant but had no real depth. Unfair of course as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws are two of the best films ever made (and better I think than any of his "serious" films, all of which I can take or leave) but it meant that critics struggled to take him seriously when he tried to mature and make more dramatic films. McBride mounts a impassioned defence of The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun as underrated films although he is not always too keen on the later work. The author is a little pretentious now and again ("The film focuses constantly on issues of communication, another key Spielberg theme; in place of the musical tones in Close Encounters that enable the extraterrestrial visitors to communicate with earthlings, the visitors from another continent in Amistad manage to make a human connection once their insular American sympathizers finally take the trouble to learn their language...") but I enjoyed being taken through these pictures in forensic detail. I was a trifle surprised though that he critiques the violence in the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park. These films are essentially comic book and fairly harmless I think. The section on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which the author loathes) is fascinating because the film was made during a period when Spielberg and Lucas were going through divorces and both in a foul depressed mood. The surprisingly dark tone of the film (the infamous heart plucking scene and other delights inspired the PG-13 MPAA rating in the United States) was a direct result of their mood.
There is far too much to mention in a review but if you like reading about films you'll find much of interest (and it's a big book too at over 400 pages). The author gives The Lost World a (probably deserved) kicking but is surprisingly kind to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a film absolutely despised by fanboys). Other things I found interesting? The section on the ill-fated 1983 big screen Twilight Zone film where Spielberg and three other directors each directed a different segment. The film is most famous for a horrific helicopter accident on the set which killed actor Vic Morrow and two (illegally hired) child actors during the shooting of the John Landis contribution. The tragic event led to a ten year manslaughter case. The strange thing is though, that despite being the producer, Spielberg was not required to appear in court once despite many people from the film being called to testify. The author says it is a perfect illustration of how Spielberg has manage to insulate himself and keep the press at a distance. The other notable topic here I think is Schindler's List, Spielberg's acclaimed Holocaust drama. He actually got the rights in 1982 but it took him ten years to summon up the courage to tackle the film. The author says that a big part of him doing it was that he had completely embraced his Jewishness when he got older. When Spielberg was growing up he was awkward about his Jewish heritage and family when he had his WASP friends round the house and it made him feel different and even more of an outsider. Steven Spielberg: A Biography is an interesting and well written read if you are interested in films and filmmakers and certainly worth a look. Just remember to buy the second edition so you get the up to date version.
Summary: Decent read
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