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Spielberg: The Inner Lives of a Genius

Steven Spielberg and Henry Thomas on the set of E.T., 1982
Universal/Everett Collection
Steven Spielberg and Henry Thomas on the set of E.T., 1982

The short biography of Steven Spielberg that Molly Haskell has written for Yale’s Jewish Lives series is subtitled A Life in Films for reasons that soon become clear. Where else finally but in his films would you look for the intimate reality of this curiously enigmatic figure, a man who in the midst of his worldwide fame manages to hide in plain sight? The Spielberg who has surfaced in videotaped interviews or televised awards ceremonies wears the mask of the regular forthright guy, good-humored, matter-of-fact, self-deprecating where appropriate. This affable public persona seems designed to deflect attention from whatever might lie in back of it, the force that roams and shapes the domains from which his films emerge.

There are filmmakers whose lives have been adventures in themselves (Simon Callow has needed three volumes to tell Orson Welles’s story, and isn’t done yet), others with careers battered in complicated ways by the turmoil of war and politics or by the explosions of their own domestic lives. In Spielberg’s case there is little in the way of flamboyant or traumatic public episodes for a writer to catch hold of—he is not an agent of chaos—and the private life has been well guarded by a man wary of revealing too much of himself. (He does not, for instance, give interviews to biographers.) This is after all someone whose own mother—herself described as a nonconformist—would say of him: “The conventional always appealed to Steven.”

From the outside he can seem as much institution as individual, and it is a daunting institution. His résumé encompasses, beyond the thirty feature films to date that he directed himself (including three that enjoyed, in turn, the status of all-time top grosser), many more on which he served as producer. For a decade, before DreamWorks was sold to Viacom, he was a mogul with his own studio. As if with the left hand he has branched out into television production and the development of video games. A prominent supporter of liberal and humanitarian causes, he channeled the profits from Schindler’s List toward the establishment of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

In short, with a name comparable only to Disney as an entertainment industry brand, he is something of an anthology of superlatives—the richest, most famous, most precociously successful, and, for some, the most gifted of filmmakers—a walking lifetime achievement award. As Haskell notes at the outset, a tally has shown that the two names most often cited in Academy Awards thank-you speeches are Spielberg and God, with Spielberg leading God by a considerable margin. For others the very scale and pervasiveness of his success makes him a predictable object of skepticism if not mistrust.

Haskell acknowledges her own early resistance to the spirit of Spielberg’s films:

I had never been an ardent fan…. 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 movies in the first place. His great subjects—children, adolescents—and genres—science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure—were stay-away zones for me.

She emphasizes his “rarely if ever featuring an interesting complex woman at the fore or even an adult sexual relationship”—although she is careful to note that this hardly makes him singular among his generation of male film directors.

Her resistance gives all the more credibility to her nuanced and often deeply sympathetic accounts of his films. She is alert, for instance, to the intensity of the erotic energy that, however rarely, comes to the surface, whether in the kiss exchanged by two women in The Color Purple (which “may be the most sensual scene in all of Spielberg”) or the scene (the saving grace of Always) where Holly Hunter dances accompanied by Richard Dreyfuss as the unseen ghost of her lover. In what is on screen Haskell discerns the essential matter of a life story that might otherwise be reduced to the most fragmentary evidence: some childhood anecdotes, a good number of tales (some undoubtedly apocryphal) about how he got into the movie business, the vagaries of his marital and professional life as far as they can be gleaned from the public press (a couple of marriages, an expensive divorce, many children, an assortment of business deals and lawsuits and hobbies and residences), the usual more or less reliable bits of scattered rumor and recollection.

Much surmise has to go into filling out a portrait of the man. One thinks of the shot in Citizen Kane of the partly obscured view through a fence of the aging and secluded Kane, captured by an intruding news photographer. Not that, for all his extraordinary wealth and influence, there seems to be anything especially Kane-like about Spielberg—he is too much the family man to be likened to Welles’s isolated plutocrat—even if he did manage to acquire the Rosebud sled for his private collection, and even if Haskell does suggest that in recent years he has become “more and more withdrawn and secretive, even paranoid,” and, after some disturbing threats and stalker incidents, “extremely security conscious.”

For Haskell, the crucial starting point is a reckoning with Spielberg’s childhood fears. Born in Cincinnati in 1946 but moving at an early age to Camden, New Jersey, where his father worked in the emerging field of transistor technology, young Steven was from an early age a chronic nail-biter, consumed by anxieties set off by everything from Disney’s Pinocchio to the storm-whipped maple tree waving outside his window. He knelt with his face against the television set, listening to voices he heard calling to him amid the static.

His father’s workaholic tendencies meant that Spielberg was raised essentially among women, his artistically inclined mother Leah (“more coconspirator than parent,” in Spielberg’s words) and his three sisters. In Haskell’s account the restless and fearful boy turned at times into a mischievous, borderline sadistic prankster, locking his sisters in closets and terrifying them with a plastic skull. (Later he would pelt the guests at his bar mitzvah with oranges from a rooftop.)

None of this amounts outwardly to extreme drama. A reconstruction of the secret lives of the children of the 1950s would yield a myriad of such pictures. How many children were not at some point terrified by storms or gnarled trees, especially children exposed to the influence of such a terrifying film as Pinocchio, a work easily as unsettling as Jaws? The small-scale juvenile cruelties of suburban life likewise would make for an endless chronicle. Those voices in the television set—later replicated, along with the scary tree, in Poltergeist (1982)—are more suggestive. The sense of being addressed directly by unknown entities might offer some clue to the air of certainty that marks every early step of his career and that serves as a counterweight to all that unappeasably restless nervous energy that he has admitted as an ongoing impetus: “Yes, I’ve always had shpilkes. I have it now. I had it then. It is my fuel, basically.”

From a certain angle one can see Spielberg as one of those archetypal children of the mythic suburbs, cheery on the outside and nervewracked on the inside, a myth on which his own films have worked variations time and again. So much of his early trajectory feels so generic: “his mind was permanently blown” by Destination Moon; he watched Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier; he developed an obsessive interest in dinosaurs; he joined the Boy Scouts. He can be seen as the awkward haunted child observing the adults around him while inwardly keeping his distance from them and the history they bring with them. They include his Odessa-born maternal grandfather, a gregarious singer and storyteller who was also a strictly observant Orthodox Jew; his father, an army veteran deeply involved in the work that gave him an inside view of world-changing developments in computer science; his mother, “the anything-goes mom, the fairy godmother, who grants her son his every wish,” who would shock more conventional neighbors and eventually leave her husband for another man.

His parents’ divorce took years of increasingly vociferous domestic argument before coming to a head in his last year of high school. The split was evidently momentous for him, both by Spielberg’s accounts and by the evidence of his movies with their recurrent theme of broken families. Haskell reads much of his work as a symbolic coming to terms with a parental drama that for a long time he misunderstood, wrongly blaming his father for the marriage’s collapse.

The young Spielberg seems a picture of an unsettled personality darting about internally in search of its own borders. He was a brilliant child whose intellectual curiosity did not motivate him to be more than a desultory student; a nerd who shunned athletics and the outdoor life yet found his greatest social fulfillment in the Boy Scouts; a Jewish kid uncomfortable with his identity, fantasizing about the communal joys of Christmas. He yearned, apparently, for the mainstream American life evoked by the paintings of Norman Rockwell (of whom Spielberg would become a major collector) and from which his Jewish identity seemed to exclude him. “Being a Jew meant that I was not normal,” he would explain, “I was not like everybody else. I just wanted to be accepted. Not for who I was. I wanted to be accepted for who everybody else was.”

The sense of a barrier was heightened by the communities in which he found himself living—especially after his family moved to Arizona when he was nine, to a suburb on the edge of the desert, an environment of (in Spielberg’s words) “kitchen windows facing kitchen windows facing kitchen windows,” precisely analogous to the freshly built development so thoroughly devastated by the angry dead at the climax of Poltergeist (a film, written and produced but not, at least officially, directed by Spielberg, that as Haskell notes serves as a repository for some of his darkest fantasies).

Not long after the move to Arizona his father gave him an 8-millimeter movie camera, and a life still nebulous came abruptly into focus. At first he took over responsibility for filming the family’s vacations, complete with retakes and carefully elaborated setups, and discovered that “staging real life was so much more fun than just recording it.” By the age of twelve his ambition as a filmmaker was fully formulated, and with it the conscious construction of his own legend. Filmmaking defined his social life, reinforcing his ties with his fellow Boy Scouts and classmates, as he roped everyone in his circle (including of course his parents) into increasingly complex projects.

The intensity of this precocious professionalism prefigures the relentless energy of his subsequent career. One gets the impression that he did not so much express his personality by means of filmmaking as construct his personality through the very act of filming. Not just filming: he was already aware of the ancillary requirements of exhibiting and marketing and even market research. (He would screen movies and then quiz the spectators about their reactions.) At seventeen, still in high school, he wrote, directed, and exhibited a feature-length movie—a UFO story prefiguring Close Encounters of the Third Kind—at a movie theater in Phoenix. After what seem to have been some very casual studies at California State College in Long Beach, he made his way rapidly as a director.

This was in the mid-1960s, but for Spielberg there were no lost years of self-searching, no eccentric vagabondage, no inclination for the psychotropic indulgences of his contemporaries. At twenty he already had a precise sense of the kind of filmmaker he would be, telling a student journalist: “I don’t want to make films like Antonioni or Fellini. I don’t want just the elite. I want everybody to enjoy my films.” Art house fare had never been his thing. His primal movie experience in childhood was Cecil B. DeMille’s all-star Technicolor circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth, and the title alone may have given him a clue to what he wanted to offer his audience. He has said that his first venture into filmmaking was an attempt to replicate DeMille’s train wreck sequence with his Lionel train set.

The deepest stratum of Spielberg’s work was being formed: filmmaking as preservation of childhood, a means of ensuring that the enchanted world of rocket ships and dinosaurs and toy trains could endure in a perpetually habitable parallel life—analogous perhaps to the post-human existence of the androids in A.I. If Spielberg’s childhood and early youth occupy so much of his biographer’s attention, it is because they are never quite done with; as Haskell moves through his career film by film, she constantly draws attention to the ineradicable uncertainties from those years that persist even in works whose ostensible subjects are far removed from his own circumstances. (“E.T. assembling a phone,” she writes, “is the amateur son’s playful rebuke to the engineer father,” while in Schindler’s List “the stories his grandparents had told were finally connecting in a painful, visceral way.”) She argues for Spielberg being, obliquely but profoundly, a most autobiographical filmmaker, marked by “his compulsion to insert versions of his own family drama into the more ritualized conventions of genres where family ordinarily took a back seat.”

Indeed, given the early age at which he absorbed the techniques of filmmaking, it’s as if those techniques became themselves a tangible continuation of childhood, a way to stay directly in contact with a certain rapt pleasure. Technical problems are never just technical; the result is the peculiar sense of intimacy he can impart even when filming—as he has so often done—the equivalent of a train wreck. In his later films, as he has moved beyond train wrecks into the larger catastrophes of history, the intimacy is still there, imbued now with a terrifying vulnerability. His reenactments of storm trooper raids or the slave trade, or, in Empire of the Sun, the wartime chaos in which a boy is separated from his parents—these scenes of ultimate dispossession—were all the more brutal in effect for being filmed as excitingly as the action highlights of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, as if one had been lured into an amusement park in order to be initiated into hitherto unrevealed horrors.

He made his transition into professional filmmaking with the help of Amblin’, an extremely low-budget twenty-five-minute short imbued with hippie-ish late-1960s imagery of hitchhiking and pot-smoking far removed from Spielberg’s own way of life. It is a slight but undeniably proficient piece of work, and in short order he was put under contract as a television director at Universal. A year later he was directing Joan Crawford in an hour-long episode of Night Gallery, after Bette Davis walked out rather than take direction from someone so young. In a production still reproduced in the book, the twenty-two-year-old director, a viewfinder dangling from his neck, stands slightly hunched in front of the seated Crawford, his gaze fixed on the star as if she were some slightly forbidding foreign material he must find a way to work with. The poise and unwavering focus of his stance give him the air of a dancer—or perhaps of a seabird preparing to swoop.

Spielberg might have restricted himself to being the director who defined a new era of popular filmmaking with Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982). He was typed early on as the master of cinematic roller-coaster rides—his first feature, Duel (1971), with its nearly abstract depiction of a hapless commuter stalked by a murderous truck, was already a flawless demonstration of action reduced to its purest, almost wordless terms—and then, with the triumphs of Close Encounters and E.T., of cosmic mystery and childhood wonder. He has not hesitated to build on the success of earlier films, with multiple sequels in the Indiana Jones series (a fifth entry is in the works) and a follow-up to his 1993 dinosaur extravaganza Jurassic Park.

More pronounced, though, has been the energy with which, beginning with The Color Purple in 1985, he has pushed in other directions, in the impressive array of films as ambitious and varied as Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Terminal (2004), Munich (2005), Lincoln (2012), and Bridge of Spies (2015). However public the themes, there is nothing impersonal about these films. He remains the same filmmaker regardless of genre. His early admirer Pauline Kael was effusive in praise of The Sugarland Express (1974), suggesting that Spielberg might be “that rarity among directors—a born entertainer” truly endowed with “movie sense”—but worrying that “he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else.” Kael later decided that in taking on conventionally humanistic themes Spielberg had betrayed his gifts and become a bad director.

If you wanted evidence that Spielberg had nothing to say, you could turn to his follow-up to Close Encounters, the excruciating epic slapstick comedy 1941 (1979) set in L.A. just after Pearl Harbor, a demonstration of technical mastery dedicated to creating a live-action cartoon on a Wagnerian scale, demoniacally efficient and utterly dispiriting, an ode to the void. 1941 is founded on an aesthetic of total assault. There is no breathing room for the spectator, no escape from the next heavy object falling from its mooring: a fighter plane crash-landing on Hollywood Boulevard; an unanchored ferris wheel rolling off a pier. In this Spielberg is a true child of the 1950s, the age of CinemaScope and 3-D, of flying saucers and atomic monsters and marauding Vikings and anything else calculated to amaze the audience with something they had never seen before. For the children of that time, if not necessarily for their more skeptical elders, the big-screen attractions had the authoritative presence of Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon: everything was brighter, gaudier, louder, more passionate, realer than real.

Spielberg is the child who has fully understood the power of that screen and seized control of it, acquiring daunting gifts: to reconfigure fantasy life and rewrite history, not just for himself but for everyone. At some point, however, the rapture of the boy playing with his toys is interrupted by a disturbing sense of the horrors and dangers in which even these games are implicated. In his grand historical set pieces—the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in Empire of the Sun, the emptying of the Kraków ghetto in Schindler’s List, the slave mutiny in Amistad, the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan—he takes it upon himself to surpass those earlier epic spectacles by achieving something not only more lifelike but more truthful. The fine points of the truth of any of these depictions can be and has been argued endlessly; but if Spielberg is not a historian he should be acknowledged as an extraordinary and quite conscientious history painter.

It is not surprising that he should have moved in this direction. He has shown a particular gift for clarifying the essential form of complex action, notably in the tumult of crowds, from the panicked beachgoers of Jaws through the violently dispossessed of Shanghai and Kraków and the invaders of Omaha Beach: one could string all those scenes of mass movement into an endless diorama of humans packed together, flung against each other, clustering together to gaze at a public spectacle, looking for a way out, pressing forward in attack, attempting to scatter in flight, driven to destruction.

He has often been accused of sentimentality, of allowing the swelling orchestral accents of John Williams’s music to sweep away every other consideration, and there is no doubt that he shares a talent for the emotional climax with the classic Hollywood directors he so much admires. That talent is coupled, however, with an analytical precision that has come increasingly to the fore. The analysis may be precisely of the implications of the persuasive force of his own film language. The dramatic emotions he evokes with such force play out within resilient rational structures diagrammed with detached precision, whether the futuristic cyberpolice operations of Minority Report or the businesslike subterranean networks of terrorists and intelligence agents in Munich or the immense military machine set in motion in the World War I saga War Horse. Even the warmer comic touches of The Terminal are offset by the hierarchical labyrinth of the airport where almost the whole film takes place, with its bureaucratic barriers and banks of spy cameras.

The determination of Spielberg’s protagonists to resist or break free leads to seeming victories that stir the emotions—the exile Tom Hanks finally makes it out of the airport, the boy in War Horse finds his way back to his village, the Mossad agent in Munich is reunited with his family—but the eyes continue to look clearly at what is going on, and to register with dry clarity an awareness of unresolved contradictions and decidedly mixed outcomes. The surges of feeling no matter how expertly elicited do not erase the world.

That analysis of systems draws him to themes of linguistic incomprehension, between species in Close Encounters and E.T., between nations in Amistad and The Terminal. The mechanisms of law and negotiation become dominant subjects of Amistad and Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Always the emphasis is on how to effect a translation between mutually incompatible discourses, a translation that may be only partial or tentative, forgivably so if it serves its purpose, bridges the gap, achieves the transfer.

In Amistad, Anthony Hopkins as the aging John Quincy Adams remarks: “In a courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins.” This is not a matter of falling back on easy resolutions, but of pragmatically seeking out the argument or configuration that can prevail, at least tentatively or in part, over forces of destruction. Mastery of technique, even the technique of deception, might prove an indispensable weapon. Catch Me If You Can—perhaps the most blatantly personal of Spielberg’s films—hinges crucially on a con man’s forgery. It is after all the expert forger who is most qualified to detect falsification.