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…

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