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Film Appreciation... Steven Spielberg


Steven Spielberg is arguably the most successful director in the history of film making. "Jaws"; (1975), " Close Encounters of The Third Kind"; (1977), "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; (1981) and its two sequels, "E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial" (1982), "Jurassic Park"; (1993), and "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" (1997), are some of the most financially successful films of all time. Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), "Empire of the Sun"; (1987), "Schindler's List"; (1993), and "Amistad"; all have achieved tremendous critical recognition and collected a ton of money in the process. In addition to making him one of the wealthiest men in film history (for a period of two weeks in 1983, when "E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial" and "Poltergeist"; were in release, he was making over $1 million a day in personal profits), but he is also one of the most powerful. Who else in Hollywood has enough clout to get a film like "Schindler's List" made when every one - including you admits that the film will undoubtedly not make money. And who else but Spielberg could not only turn the film into a money making venture but also win a best picture and best director Oscar for his troubles.

Spielberg spent most of his formative life in Scottsdale, Arizona before he moved to California following his parents divorce. As a child he spent most of his time watching television and making his own 8mm movies. Unfortunately young Steven's passion for these two things had an effect on his grades, as a consequence he was unable to gain admission to the University of Southern California's film school. As a result of this he ended up taking film classes at California State College. When he was 21 he produced a short film on a small budget, "Amblin"; (1969), which earned him a seven year contract with Universal, making him the youngest director ever signed by a major Hollywood studio.

His first jobs at Universal consisted of directing numerous episodes for television. He initally directed Joan Crawford in a TV movie and then went on to a full length episode of Columbo and the made-for-TV movie "Duel"; (1971), which was so well done that it reached movie screen. This was followed by "The Sugarland Express"; (1974), which starred Goldie Hawn as a young mother on the run and which brought him to the attention of numerous film critics. Even at this early stage it was apparent that Spielberg was destined to become a directorial presence. The noted film critic Pauline Kael hailed the film as "the most phenomenal directorial debut in the history of the movies." This may well have been an overstatement (lest we forget "Citizen Kane"), but the film was an extraordinary debut for such a young film maker.

Never one to rest on his laurels, before "Sugarland Express" had even appeared in theaters Spielberg was already hard at work on his next film, "Jaws" (1975). By now the success of "Jaws" is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Despite a continued lack of critical acclaim and recognition from his peers (the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences consistently refused to recognize his films with an Oscar for anything other than technical awards), he continued to turn out blockbuster after blockbuster. Audiences it seems, do not pay attention to either members of the academy or film critics, and they continued to find Spielberg's films exceptionally enchanting. And one need only look at box office returns for his later films to determine that Spielberg's brand of sentimentality has resonated with contemporary audiences. Indeed Spielberg films - like those of the legendary Frank Cappra - make a bee-line to the heart, a place that contemporary directors often forget to take their audiences.

So what is it that makes him so successful? Maybe it is because he has somehow managed to keep the child alive inside of him. His approach is so open, direct and honest that he disarms his audiences completely. His film's characters have the same Cappraesque qualities that were often found during the Golden Age of Hollywood. No where is that more obvious than in the actors he uses in his films, Roy Schieder, Richard Dreyfuss and even Harrison Ford are more reminiscent of the Spencer Tracy - Jimmy Stewart mold than that of the Robert Redford - Arnold Schwartzenegger actor that typically appear in contemporary films. Ultimately perhaps the best explanation for his success has come from the director himself. Spielberg has always said that he makes the kind of films that he would want to see as a member of the audience. Maybe this is something more directors should consider doing.


1999 Debbie Twyman. All rights reserved. TERMS OF USE