King of The World
The awards don't flood in as the director makes his mark
STORY BY ANDREW COLLINS
After Raiders, Steven Spielberg could do no commercial wrong. So, he decided it was time to do a small, personal project. Called E.T.. King Midas of Hollywood was crowned, but all he really wanted was some respect.
Pointing the way: Spielberg with Henry Thomas on the set of E.T..
And the Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing goes to..." How those words must have haunted Steven Spielberg during the first 20 years of his movie career. If ever there was a director damned by the faint praise of the "technical" Oscar it was he.
Having promisingly won a best screenplay award for The Sugarland Express back in 1971 (admittedly at Cannes), Spielberg's films seemed thereafter to be partitioned off by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences: more science than arts. If, with Jaws, he really did invent the holiday blockbuster, this was something to be punished for, not garlanded.
In the beginning the Big Snub might have been against new-fangled blockbusters in general, not Spielberg in particular - after all, Close Encounters suffered no worse a fate than Star Wars at the 1977 Oscars: handsomely nominated, only technically rewarded. Both Spielberg and George Lucas were tantalised with a Best Director nomination, only to see it go to Woody Allen.
The line-'em-up-knock-'em-down trend continued. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — opened big, won small (Visual Effects, Sound, since you ask). Raiders Of The Lost Ark — Spielberg and Lucas together, saving the Academy a bullet — was another box office hit (the biggest of 1981) and another hardware-only Oscar success. Art Direction, Editing, Original score, Visual Effects... now run along back to the toy box, little boys.
As Spielberg said back in 1975, denied a Best Director nomination for Jaws, " This is called 'commercial backlash'. Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a WINNER . "
This became the story of Steven Spielberg's life after Raiders. The story of Spielberg's '80s.
The big man in Hollywood: Spielberg visits a downtown flea-pit to discover just how much he'd grown in stature.If only Oscars weren’t so damned important. But they are. They represent the hard currency of respect. As the '80s rolled on, Spielberg found himself cash-rich but esteem-poor, an unwitting emblem for the greed decade. However, we mustn't oversimplify Spielberg's '80s as one long quest for acceptance among his peers. It represents a personal journey for him too. Before shooting the family-themed E.T. and Poltergeist in 1981 he told his friend and producer Kathleen Kennedy that the experience would divine for him whether or not he was "suited to being a father ". He was 35, and approaching some kind of life crossroads.
After the essentially mechanical experience of making Raiders, he needed to get back to personal and familial relationships. E.T. grew out of his fascination with the bug-eyed aliens glimpsed in Close Encounters. Like Neary, Spielberg wanted to get to know them better; in the process, thought-doodling during Raiders, he began to regress to childhood fantasies of an "imaginary friend". Harrison Ford's then-girlfriend, writer Melissa Mathison, became Spielberg's sounding board on location in Tunisia. She empathised, locking in to the idea of a benevolent alien befriending a boy from a broken home.
Spielberg already had an alien project in development at Columbia, Night Skies, a dark response to Close Encounters in which a family is besieged by far-from-benevolent aliens (conceived during the "downer"
after 1941 and a break-up with future wife Amy Irving). He'd commissioned a script from writer-director John Sayles, who didn't fancy turning it in to a feelgood alien story, later describing his original draft as a "jumping-off point " for what became E.T. (Night Skies ended with a good alien being marooned on earth — that of course turned in to the beginning of E.T.). Columbia had also commissioned 1000s of dollars' worth of preliminary monster work from latex supremo Rick Baker, which was also thrown out by Spielberg. The alien he wanted now was a cute little critter akin to Close Encounters' "Puck".
Columbia passed on making Spielberg's new fluffy alien pic (the marketing department couldn't get past the notion that it was a kids' film). Piqued, he went to Universal, who greenlit a relatively modest $10 million budget. Mathison, the kindred spirit Spielberg needed, produced a first-draft script called This Boy's Life, which subsequently became E.T. And Me, and finally, after hours of discussion with Spielberg during Raiders' editing time, E.T. The Extraterrestrial. The director had consciously moved from a dark vision to one bathed in sunlight; his night skies now twinkled.
E.T. was conceived by Spielberg as his "little film ", "a very personal story" (which only becomes ironic when it knocks Star Wars from the top of the all-time box office charts come Christmas '82). It's about his own childhood, and being abandoned (as he saw it) by Dad after his parents' divorce — in the film, Elliott's father is in Mexico with a new girlfriend. E.T. becomes his imaginary pal, the one Spielberg had wished for but never got.
Beyond Carlo Rambaldi's excellent design w o r k on the alien himself, and the iconic flying bikes, E.T. was not a big effects fest. It was a personal story, a little film, albeit one that happened to become a global media event, with 200 licensed items of merchandise. In fact, it came to emblemise Spielberg's 80s image problems. A filmmaker who could touch millions with his storytelling, move them to tears, was simultaneously branded a money-mad megalomaniac. As the E.T. millions poured in (Spielberg is said to have been making half a million dollars a day at the film's blockbusting height) Michael Ventura wrote in LA Weekly that the director was, "gorged with greed, he sells and sells and sells until the name E.T. no longer conjures a marvellous surprise, but lots of dolls and bumper stickers and Michael Jackson records and games and candy bars".
What's a man with the Midas touch supposed to do?
When, in 1987, Spielberg was satirised on a Spitting Image special (commissioned to impress the US) he was seen as a man with money falling out of every cupboard and every pocket. A minion arrives with another wheelbarrowful. "Where should I put this money, Mr Spielberg?", he asks. "Put it over there with the other money," replies the director.
Oh, and Oscars for E.T.? Music, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing.
Get the hankies out: Elliott's is separated from his alien pal.
There’s no getting around Spielberg’s financial success. He and George Lucas are often credited with destroying the American cinema (author Peter Biskind claimed that the pair had "reduced an entire culture to childishness" with their "aesthetic of awe"), but such claims arise from the money, not the films they make. Suppose Star Wars and E.T. had been flops — like Radioland Murders (1994) and 1941 — who would blame them for dumbing down movies then? But Lucas — who is by definition a more remote public figure because of his propensity to produce rather than direct — does not have Spielberg's inner demons, his dark side, his Jewish insecurity, his desperate need for respect. While we have effectively lost Lucas to the neverending story of Star Wars, Spielberg continues to move from directing job to directing job, at each stage open to fresh scrutiny.
Thus if you glibly reduce Spielberg's career to popular franchises (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, even E.T. if you include such flotsam as BT ads and the Universal ride), he appears little more than a showman, a ringmaster. But look at the choices he made in the 80s. This is a man in search of himself, not another wheelbarrow of cash.
If E.T. represented the sentimentalisation of Close Encounters, Poltergeist (filmed back to back with E.T.) was the horrification of Night Skies. Out went the aliens and in came ghosts. It was to be, in the words of biographer John Baxter, " the blackest of all his films." Spielberg drew now on childhood anxieties about monsters under the bed. It's no surprise that Stephen King was the first writer approached to script Poltergeist, but his fee was too high and in any case King feared he would have ended up as "hired help".
So Spielberg wrote it himself, in five days flat , with help from producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Meanwhile, the phrase "hired help" would haunt chosen director Tobe Hooper, the ingénue behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Spielberg was too busy on E.T. preproduction to take the reins himself and wished to encourage and sponsor new talent, but of course, he couldn't keep away, and debate still rages over how much of Poltergeist was actually directed by Hooper.
Control freakery is your first thought. But Poltergeist was simply so personal to Spielberg he couldn't keep his hands off it. "It derived from my imagination and my experiences and it came out of my typewriter," he said. At least it was a learning experience — afterwards, he vowed never again to farm something he'd written out to another director: "I won't put someone else through what I put Tobe through."
It's tempting to leave aside Twilight Zone: The Movie (co-produced with John Landis) when scrolling through Spielberg's CV, even though it taps in to the same seam of nostalgia that lies beneath the Saturday-serial adventures of Indy and the idyllic suburbia of just about everything else. His segment as director (Kick The Can (1983) was way too whimsical compared to the others, oversugared to counter the tragic accident that occurred on John Landis' watch, in which a helicopter killed actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children. The resulting negative publicity and court case left a blot on the film, and had a series of very serious knock-on effects.
Spielberg spoke of H.T. and Twilight Zone as the best of times and the worst of times. The experiences of 1983 made him "grow up a little more," he said. On a practical level, he was extra careful not to put child actors in any kind of peril while making Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. But an all-round darkness seems to pervade the Raiders sequel (co-writer Willard Huyck described it as Spielberg's "nightmare movie"). It's the one with the monkey brains and the eyeball soup and the heart being ripped out. Its release coincided with the Spielberg-produced Gremlins: more nastiness. (The Motion Picture Association of America were even moved to invent a new certificate: the PG-13.)
The sunny side and the dark side of Spielberg's soul seemed forever locked in conflict, with one always playing the advantage. You either got happy, sentimental Steve, or troubled, hidden-depths Steve. One never seemed to quite exorcise the other.
Christian Bale gets bogged down in Empire Of The Sun..
All of a sudden, Spielberg product was backing up like planes in a tight holding pattern. He would produce movies at the rate of roughly two a year throughout the 80s, with a new directorial effort every two years.
In 1985, he went literary, adapting Alice Walker's The Color Purple, putting her heartfelt, feminist saga of blacks in rural Georgia through the Spielberg liquidiser. It was at this point that it seemed as if he really couldn't win. It was a hit, of course, taking over $140 million worldwide, but he fell under attack from all quarters: African-American groups, gay and lesbian groups, the critics (who felt he was the wrong colour to tackle the book) and... the Academy, who teased him with 11 nominations, awarded the film with none, and excluded him from Best Director. This despite what some saw as a blatant Oscar safari (the period costumes, the tear-jerking, the "issues"). Warners issued a statement expressing "shock and dismay" at the omission, but it took ten years for Spielberg to admit to being "pissed off" at the snub. At the time, he was probably too enraptured with he and Irving's new baby, Max, born during the shoot.
His next film, and his next book, was J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical Empire Of The Sun — a project Spielberg was originally intending to produce with David Lean directing. But Lean with drew and Spielberg took the director's chair: a symbolic and Oedipal act of manhood, according to biographer Joseph McBride. For Empire, he swept aside plans for a Peter Pan remake and a live-action version of Tintin. A $38 million epic set during the war and shot in Shanghai and Spain, Empire honed Spielberg's visual style, but drew mixed notices. At least one critic though noted the director's maturity — this was a long way from E.T., despite the boy's-eye-view.
But not only did Empire win a grand total of no Oscars, Spielberg wasn't able to fall back on the mattress of box office receipts this time: it made less money than 1941, his other war film. Too long at 152 minutes perhaps? Too grim? Too much John Malkovich in the second half? Who knows. Empire turned out to be a means rather than an end anyway. Without it, he might never have been able to tackle an adaptation of Schindler's Ark, the Holocaust novel purchased by Universal in 1982.
It wasn't until 1993 that he was ready to make what became Schindler's List. Before that major turning point, Spielberg would pack away the books with no pictures in and consciously regress again.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was not a bold move forward. But if that's what the public wanted, Spielberg would almost petulantly give it to them. (He was still sore from reaction to Empire. When George Lucas suggested the "young Indy" prologue with River Phoenix, Spielberg winced: "I don't want to do any more films with kids in them." He sensibly reconsidered.)
Though The Last Crusade was strictly business, its motifs still subtly reflected Spielberg's life: the central father-son relationship obviously mirrors his own with son Max, and negative feelings towards Amy Irving — in the process of leaving him — are directed at the only prominent female character, Elsa (Alison Doody), a Nazi whose greed seals her own fate.
Greed for an acting career as well as motherhood perhaps? Spielberg and Irving divorced in 1989, and she got her wish: “I don't want to finish my career as the wife of Spielberg."
Neither Always — remake of a favourite childhood novel A Guy Named Joe — nor the dreaded Hook — a rare descent into financial excess for the usually frugal Spielberg — did much for his reputation. He admitted to casting Richard Dreyfuss (and not a more bankable star like Kevin Costner) in Always because he considered him his "alter ego". Such adamantly personal choices do Spielberg credit, but can also be his undoing.
Let's not talk about Hook.
He found his commercial feet again with another book, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. It was at this stage that Steven Spielberg turned in to one of the most unique directors Hollywood has ever produced. For Schindler's List came to fruition almost simultaneously, and we are presented with the image, from early 1993, of a man, bearded, 47, divorced father of two, recreating the death camps of the Holocaust in snowbound Poland during the day, and overseeing the editing of a film about a dinosaur theme park by night, thanks to a Warsaw TV station and a satellite link. Editor Michael Kahn made him work on Schindler before going to bed, so that he would wake up in a mass-genocide state of mind.
MCA/Universal head Sid Sheinberg, who green-lit both films, made Spielberg do the dinosaurs first. "He knew," said Spielberg later, "that once I had directed Schindler I wouldn't be able to do Jurassic Park."
Jurassic Park opened first, on 2,842 screens in June 1993 and went on to gross $1 billion worldwide.
Monster hit: Steven poses with the Triceratops on the set of Jurassic Park.
As he looked back over the Great Statuette Drought 1975-1993, Spielberg must have comforted himself that he was in good company. Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch... all ruly great directors, all denied the Best Director Oscar, and worse, fobbed off with special awards before it was too late (Hawks in 1974, four years after his last film Rio Lobo; Lubitsch in 1946, a year before his death).
When Richard Attenborough pipped Spielberg at the Directors Guild awards for Gandhi over E.T. (a dry-run, as ever, for the 1983 Oscars, and so many other prize givings) he instinctively went over to the younger man's table and embraced him, whispering in his ear, "This isn't right, this should be yours."
At the 1994 Oscars, the most successful film of all time — Jurassic Park — won Best Sound, Visual Effects and Sound Effects editing. A familiar tune.
Would they never let Steven Spielberg in from the cold? Was he always destined be just a WINNER?
Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection Blu-ray box set available to order now.