Steven Spielberg 1947-
(Full name Steven Allan Spielberg) American director, novelist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Spielberg's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Known for the stylistic virtuosity and mainstream appeal of his works, Spielberg is the most commercially successful film director of all time. Throughout his career, Spielberg has evinced a keen ability to craft engaging and entertaining narratives that appeal to both popular and critical audiences. His films have covered a diverse range of genres—literary adaptations, science fiction, and historical dramas, among others—though he is probably best known for his bombastic, special effects driven adventure films, which reflect the sensibilities of the “cinema of the spectacle” school of filmmaking. Spielberg's films have achieved such a level of international popularity that certain aspects of his movies have been permanently entered into the modern cultural vernacular, such as the foreboding violins from Jaws (1975), the landing of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and the heroic theme music of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Despite some claims that Spielberg lacks depth as a filmmaker, a number of his works examine serious, and often difficult, subject material, including racism, the effects of rampant technological advancements, and the legacy of slavery and the Holocaust. In 2000, when the American Film Institute compiled its list of the top 100 films of all time, five of Spielberg's films—more than any other director—appeared on the list. The films were Schindler's List (1993), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ranking at numbers 9, 25, 48, 60, and 64, respectively.
Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 18, 1947. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer specializing in the newly-emerging field of computers. Spielberg's family moved frequently during his youth, residing in New Jersey and Arizona before settling in San Jose, California. As a teenager, Spielberg became interested in filmmaking and began recording family events on an eight-millimeter camera. In high school, Spielberg shot dozens of short films—which often emulated his favorite movies—and finished his first full-length film, Firelight, in 1964. When his poor grades kept him out of California's more prestigious film schools, Spielberg attended California State College and studied filmmaking by sneaking onto movie sets. His short film, Amblin' (1968), won awards at the Venice and Atlanta film festivals and attracted the attention of executives at Universal Pictures. Signing a seven-year contract with Universal, Spielberg began directing for television, including several episodes of such series as Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D., Columbo, and The Name of the Game. Spielberg also directed a number of made-for-television movies, including Duel (1971), which received such positive critical attention that the film was eventually released theatrically. Spielberg's first full-length feature film, The Sugarland Express (1974), garnered a lukewarm critical assessment, but his next film, Jaws, became a cultural phenomenon. Jaws broke box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing film ever at the time, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The success of Jaws cemented Spielberg's reputation as a skilled filmmaker and allowed him the freedom to develop his own projects. His next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was also a commercial success and earned Spielberg an Academy Award nomination for best director. Though Spielberg continued directing, he also became a film producer, forming the production company Amblin Entertainment and producing such films as Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 1994 Spielberg teamed with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks SKG, an independent studio that produces a variety of films, musical acts, and television programs. Spielberg has also been involved with several charitable organizations, including the Shoah Visual History Foundation for Holocaust survivors. Throughout his career, Spielberg has received numerous awards and accolades for his films, earning a wealth of Academy Award nominations and winning Oscars for best director and best picture for Schindler's List and best director for Saving Private Ryan (1998). He has also won the Irving G. Thalberg Award for his overall body of work from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Society of Film Critics and Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for best picture for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA award for best picture for Schindler's List, among others.
Spielberg's first film to be released theatrically was Duel, a television movie that follows a beleaguered motorist as he is relentlessly pursued down a highway by a homicidal truck driver. The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's next film was based on a true story of an escaped convict and his wife who kidnap their child from his foster family, resulting in a police chase across Texas. Though these early films were generally well received, Jaws stands as one of the most significant films in Spielberg's career, establishing a number of recurring traits that the filmmaker would utilize throughout his career. These traits include setting ordinary characters into extraordinary circumstances, the presence of a lurking, off-camera menace, and the director's frequent collaborations with composer John Williams. Set on a popular New England tourist island, Jaws centers around the struggles of a small-town police sheriff, a marine biologist, and a grizzled sea captain to find and kill a predatory great white shark that terrorizes the local inhabitants. Spielberg crafted the screenplay for his next directorial effort, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which chronicles a series of unusual encounters, marking the moments of first contact between human beings and extraterrestrial lifeforms. The film abandons the typically adversarial relationship between mankind and aliens in past films, instead depicting the meeting of the two races as a profoundly spiritual and joyous occasion. Spielberg also composed the novelization of his screenplay for Close Encounters, his only full-length prose work to date. He followed Close Encounters with the farcical World War II comedy 1941 (1979), one of the director's few commercially unsuccessful films. Inspired by the action cliffhanger serial films of the 1930s, Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark became the first in a trilogy of films featuring the swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones. Continuing Jones's adventures in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones battles Nazis, witch-doctors, and evil henchmen in his pursuit of legendary lost treasures, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones from India, and the Holy Grail. Often referred to as one of Spielberg's most personal films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial features a young boy named Elliott who develops a symbiotic friendship with an alien called “E.T.” who was accidentally abandoned on Earth. Elliott, who feels heavily isolated due to his parents' divorce, tries to help E.T. contact his home planet while they both dodge suspicious government agents who wish to imprison and dissect E.T. The film became an enormous commercial success, surpassing Jaws as the highest-grossing film of the 1970s.
During the mid-1980s, Spielberg began a second phase in his directing career with two notable literary adaptations. In 1985 he directed the film version of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, which chronicles the life of a poor, African American woman in the rural South in the early years of the twentieth century. Trapped in an abusive marriage, the protagonist, Celie, writes letters to her sister, Nettie, who has travelled abroad. After years of apparently receiving no response from Nettie, Celie learns that her husband has kept Nettie's delivered letters from her and that Nettie is living in Africa with Celie's two children whom she gave up for adoption. In 1987 Spielberg helmed the film adaptation of J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. The plot centers around a young English boy named Jim who is captured in Shanghai, China, during World War II and is forced to live without his parents in an internment camp for the duration of the war. Both films were considered to be a departure for Spielberg, focusing more on interpersonal relationships and trenchant emotional themes than the director's traditionally more commercial fare. Always (1989)—a remake of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe—continued Spielberg's emphasis on smaller, more intimate stories. The protagonist, Pete, is a fire-fighting pilot, who dies in a crash, but returns as a ghost to help his former girlfriend, Dorinda, move on and find a new love. Spielberg returned to the “cinema of the spectacle” with Hook (1991), a big-budget adventure based on J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Hook is based on the premise of an aging Peter Pan, who has forgotten how to fly, and is forced to return to NeverNeverland to rescue his children from the villainous Captain Hook.
Spielberg's career reached another important milestone in 1993, both critically and commercially, with the release of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park examines the chaotic effects of genetic engineering and commercialism run rampant. John Hammond, a billionaire entrepreneur, discovers how to clone dinosaurs from their fossilized remains and opens an exotic zoo/amusement park where paying customers can see his creatures. During an early preview of the park, a group of scientists, stakeholders, and Hammond's own grandchildren find themselves pursued by the predatory animals after the park's security network is sabotaged. Jurassic Park became a huge financial success and, like both Jaws and E.T., became the highest-grossing film of its time. Spielberg later filmed a sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in 1997. Schindler's List, based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, chronicles the true-life actions of Oskar Schindler, a charming though irresponsible German industrialist who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish concentration camp prisoners by employing them at his factory during World War II. Filmed in black and white, Spielberg utilizes spare cinematic effects to explore the horror of the Holocaust and the moral struggles of a man attempting to come to terms with his own conscience. The film was both commercially and critically acclaimed and, according to some film scholars, marks Spielberg's maturation as a filmmaker. In 1997 Spielberg continued to address more serious historical themes in Amistad, recounting the saga of a group of Africans kidnapped and shipped aboard a Spanish slave ship to America in 1839. After a successful shipboard revolt, the Africans gain control of the craft, only to be commandeered by an American naval vessel. A series of judicial hearings and trials ensued—the last of which was argued before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams for the defense—until the men were eventually classified as free by the American government and returned to Africa. In Saving Private Ryan Spielberg turned his historical perspective toward the World War II D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. The story follows the journey of a squad of American soldiers, who participated in the landing at Omaha Beach, Normandy, as they search for a missing American paratrooper, Private Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in combat. As the sole surviving brother, Ryan will be sent home from combat, yet when the squad locates him, Ryan insists on remaining to fight with his unit to secure a bridge from German forces. Much of the film's critical attention has centered on its first twenty-five minutes, which presents a chillingly accurate depiction of the horrors of the D-Day invasion.
Adapted from a short story by Brian Aldiss, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) began as a collaboration between Spielberg and noted filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. After Kubrick's death in 1999, Spielberg took over the project and wrote the screenplay himself—his first original screenplay since he co-authored Poltergeist in 1982. Drawing heavily from the story of Pinocchio, A.I. focuses on a robotic boy named David who is programmed to love the woman he believes is his mother. After being rejected and abandoned by his adopted family, David—along with a handsome robot named Gigolo Joe and a mechanical stuffed animal called Teddy—searches for the Blue Fairy, a mythical figure that David believes will grant his wish to become a real boy. Spielberg released two films in 2002—Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report is set in Washington, D.C., in 2054. Murder has become a thing of the past due to a group of three psychics—called “pre-cogs”—who receive visions of homicides before they occur. This information is scanned, interpreted, and relayed to the Pre-Crime Unit, a crime prevention team headed by John Anderton. When the pre-cogs allege that Anderton is going to commit murder in the near future, Anderton must gather evidence to prove his innocence. Catch Me If You Can explores the true-life adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr., a seventeen-year-old con artist who passed more than one million dollars in fraudulent checks while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, and an assistant district attorney.
Since the early beginnings of his career, critics have recognized Spielberg's ability to create films that combine old-style, thrilling adventure stories with technical virtuosity, careful craftsmanship, and the latest developments in special effects. Most reviewers have contended that Spielberg has a keen ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the modern era and craft films that appeal to a wide audience base. However, film scholarship on Spielberg's oeuvre has frequently been polarized regarding the commercial/artistic value of Spielberg's films. Several critics have routinely commended Spielberg for his skill at creating technically-sound, crowd-pleasing movies that exhibit a firm reverence for the history of film. Others have countered this assessment, faulting Spielberg for overloading his narratives with visual effects and cloying sentimental messages. Such reviewers have argued that Spielberg tries too hard to make his films accessible to all audiences, thus resulting in bland and aesthetically empty commercial products. During the different phases of his career, Spielberg has attracted a diverse, and occasionally contradictory, range of criticism on his works. While some have dismissed his early films as juvenile and immature, others have lamented his more serious films of the 1990s, calling for a return to the more energetic and entertaining films of his youth. Commentary on Spielberg's more politically-conscious films has also been varied. Though many have praised The Color Purple and Amistad for effectively portraying often ignored elements of African American history, several critics have derided Spielberg, arguing that, as a Caucasian filmmaker, Spielberg is unqualified to present the perspective of minority characters. The critical debate surrounding Schindler's List has also been widely split. Despite widespread public acclaim from reviewers, audiences, and Holocaust survivors, some have argued that the film is overly sentimental and emotionally manipulative. Regardless, Schindler's List has evolved to become a respected part of the contemporary Judaic film canon. Reviewers have also offered diverse opinions on A.I., inspiring significant debate between the merits of Spielberg and Kubrick as filmmakers. Certain commentators have asserted that Spielberg unsuccessfully attempts to emulate Kubrick's cinematic style in A.I., though others have lauded the film for Spielberg's stylistic experimentation and more ambiguous emotional themes. While critics have continued to argue the merits of Spielberg's films, he retains a role as one of the most successful and revered popular filmmakers of the modern era.