It has taken American scholarship a long time to catch up with America’s most popular and, arguably, most gifted filmmaker, though The Steven Spielberg Story, an uncritical survey written for fans by Tony Crawley, was published as early as 1983 by Zomba Books, London. This was not a book to be taken too seriously, however, and it predates the later, more “serious” films Spielberg would direct, although it does cover the early box- office successes of Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T.: The Extra- Terrestrial (1982). Crawley was “encouraged” to write the book by the editor of Marvel Comics’ Starburst fantasy-film magazine and claims in his acknowledgments that “Steven Spielberg really wrote this book.”
In 1986, a joint academic treatment by Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders entitled Steven Spielberg was released by Twayne, but this book was completed too early for a complete treatment of The Color Purple (1985), Spielberg’s first truly serious adaptation of a major novel. Most academics, however, would shy away from Spielberg. A major exception was Philip M. Taylor’s Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies, and Their Meaning (1992), which expanded its coverage to include everything from Empire of the Sun (1987) to Hook (1991). Contacted in July of 1997, Taylor explained the genesis of his book. As editor of a series, in 1991 he called twenty-three American scholars in an attempt to find someone willing to write a book on Spielberg, but all declined; Taylor then resolved to write the book himself, because he thought a Spielberg book should be in his series. He was surprised to find that none of the “serious” academics he contacted were interested in linking themselves to Spielberg’s star, even though such a book could be lucrative. Taylor then updated his book in 1994 to include coverage of Schindler’s List (1993). Taylor’s book is the main competition to Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography.
McBride’s biography therefore fills a gap. Though not an academic critic but a reviewer, first for Variety, then for Box Office magazine, McBride had already written the brilliantly iconoclastic Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992). As an industry insider, McBride was able to interview people who knew and worked with Spielberg over the years, and the book is derived from more than three hundred interviews. It runs to more than five hundred pages but is still 250 pages shorter than the earlier Capra book. It is more thoroughly researched than John Baxter’s competing book Steven Spielberg: The Unauthorized Biography (1997), which, according to one reviewer, was blemished by factual errors and even misquoted the most famous line of all the Spielberg movies: “E.T., phone home.”
Despite McBride’s diligent research, his biography falls short of his earlier treatment of the popular director Capra, which began with a retrospective account of a trip the aging Capra made to Sicily very late in his career. That initial portrait of Capra set the tone for the book by demolishing Capra’s lovable popular image with deft satiric strokes and presented him as a mean-spirited and ungenerous person, to the consternation of his many fans. By contrast, the Spielberg book is far less controversial and more pedestrian. The first one hundred pages trace the boy’s home life from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Arizona to California, recalling far too many boyhood pranks while demonstrating young Steven’s obsession with filmmaking and his rejection in some quarters as a Jewish outsider, particularly at Saratoga High School, near the Santa Clara Valley.
McBride devotes rather too many pages to Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence, even if there is arguably some merit to his speculations about the “Peter Pan syndrome” and the characterization of Spielberg as the boy who did not want to grow up from a childhood that was fragmented and rootless, though neither especially happy nor especially miserable. Spielberg’s father, Arnold, was an engineer who worked for RCA in New Jersey, then for General Electric in Phoenix.
McBride attempts to set the childhood history against the later films Spielberg would make—none too convincingly, let it be noted, until page 75, when Elliott of E.T. is compared to the younger Steven, who was neglected by his workaholic father. Yet how much needs to be said about a scruffy, brainy kid whose childhood fantasies are tied to films? Feeling obliged to list every film and television show that might have influenced the wunderkind prodigy Spielberg was to become, McBride puts the reader to sleep.
Spielberg’s parents were divorced in 1965, about the time he graduated from high school. They were both educated and unconventional people, and their son grew up...
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