Renowned American film critic Molly Haskell admits that she initially hesitated before writing this short biography of film-maker Steven Spielberg for Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series, having never been an ardent fan. Spielberg's main subjects of children and adolescence and his emphasis on science fiction and action adventure genres were not of particular interest to her.
Eventually, Haskell chose to confront her reticence. She takes Spielberg’s statement that, “everything about me is in my films” and provides a fascinating portrait of the man and his entire oeuvre, illustrating just how intertwined they are. She reveals that this extraordinarily gifted individual would translate, “not only his childhood but whatever he was feeling and experiencing at any given time” into his films.
Born in Cincinnati in 1946, Spielberg grew up in a female-dominated household — the only boy with three sisters. His childhood and youth were unhappy. Multiple moves contributed to a sense of isolation. A Jew growing up in largely non-Jewish suburbs and a “non-jock,” he felt like an outsider and his subsequent alienation from Judaism would remain with him until the birth of his son. Protracted tensions between his unconventional mother and largely absent, workaholic father finally ended in a divorce, which for Spielberg, also resulted in many estranged years from his father. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with its themes of reconciliation and understanding, would echo a rapprochement between Spielberg and his father.
From a young age, Spielberg was drawn to storytelling and film-making. A camera gave him confidence and an escape from domestic tensions and his own feelings of inadequacy. Haskell notes that motifs of home and family recur throughout Spielberg’s work, including the father-figure role and young protagonists as outsiders.
Haskell suggests Spielberg “grew up” with his films. Such early features, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, presented a childhood sense of wonder but, as his career developed, he became drawn to more “mature” and serious period narratives. The Color Purple, Oscar winners Schindler’s List and Lincoln are works that coincided with stability in his personal life — a happy second marriage and seven children.
Chapters are structured around Spielberg’s films and Haskell eloquently and accessibly links life events alongside her commentary. Readers might well be propelled to revisit Spielberg’s considerable body of work as a result.
The book’s publication is timely, as Spielberg turned 70 in December 2016. But the film-making genius whose output as both director and producer is “staggering”, the man responsible for harnessing the potential of CGI and contributing to the creation of the blockbuster, is still making films at an astonishing pace, with three scheduled for release in 2017 alone. His “life in films” is far from finished.
Anne Joseph is a writer and film reviewer