Spielberg – The Greatest?

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Is Spielberg the greatest living director?

In my upcoming book, Steven Spielberg: American Film Artist, I make the argument that Spielberg has evolved into not only one of the greatest modern directors, but just might be the greatest film director in film history. Nominated a record ten times for the Directors Guild of America (DGA), he has won that award three times, thereby earning the respect of his fellow directors. Yet the Academy has nominated him just six times for Best Director, with two wins, often leaving him bewildered and stunned by the rejection of a business he so loves, and now so dominates.

Often seen as t he young man with the childlike innocence, which often transferred to his work, he saw everything in the world through the eyes of a child and like a child who has been the outside looking in,  so wanted to belong to the film world. Frequently the beach house rented by Margot Kidder in Malibu in the seventies, was filled on a Sunday afternoon with the hottest young directors in movies. One might wander in and find Francis Ford Coppola discussing his latest idea with Brian de Palma, while across the room Martin Scorsese, in a three piece white suit was talking to George Lucas, while, distant and shy, socially awkward,  Spielberg sat on the outside watching, waiting to be taken into their world. Absorbing everything around him, the talk, the ideas, and slowly growing up he would be recognized in coming years for his unique story telling skills and remarkable technical skill behind the camera. More than any of those directors sitting in the room of that beach house, he understood the American audience, and seemed to possess an innate understanding of the emotion they needed in their films.

The first half of his career, the years spanning 1974-1993 he was the wunderkind of the business, far greater than he was ever really given credit for being, yet yearned to be taken seriously as a filmmaker in the manner his friends Coppola and Scorsese were. Spielberg seemed to feel that the Academy voters and many important film critics did not take him seriously, and I understand, he felt the same about his fellow directors despite early nominations from the DGA for both Jaws (1975) and Close Encounter sof the Third Kind (1977)! Does it take any less skill as a filmmaker to make a film that is beloved by audiences? Does it take less skill as a director to make a film that allows the audience to feel good about humanity? Spielberg spent a good part of the first half of his career making films that appealed to audiences, wearing his heart on his sleeve, yet always displaying astounding story telling skills. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) was magnificent, critically acclaimed for the masterpiece it was, and a smash at the box office, quickly unseating Star Wars (1977) as the top grossing film of all time. On his way to accept his Oscar as Best Director for Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough stopped to say to Spielberg, “this belongs to you”, and he was right. Awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assoication and the National Society of Film Critics for Best Director were not enough for Spielberg, he wanted that little golden man perhaps because he saw it as a form of acceptance in the community and having always been an outsider, acceptance was paramount to him.

So desperate was he to win an Oscar he decided to direct The Color Purple (1985) based on the angry and spiky novel about the African-American experience in America during the Depression. Simply put, he was at the wrong point in his career to make this film, and turned a brilliant book into a very average film, with swelling overwrought music (truly one of the worst scores I have ever heard) and beautiful cinematography, taking away the darkness of the book, the abuse towards women, the lesbianism, all the elements that made this dark tale something very unique. When the nominations were announced, the film received 11, yet in a vicious slap in the face, Spielberg was snubbed as Best Director. Somehow he won the DGA Award for Best Director for the film, which sent a clear message to the Academy, but one that confused me. It’s one of his worst directing jobs…why award him for that and not for E.T. (1982)? Two years later he came back with a better film, one of his very best Empire of the Sun (1987) yet incredibly, the film was ignored by audiences, critics, and for the most part the Academy. Once again Spielberg was a DGA nominee, but not an Oscar for Best Director.

HIs weakest period as a filmmaker is 1989-1991, at which time he directed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Always (1989) and his worst picture, the wretched Hook (1991). All but ALways (1989) was a box office hit, though the raspberries blown at Hook (1991) were loud and clear. Oddly I am surprised that Spielberg himself could not see the easy fix with Hook (1991). Rather than leaving old Toodles in England, why not send the old Lost Boy, now ancient back with Peter and his kids for another adventure? Imagine the faces of the Lost Boys when they see Toodles, old and wrinkled before them, but still filled with that childish spirit that has kept him young at heart??

It is at this point that we enter the second half of Spielberg’s career, which begins with Jurassic Park (1993), a massive hit that brought audiences dinosaurs that had to be seen to be believed!! He had cut a deal with Universal to make his dream project Schindler’s List (1993) but first had to make the dinosaur epic, because he was told that after he made Schindler’s List (1993) he would never be able to make audience pleasing blockbusters again.

When critics first began writing about the experience that was Schindler’s List (1993) the common phrase was something like “not believing it was made by Spielberg”. Everything audiences expected in a Spielberg film was gone, cast aside for black and white cinematography, a documentary-like shooting style, grim and very real violence, and a hero who was ana enigma throughout, never answering why he would save eleven hundred Jews from the death camps. Spielberg fought for and got the right to cast Liam Neeson after seeing the actor on Broadway, while the studio campaigned for Kevin Costner or Harrison Ford. Even Robert Duvall took a meeting with Spielberg, as did Warren Beatty, each knowing the role to be one of a lifetime. The director, rightly wanted a face audiences were not terribly familiar with, and an actor of size and presence. Neeson was perfection.

The film plunged audiences into the hell on earth that was the Holocaust, displaying with extraordinary honesty the absolute disregard for human life the SS had in regards to the Jews. Men, women and children were hunted down and shot for no reason other than they were Jews. Hatred ran rampant, and Spielberg cap[tured that with genius, but something more. He displayed with none of his sentiment that a man, a Nazi could do something remarkable because he knew he should. The film was a universal success, winning every single Best Picture award available to it, and many of the Best Director prizes. Come Oscar time, he would no longer be denied and finally won his first Academy Award for Best Director, to go along with his second DGA Award, and Golden Globe. At long last he had the respect he so craved, and sure enough the Oscar seemed to liberate him, though it took some time.

With a few exceptions, the years spanning 1993-2011, mark the most creative period of his career.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) was a mistake the bored him to tears, and though yet powerful Amistad (1997) never really found its audience. No matter, in the summer of ’98 he assaulted movie goers with his stunning war epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) which contained some of the most intensely graphic and powerful images of combat ever put on film. As much a war movie as a movie that paid homage to great war movies, the film was a sometimes conventional Hollywood war epic, but its craft and the manner in which it was made elevated it above everything else before it. In the central role, Tom Hanks was superb as Millar, the man sent on a mission to bring Ryan home. Nominated for elven Academy Awards the film would march towards victory with wins for Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Director. Yet the best directed, shot, cut and sounding film somehow lost Best Picture to the frothy and fun Shakespeare in Love (1998)!! Spielberg had just won his second Oscar for direction, yet was quietly seething inside that his film, the film he made for his father had lost the Oscar as Best Picture.

A.I. : Artificial Intelligence (2001) remains an under appreciated masterpiece that audiences ignored upon release, Minority Report (2002) was a stunner, one of the best films of the year, Catch Me If You Can (2002) was a funny, fast pace biography of fraud artist Frank Abagnale, portrayed with charm and intensity by Leonardo di Caprio, all three films deserving of attention from the Academy for Best Film and Best Director.

Munich (2005) is his coldest film, yet perhaps blindingly accurate work, certainly a film he was concerned with making right, knowing that controversy was coming; a  chilly exploration of the assassinations of the Olympic athletes in 1972 by terrorists  and the hit squad sent after their killers, the film is an almost documentary-like work that often seems as though it is happening on the screen in front of us for the first time. Chilly and remote, told with a matter of fact nastiness, the film is sensational, brilliantly directed, shot, cut and acted, but audiences struggled with it. Ask yourself this?? Better than Crash (2005)? Nope. That same year he gave us  War of the Worlds (2005) an adaptation of the Welles classic with more than a little 9/11 merged into its study of mankind’s potential extermination. With scenes of carnage that were terrifying he captured the right sort of fear at the right time, the film undone only by a silly late development that I hoped he was past. Look past that final scene and you have the a genuinely terrifying work with his direction as bold and confident as it has ever been.

And the less said about the fourth Indiana Jones film the better.

And you might notice I have left The Sugarland Express (1975) and The Terminal (2004) out. Though a solid feature film debut, Jaws (1975) obliterated any chance The Sugarland Express (1974) would ever have of any sort of cult following being such a different sort of film. And The Terminal (2004) which I do not hate, but consider wildly flawed with the exception of Tom Hanks lovely performance which has echoes of Chaplin and Buster Keaton running through it. A great actor looking for a movie. Though there can be comedic elements or moments in Spielberg’s’ films, comedy is not his forte.

He is now seen as one of the elder statesman of the film business, fabulously wealthy, a visionary who is also an artist, still able to make movies for less than most (never forgetting his early lesson with 1941 (1979)). No other filmmaker, living or dead has had the staggering impact Spielberg has had on American pop culture, and American cinema. from the confidence that guided Jaws (1975) through to the frosty brilliance of Munich (2005) he has shaped American film, and in many ways, forged the love many of us have for cinema. So many of the greatest scenes I remember were Spielberg directed. His connection to film history remains strong, his great admiration for the work of John Ford, Stanley Kubrick (his friend), Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, William Wyler,  and David Lean evident in his best work, and understanding that he is now influencing young filmmakers around the globe.

His 2011 films seem to be positioning themselves to both be nominees for Best Picture, with The Adventures of Tin Tin the likely winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and War Horse, a strong candidate for Best Film and Best Director. Love him or hate him, and I love him, no one can deny his remarkable gifts as a director when he nails it, and most times he does just that. What I like best about his work, all of it, is the sheer humanity on display in each film.

His best films are listed below in order of preference. (Yours?) And yes there are eleven, because tenth place tied…sue me.

1. SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)

2. E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982)

3. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

4. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

5. A.I. (2001)

6. JAWS (1975)

7. MINORITY REPORT (2002)

8. MUNICH (2005)

9. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002)

10. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) – tie

10. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) – tie

His worst film remains Hook (1991).