Auteur of the Week: Steven Spielberg (1 of 4)

First off may I say that I love Steven Spielberg and I can only think of one of his films that I absolutely did not like, the rest I love to pieces. Second, I’m going to be spending the next four weeks worth of Auteur of the Week discussing Spielberg’s filmography. Thirdly, I’ve seen all but one of his films – A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – but I will get it watched before I get to that part of his filmography, I swear. I know some people who do not like Spielberg at all or who like certain films of his and not others. I think that’s a good thing, to be universally liked would be boring. Part of what I love so much about Spielberg is the diversity of his filmography – you’ll find everything from literary adaptations to dramas to action to sci-fi to biopic and back again. I’m only going to talk about the films he has directed, not the films he’s produced. It would take far more than four weeks if we included Spielberg the producer in the mix. I hope you enjoy this trip through his filmography.

Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 18, 1946. He spent his childhood in Haddon Heights, New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona. As a teenager Spielberg made amateur 8 mm “adventure” films with his friends. He  would charge a 25 cent admission to his home films, while his sister sold popcorn. After his parents divorced, he moved to Saratoga, California with his father. His three sisters and mother remained in Arizona. Spielberg graduated from Saratoga High School in 1965.  He applied to attend the film school at University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three separate times, but was not admitted. He went on to study at California State University, Long Beach, but did not graduate until 2002. He began working at Universal Studios as an unpaid, seven-day-a-week intern and guest of the editing department. It was during this internship that Spielberg made his first short film for theatrical release, the 24 minute film Amblin’ (1968).

I really admire Spielberg’s tenacity. He knew what he wanted to do with his life and he would not take “no” for an answer. I also love the diversity in his filmography. Though all his films feel like “Spielberg” films, they aren’t all on the same subject matter.He loved Sci-Fi so he made Sci-Fi films. He loved Adventure so he made Adventure films. He feels a deep connection to the Holocaust so he made the seminal Holocaust film. I also love how he’s kept himself extremely busy over the last 40+ years; you never have to wait very long for the next Spielberg film. And they’re almost always consistently good.

Duel was  originally filmed as a Movie-of-the-Week for ABC, part of a contract Spielberg signed to make four television films.  It was so successful it was eventually released to cinemas in Europe and Australia and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The original cut was 74 minutes long and was film in 13 days – 3 days over its alloted 10-day schedule, with 10 days given to edit before it was set to premiere on television. Spielberg shot a few extra scenes and expanding the opening to make it a 90 minute film for its theatrical release. The film was also made on a meager $450,000 budget.

This really does not feel like a film that was made for less than half a million dollars on a 13-day schedule. It also displays a lot of great technique for a first-time director. You can definitely see how Spielberg got to Jaws and even Indiana Jones from this beginning. Apparently, Spielberg campaigned to get Dennis Weaver in the lead because he was so impressed with his work in the Orson Welles helmed film Touch of Evil. I think Weaver’s complex performance is what really solidifies this film as a cut above your average made-for-television film, at least in the pre-HBO era.

Spielberg’s proper feature film debut came three years later with 1974’s The Sugarland Express. A comedy/drama set in Texas and based on real-life events, the film stars Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Ben Johnson and Michael Sacks. The film’s screenplay won Best Screenplay at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or,  and the film currently holds a 92% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I really loved this film. Goldie Hawn was so effervescent as Lou-Jean Poplin, definitely one of her best performances. It’s one of those films where you know they probably won’t succeed with their quest, especially considering they’re on the wrong side of the law, but you get to really empathize with the characters and part of you really wishes they would. It’s a film that’s full of heart and laughter for the first 3/4 and then the last 1/4 is full of real heartache and sorrow. It’s definitely worth a watch if you’ve never seen it.

Jaws is probably my favorite of Spielberg’s films and one of his most famous films. (You can read a more in-depth take on the film that I wrote here). Jaws currently holds a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it grossed $470,654,000 (on a $12 mil budget) and changed the summer movie season for ever. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning three: Best Sound (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Film Editing (won) and Best Picture.

I pretty much love everything about this film. I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched it. I definitely think it is a perfect film. Everything about is great – the cinematography, the acting, the script, the editing, THAT SCORE, everything. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t enjoy this film (do I?), it’s just one of those universally loved that films that truly deserves its place among the New Hollywood classics.

His next film was 1977’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind, which is also one of my favorite of his films. It’s also one of the few films wherein Spielberg was the sole author of the screenplay. The film was made on a $19.5 mil budget and grossed $303.79 million. It currently holds a 95% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for eight Academy Awards – but not Best Picture – winning one (plus a special achievement award): Best Cinematography (won), Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress Melinda Dillon and Best Director. This would mark Spielberg’s first of six Best Director (he would go on to win twice).

There is just so much right going on in this film it’s hard to talk about it all. I love that it’s one of the few “aliens land on Earth” films where both the aliens and the humans try to interact in a non-violent way. Richard Dreyfuss gives one of my favorite of his performances in this film, and although he was not nominated for this performance he won the Best Actor Academy Award that same year for The Goodbye Girl. Also, how can you not love a film that features François Truffaut as a globe-trotting scientist who specializes in UFOs?! In December 2007, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. I’m sad that it didn’t win more Oscars, but I’m glad that Vilmos Zsigmond won for his absolutely breathtaking cinematography.

I hated Spielberg’s next film, 1979’s 1941. It just isn’t funny. I think it was ill-conceived from the very beginning. I was actually really shocked by how much I disliked this film considering how much I love so many of Spielberg’s other films.  Apparently both John Wayne and Charlton Heston were offered the role of Major General Stilwell (which was eventually given to Robert Stack). Wayne supposedly phoned Spielberg after reading the script and not only turned it down due to ill-health, but also tried to get Spielberg to drop the project as he (and Heston who also turned down the role) felt it unpatriotic. I kind of agree with both Wayne and Heston. It’s a little too irreverent for my tastes and poorly executed at that. The film had at $35 mil budget and grossed over $92 mil. It currently holds a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Pretty much the only good thing I can say about this film is that John Belushi is pretty hilarious, even if the film is not. I would say the film is perhaps worth seeing for him, especially if you’re a Belushi fan, but otherwise I’d say skip it.

Which brings us to another perfect film, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. (You can read a more in-depth take on this film written by me here). The film had a budget of $18 mil and grossed $384,140,454. It currently holds a 94% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is #22 on IMDb’s Top 250  and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four (as well as a special achievement award): Best Art Direction (won), Best Visual Effects (won), Best Film Editing (w0n), Best Sound (won), Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Director and Best Picture. Indiana Jones – created by in part by George Lucas and screenwriter and sometime director Lawrence Kasdan – was ranked #2 by The American Film Institute on their “100 Years. . .100 Heroes and Villains” list of Heroes, just behind Atticus Finch. The film was also ranked on at #60 and #66 on their AFI’s “100 Years. . .100 Films” and  Ten Year Anniversary lists of the greatest American films. In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

This is another one of those films that I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy it. It is just so perfectly entertaining from start to finish. The production value is wonderful, the story timeless. Another film that definitely deserves its spot among the New Hollywood classics and one that I can watch again and again.

This is where I’m going to end this week’s Auteur of the Week on Spielberg, check back next week where I’ll pick up with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

If you’re interested in buying any of Spielberg’s films, you can do so here.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on October 20, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. As we say in the archaeology business – Indiana Jones was a pothunter. However, we loved it anyway. The first archaeologist in a movie that was costumed correctly. About 11 years before it was made, I was at a Halloween Party hosted by archaeologists where my I-didn’t-know-it-yet-someday-to-be-husband was dressed like Indiana Jones. I loved the movie because it was Fun even if what my husband and I actually do in Archaeology is a little more mundane. We can dream anyway. My husband has action figures from the movie in his office.

    Jaws – I could watch it over and over and over. Shaw’s monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis is maybe the second best monologue in a film only overshadowed by Orsen Welles in Moby Dick. And even so I think it is one of the scariest scenes ever filmed. Scary without showing us anything – just Shaw’s eyes and his voice. Fabulous.

    1941 Stinks. Stunk, Stank i’m not sure which verb is correct – I guess you have to blame the script – there is something just “off” about it. But hey – most directors have at least one miss.

    I didn’t like Close Encounters when it came out. I found it very disturbing. It has grown on me.

    Being older I saw Duel originally on TV and loved Dennis Weaver from his 60s and 70s TV shows. And I went to see Sugarland Express with a bunch of other women and it was sweet – much better than the premise might lead one to expect.

    Speilburg is just 5 years older than I so I have watched him grow up to speak as a director. Damn he’s done a lot of great shit. Jaws alone would make him a legend. One wonderful project after another. Amazing.

  2. Close Encounters is my hands-down favorite film. It’s absolutely perfect (besides Melinda Dillon’s performance, I think it’s totally overdone). Dreyfuss is brilliant here.

  3. just thought i’d provide a little correction, but ‘Indiana Jones’ was created not by Lawrence Kasdan, but by George Lucas

  1. Pingback: Auteur of the Week – Steven Spielberg (2 of 4) « the diary of a film awards fanatic

  2. Pingback: Auteur of the Week: Steven Spielberg (3 of 4) « the diary of a film awards fanatic

  3. Pingback: Auteur of the Week: Steven Spielberg (4 of 4) « the diary of a film awards fanatic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: