Auteur of the Week: Steven Spielberg (2 of 4)

Continuing my four-part Auteur of the Week series on Steven Spielberg (you can see the first part here) I’m now going to be talking about the rest of Spielberg’s work in the 1980s. Throughout the 80s Spielberg produced hit after hit after hit, establishing himself even more as one of the greatest directors working in the business. There’s only one film in this era of his filmmaking that I don’t like, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the film. I’ll explain later. I’ve also included a film wherein he only directed a segment – the ill-advised Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Although it would be in the following decade that Spielberg would win his two Best Director Oscars, some of his films in the 80s are just as iconic as any he’s directed. This is also the era in which Spielberg directed another one of my all-time favorite films.

Sticking to one of his most successful subjects – aliens – in 1982 Spielberg made the family classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The film was made on a minimal $10.5 mil  and grossed over $$792 worldwide. It also was nominated for a whopping 12 BAFTAs (it only won one: Best Score), five Golden Globe nominations (winning Best Score and Best Drama) and nine Academy Award nominations, winning four: Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound (won), Best Visual Effects (won), Best Sound Effects Editing (won), Best Score (won), Best Director and Best Picture. Gandhi wound up winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, despite not even being nominated at the Golden Globes.

This is the film I mentioned above that I don’t like. It has nothing to do with the quality of the film. To be honest, I don’t actually remember much about this film. Other than that it frightened me thoroughly as a child. So much so that I can’t watch it. I haven’t watched it since I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I still get nightmares just from seeing pictures from this film. Maybe someday I’ll face my fears and re-watch, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll do that anytime soon.

The following year Spielberg directed a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie. The other segments were directed by John Landis, Joe Dante, George Miller. The film cost $10 mil dollars and made a disappointing $29,500,000 in the USA. The production also was devastated by an accident that happened while filming the John Landis segment. Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (age 6) died in an accident involving a helicopter being used on the set. Pyrotechnic explosions caused the low-flying helicopter to spin out of control and crash. Due to that accident The accident legal action was taken against the filmmakers, lasting almost a decade which changed the regulations when children are involved at night and during special effects-heavy scenes. Roger Ebert rated each segment separately, giving Spielberg’s segment only one and a half stars.

I don’t remember much about this film either, except that my parents told me about the helicopter accident before we watched it and that knowledge kind of hindered my enjoyment of the film. I do remember really enjoying Scatman Crothers’ performance. But then I like him in pretty much everything.

The following year Spielberg directed his very first sequel – the second film in what was originally The Indiana Jones Trilogy (I’ll get to the fourth film in two weeks). Made on a $28 mil budget ($10 mil more than the first film), it grossed just over $333 mil (about $50 mil less than the first film). Although the film received mixed reviews, it does maintain an 85% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert said of the film, “it’s not so much a sequel as an equal.” The film received two Oscar nominations: Best Score and Best Visual Effects, it won the latter.

This is probably my least favorite of the original trilogy. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it. I love Jonathan Ke Quan as Wan ‘Short Round’ Li; other than Indy himself, he’s my favorite thing in the film. I really do not like Kate Capshaw as Wilhelmina ‘Willie’ Scott. Capshaw supposedly  beat out  120 actresses for the role. Perhaps it’s not her I hate so much as the character. Compared to Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood from the previous film, Willie is just not a great character. However, it was while making this film that Capshaw and Spielberg first met, they would later wed in 1991.

I really love his next film, 1985’s The Color Purple. You can read a more in-depth take on the film written by me here. The film is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Alice Walker. It had a budget of $15 mil and grossed $142 mil. It was also the film debut of both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The film was nominated for five Golden Globe awards, winning one – Best Actress in a Drama Whoopi Goldberg. It was also nominated for eleven Academy Awards: Best Actress Whoopi Goldberg
Best Supporting Actress Margaret Avery, Best Supporting Actress Oprah Winfrey, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Score, Best Original Song, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. It tied with 1977’s The Turning Point for the most nominations without a single win. It lost most of its awards to Out of Africa – a film I really do not like. Also, somehow Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director, despite the films plethora of nominations.

Like I said in my Oscar Vault Monday post on this film, I think it has aged so much better than Out of Africa. By that I mean, I don’t think it’s aged at all. It is as fresh and amazing as it was 24 years ago. The performances remain strong and the production design is timeless. Whereas, Out of Africa really feels like a film made in the 80s. It’s kind of hard to explain what I mean if you’ve not seen either or both films. I’d say watch The Color Purple and just take my word for it on the other.

Speilberg’s next film was a coming of age war film based on J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, with a screenplay written by acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard. The film was made on a $35 mil budget and grossed $66.24 mil. It was nominated for six Academy Award (though not Best Picture or Director): Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. Again, the film did not win a single award. The film also contains Christian Bale’s feature film debut. Apparently Bale’s co-star in the 1986 mini-series television Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, Amy Irving, recommended him to her then-husband, Steven Spielberg, for the role. His performance in the film earned him widespread critical praise and the first ever “Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor” award from the National Board of Review.

This film, much like The Color Purple, is one of those films that I cannot watch without crying. Both films have a relatively happy ending, but they’re both really emotional films and I’m a sucker for well-done emotional wallop. Not only do I love Christian Bale in this film, I love John Malkovich in it as well. The two are so wonderful together and if you’re a fan of either of those actors you owe it to yourself to watch this film.

1989 saw the first time Spielberg would release two films in the same year, something he has done multiples times since. His first film released that year was the third Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The film was made on a $55 mil budget and grossed $474 mil – the most of any of the films in the franchise at the point. At the time of its release it was the 11th highest grossing film of all-time. The film was nominated for three Oscars, winning one: Best Score, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing (won). The film was much better received than the second film in the franchise and currently holds an 89% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Part of what I love so much about this film is its genius casting. First you have River Phoenix as a 13-year old version of Indiana Jones and then you have Sean Connery as Indiana Jones’ father Henry Jones,  a professor of Medieval Literature. I also kind of geek out about anything having to do with Arthurian Legends and the Holy Grail. So really, this film is perfect for me. It’s also partially filmed in the city of Petra in Jordan, which has got to be one of the most breathtaking leftover wonders of the ancient world. It’s a beautifully shot, witty, action-packed film and I kind of wish Spielberg had left well enough alone and kept the franchise a trilogy.

His second film released in 1989 was Always, which stars Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Brad Johnson. It also features the final film performance of screen legend Audrey Hepburn. The film was made on a $29.5 mil budget and grossed a modest $43 mil. It was not all that well received by critics. Ebert called it his worst film since 1941, as well as calling it a “curiosity.”

The premise of the film is quasi-based on the 1943 film  A Guy Named Joe, though Spielberg specifically did not treat his film as an homage. I first watched this film because I was a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn and I remember really loving it. Though my memory of the film is a bit vague, I do remember finding the scenes between Hepburn and Dreyfuss to be my favorites in the film. The two are really wonderful together. I’ve also read that this film is considered a progenitor of the various “ghost” films seen throughout the 90s – Ghost, Heart and Souls, etc. You can clearly see how the end of this film was a big influence on Ghost in particular. This is probably one of Spielberg’s least watched and least remembered films and I think it’s a bit of a shame. It’s worth a watch, if only for Hepburn’s performance, though I think the film is great as a whole.

Next week I’ll focus on Spielberg in the 90s, the decade in which he made yet another huge blockbuster, but also one of the greatest films ever made – in the same year no less, as well as winning two Oscars.

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

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on October 27, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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