Steven Spielberg seems to be on permanent rewind. At least that’s the way he seemed at dinner Tuesday night.
To explain, it was 20 years ago that I wrote my last column about Spielberg, which opened with this observation: While Spielberg is intently expanding his activities, both as a filmmaker and as a mogul, most of the other directors who shared the ’70s spotlight with him have either passed away or moved onto other things — Bogdanovich, Lucas, Ashby, Rafelson, Coppola and Hopper, for example (Martin Scorsese is the exception). So here we are this week, two decades later, with Spielberg again stepping up his schedule, trying once more to re-invent his company and still coveting awards and plaudits as though he were an eager wannabe.
The filmmaker seemed to be all smiles and thank-yous Tuesday night as he praised Spielberg, the expansive (two hours, 40 minutes) new HBO documentary celebrating his life and honoring his achievements (directed by Susan Lacy, it leads off a new series of portraits at HBO). Relaxed and convivial at the lavish party, he did not look like a 71-year-old man confronting two imminent release dates for high-profile pictures, plus start dates for two others. Nor did he seem distracted by the fact that Amblin, the production company that he started 25 years ago, recently had announced a formidable cadre of new financial backers only to fire the man charged with running it (Michael Wright).
Indeed while Spielberg has remained surely the busiest and most durable of contemporary filmmakers, with grosses totaling $12 billion, he also has presided over the most complex and turbulent chain of corporate involvements.
At the party, Spielberg mingled with Tom Hanks, Quincy Jones and a cluster of CEOs including Jim Gianopulos, Tom Rothman and Ted Sarandos. I wondered if they, or other Spielberg associates, had any idea why the filmmaker sustains his alternative universe as a studio czar rather than simply directing movies. His present slate includes The Post, due out from Fox in December, and Ready Player One, from Warner Bros in March. Besides these distributors, his corporate backers include Universal, Participant, Reliance, e-One and Alibaba.
Amblin escaped the cudgels of Disney only last year and deposited its biggest turkey (Ghost in the Shell) at Paramount — that one also carried the DreamWorks label and, of course, DreamWorks was, at one time, Spielberg’s proudest corporate creation.
What all this proves is that Spielberg is an equal opportunity content provider who, as a corporate player, has left behind a mixed bag of successes and confusions. DreamWorks 25 years ago was intended to be a monster new major presided over by Spielberg as well as by Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, both of whom now have given up on the movie business. Some 15 movies a year were supposed to emerge from DreamWorks’ streamlined new film factories at Playa Vista. The physical studio, of course, never happened, but the production entity kept humming along, depositing an occasional Oscar winner (American Beauty) along the way. The exit of Wright after a two-year run (he formerly ran the Turner networks) followed a series of other executive exits including those of Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes, Bob Cooper and Stacey Snider. Along the way, outsiders concluded that Spielberg was not an easy person to work with on the features side (his TV operation has long been headed by Daryl Frank and Justin Falvey).
As an executive, Spielberg has manifested a variety of identities. There is the decisive Spielberg – he approved American Beauty overnight in the middle of shooting Saving Private Ryan. On the other hand, he went through at least eight scripts and three directors on The Mask of Zorro, while none of his associates could figure out why he was addicted to the property to begin with. But then a look at Spielberg’s selection of directing vehicles reflects a dizzyingly eclectic range of subject matter. “It’s wrong to intellectualize about Steven,” remarks one associate. “He’s just plain insecure. He’s certain that everything will be taken away from him.”
His 40 movies range from the inspired (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, ET) to the regrettable (Hook, 1941) to the downright perplexing (War Horse, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tintin). It is this eclecticism that the HBO documentary closely scrutinizes in a tone that ranges from reverent to adulatory. Interweaving interviews with stars, critics and fellow directors, Lacy diligently makes her case that Spielberg’s themes are intensely personal, returning often to topics relating to divorce and family bonds. In candid conversations, Spielberg eloquently reviews the personal toll of his parent’s split and reflects regretfully on his own divorce from Amy Irving.
Impatient with being stereotyped as a maven of blockbusters, Spielberg describes his ventures into more serious themes with The Color Purple and, of course, with the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. His cinematic skills are expressively admired by stars including Daniel Day-Lewis (“We all have a limited shelf life, but not Steven”) and Dustin Hoffman (“Steven is really not like Steven, but is more like a person working for Steven”). Spielberg’s collaborators revere his innate talents (“cinema is his native language”) but also his obsessive need to hurtle from one project to the next (“movies are my therapy,” he acknowledges).
To be sure, the HBO documentary does not deal with Spielberg’s wealth (estimated at $3.6 billion), his monumental deals (with Universal’s theme parks) or his extraordinary clout on the Hollywood power pyramid. The Spielberg who emerges from the documentary is driven but humane, a man with an urgent story to tell – no, with hundreds of stories to tell, and a compulsive need to tell them all.