Molly Haskell, an astute critic and perceptive writer, has looked at the life of filmmaker Steven Spielberg and demonstrated its relationship to his films in her new book, “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films.” The book is part of the Yale series on Jewish Lives.
This is not a full biography of Spielberg, but a view of how the extremely successful director’s life relates to the films he has made, and the experiences that have propelled his career. It is a neat feat, and Haskell makes her exploration both informative and entertaining.
As she points out, Spielberg’s childhood fears and fantasies have fueled his taste for the kind of films that propelled him toward success. Haskell helps us understand where Spielberg was coming from, given his unsettling family background, and the escapes he sought as a youngster.
She doesn’t labor the point by twisting facts to her overview; to the contrary, she repeatedly offers insights into the Spielberg trajectory. Haskell also displays a sense of humor by quoting a remark that Spielberg once made.
Haskell points out in the book’s preface that when Spielberg was addressing directorial aspirants in a master class at the American Film Institute, he dispensed the following advice: “You just have to have confidence. You can’t worry if critics like Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell don’t like your movies.”
Sarris, Haskell’s late husband, was known as a major very outspoken intellectual critic with a vast knowledge of cinema and its history. About Spielberg’s warning, Haskell comments:
“I winced. But I also fell a little in love with him at that moment, with his charm and quick wittedness, his playful faux-modesty, and –most erotic to a movie lover—his obvious knowledge of and passion for films.” She goes on to comment further on her reactions to Spielberg’s remark and why she chose “To tell the story of Spielberg through his films…”
Throughout the fascinating book I find confirmation of my own brief experiences with the filmmaker. I remember being on Martha’s Vineyard and watching him film scenes from “Jaws,” his huge breakthrough film. He described to me in an interview how when he was a boy he would make films with his friends, and to simulate an action movie, he would have them run around the stationary camera. He was already thinking creatively.
In a telephone interview commenting on the success of “Jaws,” he said that film gave him his “f-you” money, so that now he could do any kind of film he wanted to make.
Haskell traces the path of the films he wanted to and did make, and relates them to the stages of his life as it unfolded. She very importantly notes with reference to his all-important Holocaust film “Schindler’s List”: “Only Spielberg, as he himself candidly admitted, had the clout to get a Hollywood studio to back such a film, which not only dealt with a downbeat subject but promised to be brutally realistic by industry standards.”
She goes on to note: “In anticipation of uncertain commercial prospects and because he didn’t want to accept ‘blood money,’ he gave up his salary, deferred his percentage of gross film rentals and when the film actually went on to become a commercial success, donated the profits through his Righteous Persons Foundation to Jewish organizations, including the one he founded after making the film, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.”
There is, of course, a trove of information on Spielberg’s relationships, and in various cases, insightful views on the intertwining of events in his growth as an individual during the course of his career. Remarkably, Haskell has been able to do this without interview access to her subject. (Spielberg has a policy of not giving interviews to biographers.) The strength of the book springs from her skills as a critic able to examine Speilberg’s various films, her ability as a researcher and her lucidity as a writer. Thus her book emerges as one to be recommended for film buffs and those who would just like to have more insight into one of the great careers in cinema history. Reviewed December 20, 2016. (Yale, publication date January 3, 2017.)