If you want to gain a greater understanding of one of the most significant figures in post-WW2 American cinema in Steven Spielberg, than Joseph McBride’s 2010 biography of him is as good a place to start as any.
Whatever one can say about McBride’s work (first edition published in 1997), it’s impossible to deny it isn’t superbly research full of excellent detail about Spielberg’s life from the background of his family to the present day. While he wasn’t able to interview Spielberg himself, he interviews a large amount of people for this work, perhaps most significantly Spielberg’s father. Even devotees of Spielberg’s career are likely to find plenty of new information about him in this book. For example, you’ll learn that three 1970s films Spielberg was attached to were eventually directed by Joseph Sargent (White Lightning, The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3, Macarthur).
McBride is particularly adept in covering Spielberg’s childhood years, where he illustrates someone enormously talented from a young age and with a supporting family, but also having to deal with constant moving, his parents’ divorce, and often feeling like an outsider with tinges of anti-Semitism. After reading through this section, you feel that Spielberg couldn’t be anything but a highly successful film director.
What sort of picture does McBride paint of Spielberg? Despite Spielberg’s clear confidence in his own skills as a filmmaker we see regular occasions of sensitivity to external criticism and wanting to fit in with certain crowds in Hollywood. One example of this is his failed 1979 WW2 comedy ‘1941’. Whereas his previous film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ was a personal project in the works for years, his attachment to ‘1941’ seemed to be driven by his desire to fit in with trendy, raucous comedy of the time, as symbolised by the casting of multiple people from ‘Animal House’. Spielberg was out of his element on this picture and as a result he ruefully observes that he wasn’t directing the film, the film was directing him.
Also revealing is Spielberg’s 2001 sci-film ‘A.I.’ (which McBride rates as amongst Spielberg’s finest works). That the film was a collaboration between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick surprised many as they were perceived as being polar opposite personalities and film artists – Kubrick as the idiosyncratic, painstaking, non-commercial type with Spielberg as the epitome of mainstream Hollywood tastes. Spielberg is clearly sensitive to this as McBride regularly documents him arguing that he was responsible for the more downbeat aspects of the film, while Kubrick was responsible for the lighter segments.
It just highlights that for all the success and admiration Spielberg had achieved over his career, he was clearly sensitive to the allegation that he was a middle-of-the-road lightweight. And considered the criticism he’s received over his career, that’s understandable. Reading through the book, it’s quite something to see how vicious and prolonged the criticism has been towards him. Even after the triumph of ‘Schlinder’s List’, there were particularly hostile criticisms directed towards Spielberg.
McBride covers all of Spielberg’s professional career up till 2010 but the coverage of certain films stand out. The experience Spielberg had on his debut feature ‘The Sugarland Express’ is particularly revealing in relation to his overall career. Despite a positive critical response and the likes of Billy Wilder giving significant praise to it, the film didn’t succeed commercially and this seemed to impact on Spielberg’s mindset for much of his career after that
Probably the most interesting section of the book is looking at Spielberg’s lengthy career as a producer and studio mogul. McBride observes that whereas Spielberg’s directing career has been characterised by great ambition, care and a willingness to tackle difficult subjects, his producing career has been largely been associated with insignificant bland and/or low-brow films. Notwithstanding that Dreamworks has produced multiple Best Picture Oscar winners, that Dreamworks’ first film was the instantly forgettable George Clooney/Nicole Kidman action effort ‘The Peacemaker’ is symbolic of why the studio has made little positive impact on the standard of Hollywood filmmaking.
McBride’s writing style is standard, director and professional in an easily readable format. His assessments of Spielberg’s films are well-written and interesting (e.g. that Spielberg’s revised version of Close Encounters is weaker and done mainly to appease critics). On the downside, he probably too often falls back on the troubles in Spielberg’s childhood and his parents’ divorce as driving forces for why he takes on film projects.
McBride is generally reverential and admiring of Spielberg, although he is prepared to be harshly criticial on occasion. He is particularly critical of the first two Indiana Jones films and – as already mentioned – his generally disappointing producing record.
Overall, this is an excellent biography that helps understand how Spielberg has had the remarkable film career he has. After all, it’s hard to think of any other modern director who would be able to direct as diverse a pair of films as ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ successfully in the same year.