Oscar Directors: Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan)

Born on December 18, 1946, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Steven Spielberg was the introverted son of an emotionally distant electric engineer father, specializing in computers, and a doting concert‑pianist mother. He moved with his family to New Jersey, then on to Phoenix, Arizona.

A film enthusiast since childhood, he gained production experience with home movies and by the age of 12 had turned out his first scripted amateur film with actors. At 13, he won a contest with a 40‑minute war film, Escape to Nowhere, and  later completed Firelight, an ambi­tious 140‑minute‑long amateur production.

He turned out five films during studies in the film department of California State College and made his professional debut with a 24‑minute short, Amblin, which was shown at the 1969 Atlanta Film Fes­tival.  Its success led to a contract with Universal and to television work, including the TV movies Duel and Something Evil.

Spielberg made his debut as feature director with The Sug­arland Express in 1974, after which he was assigned to direct a film that would become a milestone in the director’s career but a launching pad for a significant new trend in the American movie industry. Brilliantly adapted from a Peter Benchley bestseller, Jaws (1975), a thriller about a shark terrorizing a New England beach community, cost only $8.5 million to make, and eventually reaped $130 million in North American rentals, changing the way Hollywood viewed its business. The era of the blockbuster began, based on new math in which costs were measured against poten­tial returns.

Spiel­berg scored another critical and commercial tri­umph with Close Encounters of the third Kind (1977), a stunning sci‑fi drama that earned him his first Oscar Award nomination as Best Director, Surviving the grand folly of 1941 (1979), an inflated gag‑and trick filled farce about WW II panic in L.A., he soon solidified his formidable position in the industry.

Spielberg and George Lucas redefined the movie market and for several years dominated the commercial side of the Hollywood scene.  Spielberg reached a n impressive level of success at the start of the 1980s. His string of hit began with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), an exhilarating adventure thriller inspired by old matinee cliff‑hanger serials that had excited the director and producer Lucas in childhood. A masterpiece of technical craftsmanship and storytelling at a rudimen­tary, diverting level, the film, budgeted at $20 million, went on to earn $116 million in North America. It earned Spiel­berg a second Best Director Oscar nomination, and went on to spawn three successful “Indiana Jones” sequels, all directed by Spielberg.

The success of Raiders was surpassed in 1982 by E.T The Extra‑Terrestrial, a film that for many years remained the box‑office champion of all times‑-$228 million in North American rentals-‑earning Spielberg a third Directing Oscar nomination. More than any other of his films, this imaginative, heart‑felt, enchanting, sci­ence‑fiction tale of a little boy’s love of an alien creature, echoes the inner mind of the director’s personality: the wonderstruck, precocious child who would rather go on dreaming than grow up.

Spielberg entertains others the way he would like to be entertained, using film as the ultimate medium of communication with other kids of all ages, while keeping himself shyly remote. But he has always showed a more mature entrepreneur, a workaholic with a good reading of the public pulse and a fertile business mind.

Expanding his activity as a producer, while continuing to direct, he rapidly amassed a huge fortune, becom­ing one of Hollywood’s richest.  In 1982, he was reported to collect a cool $1 million each day in personal profits from E.T. and Poltergeist.

In 1984, he formed Amblin Entertain­ment, one of Hollywood’s largest independent companies. Located in a compound on the Universal lot, the highly productive and profitable company wields enormous power in the industry.

Spielberg awes even his detractors: His work has generated more than $5 billion in revenues in 20 years. Among his successes as co‑executive producer were Gremlins (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and animated feature An American Tail (1986), all of which led to sequels. Spielberg collaborated with Disney in producing Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a visually innovative blend of animation and live action that helped revive the animation genre.  As an executive producer, Spielberg shepherded the careers of such directors as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, and animator Don Bluth.

In a departure from his typical work, he turned out The Color Pur­ple (1985), an emotionally‑charged, sensitively‑told adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize‑winning novel about the tribu­lations of a black girl in the South. It was Spielberg’s first adult film and, although some critics faulted the director for sweetening the book’s harshness and replacing its earthy passion with sentimentality, most found the film touching and well played. It was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture, but in what seemed like intentional snub, the Academy refrained from nominating Spielberg for Best Director.

The following year the Academy bestowed on Spielberg the hon­orary Irving G. Thalberg Award, for the body of his work, dur­ing the Oscar ceremony.

Spielberg was less successful with his next “adult” film, Empire of the Sun (1987), a splendid recreation of colonial life in China at the outset of WWII. He used plenty of physical fire but barely any true passion in attempting to recapture the magic of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe (1943) with his technically spectacular but uncon­vincing remake Always (1989).

The director confronted his own duality in Hook (1991), an updating of Peter Pan in which the protagonist, a hard‑driving takeover lawyer who was once Peter Pan, struggles to balance inner conflicts between creativity and ambition. Though the film was commercially successful, it received mixed reviews.

Spielberg reached a new height of commercial success with Jurassic Park (1993), a visually astonishing sci-fi thriller about a theme park, where genetically‑engineered dinosaurs run amok. The film restored Spielberg’s reputation for roller‑coaster terror and the blending of special effects wiz­ardry with captivating storytelling. It set new speed records for grossing $100 million at the box office (in 9 days) and $200 million (in 23 days), and surpassed Spiel­berg’s own E.T. as the all‑time rental champion.

Having reaffirmed his position as the premier director of summer blockbusters, he turned again to serious films with Schindler’s List. Set, like many of his films, during World War II, it was his most ambitious effort yet in subject, and treatment: a story of the Holocaust photographed in documentary‑style black‑and‑white. In recognition of this achievement, he received his first Best Director Oscar.