“An Awfully Big Adventure”
“An Awfully Big Adventure”
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter details Spielberg’s sideline as producer of other directors’ movies; the impact of his production duties on the quality of his own films; his involvement in the TV series Amazing Stories and films Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Always, and Hook; and his divorce from Amy Irving.
IF HE COULD GET THE HANG OF THE THING HIS CRY MIGHT BECOME “TO LIVE WOULD BE AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE!” BUT HE CAN NEVER QUITE GET THE HANG OF IT…
— JAMES M. BARRIE, PETER PAN
A WEEK before Max was born in 1985, Spielberg vowed that “the child is going to change my life.… I want to be like most parents. I want to drive home in bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic, which means I’ve got to leave the office by five-thirty to hit the peak traffic hours. And that’s going to change everything I do.” Fatherhood did bring profound changes to his life. “Steven’s a great father—I sometimes can’t get him to go back to work!” Amy said when Max was a year old. “He’s cut his work week to four days; he doesn’t want to miss anything at home. He changes dirty diapers, which he vowed he’d never do, and he gets up in the night with the baby.”
Those habits have persisted. He said in 1994, “I’ve grown up more because I have kids, because my kids don’t want me to be a kid. They want to be a kid, and in a sense they have directed me to be more of an adult than I probably ever could do for myself.” Being a father deepened Spielberg’s work as a filmmaker, teaching him to accept adult responsibilities in every aspect of his life. But his final passage from boy to man was not smooth or easy.
(p.380) SPIELBERG’S sideline as a producer of other directors’ movies kept his workload heavy following his founding of Amblin Entertainment. From 1984 through 1990, when he began cutting back on his producing chores, his name appeared on nineteen feature films as producer or executive producer, other than the films he directed. In that same period, he produced an ambitious but unsuccessful sci-fi/fantasy series for Universal TV and NBC, Amazing Stories (1985–87), and started his long-running Warner Bros. TV animated series Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-present).*
Spielberg began conceiving grandiose plans of running his own Hollywood production company as early as the 1970s. “He said he wanted to do what Walt Disney had done, except that he would do it for all audiences,” recalled Warner Bros, president Terry Semel. After E.T., Spielberg rejected offers to run Disney and three other major studios, preferring to be what The Wall Street Journal described as a “one-man entertainment conglomerate.” “After Max was born,” he explained, “the ambition wasn’t there as much. It became, in some ways, a real choice. I realized that I could be a Disney, but that I would be a terrible father, or I could forget Disney and be a great father.”
Whether it was wise to spread himself even as thin as he did with Amblin was debatable. In addition to taking up time he could have devoted to directing, his work as a producer has often exhibited dubious artistic taste along with uneven commercial results. How he fares as a partner with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen in his own fully fledged studio, DreamWorks SKG, which they founded in 1994, and how that ambitious venture will affect his directing career, remains to be seen.
Art Murphy of Daily Variety warned in the early 1980s that by attaching his name to films he did not direct, Spielberg ran the risk of confusing the public and cheapening his reputation. Since many people outside the industry are unclear about the difference between what a producer does and what a director does, they might assume Spielberg had as much to do with such stinkers as The Goonies (1985), The Money Pit (1986) Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), and The Flintstones (1994) as he did with such classics as Close Encounters, E.T., and Schindler’s List, and wonder why his work has seemed to fluctuate so widely in quality. But by and large, as far as the public is concerned, Murphy’s dire prediction does not seem to have been borne out. The public is more intuitive and discriminating (as well as more forgiving) than Hollywood tends to recognize, and Spielberg’s box-office appeal as a director has not been tarnished appreciably by his association with many mediocre or downright awful films as a producer or executive producer. The better films bearing his name, such as Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (p.381) (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), have helped enhance his image. Such smaller-scale, quietly affecting Amblin films as Gary David Goldberg’s Dad (1989), Jocelyn Moorhouse’s How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and Don Bluth’s animated feature An American Tail (1986) have broadened Spielberg’s image and made the public more receptive to his own ventures into more challenging emotional material.
There can be little doubt, however, that Spielberg’s critical reputation, which became increasingly problematical when he started directing more “adult” movies in the 1980s, suffered as a result of his producing sideline. Critics’ fixation on the image of Spielberg as an emotionally arrested filmmaker, despite mounting evidence to the contrary in recent years, is not easily dispelled when the title “Steven Spielberg Presents” precedes such movies as Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), The Little Rascals (1994), and Casper (also 1994), the kind of derivative, assembly-line product that gives family entertainment a bad name. Much of Spielberg’s producing output has been aimed at teenagers or subteens, and most of his protégés, who tend to ape his style shamelessly, find it next to impossible to duplicate his knack for visual and emotional wonderment. Young Sherlock Holmes, an uncharacteristically formulaic early effort from director Barry Levinson, was so derivative of other Spielberg special-effects extravaganzas that one reviewer called it Indiana Holmes and the Temple of the Goonies. “It used to be that when a director’s hits were copied he was far from happy about it; he understood that his pictures were being devalued—cheapened,” Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker. “But Steven Spielberg ‘presents’ Young Sherlock Holmes.… Spielberg has said that he had Virtually nothing to do’ with this movie except to offer some advice on the special effects, and there’s no reason to doubt that. But didn’t he even look at the script?”
Another unfortunate side effect of such mediocre Spielberg movies is that they and their often offensively crass merchandising have helped foster a perception that Spielberg is not only a commercially minded filmmaker but a greedy one as well. Why else would he want to waste his time making such a lumbering, unfunny dinosaur of a comedy as The Flintstones? Spielberg may have been trying to signal his disdain for the work of director Brian Levant by jokingly changing his own screen credit to “Steven Spielrock Presents,” but with all of his vast wealth, does he really need more money badly enough to make such a movie? Or, as Kael wrote of George Lucas when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark, is Spielberg still so “hooked on the crap of his childhood” that he feels a compulsion to keep replicating it on the big screen, in all its unalloyed dreckiness?
As an executive producer, Spielberg is motivated largely by the fact that he “just likes movies and wants to make movies he would like to see, movies he doesn’t want to spend a year of his life on,” says Michael Finnell, who has produced three films for Amblin. Spielberg’s ability to spawn so many productions while still managing to focus on his own personal projects is a (p.382) byproduct of his remarkably overactive metabolism. His Amblin partner Frank Marshall, who served as line producer on many of the company’s films along with his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, once said of Spielberg, “He has an idea every thirteen seconds. I have to figure out how serious they are. If he wants to do something, I figure out how to make it possible financially. Steven doesn’t think in monetary terms.”
But that image is somewhat illusory, a bit of Spielbergian public relations to distract the paying customers from the fact that, as Sid Sheinberg once told The Wall Street Journal, “Steven’s as good a businessman as he is a director.” Spielberg is renowned—and sometimes deplored—in Hollywood for driving hard bargains with everyone from technicians to actors to studio chiefs. In recent years, his standard deal has been a remarkable 50 percent of the distributor’s gross on his pictures (compared with the 5-to-15 percent even major stars can command, with only a few going higher). The studios also fully finance Spielberg’s films, even though the copyright is owned or shared by Amblin or one of its subsidiaries. “Steven gets the studios to carry the risk and he takes in the money,” observed Jeffrey Berg, chairman of International Creative Management.*
From the time he worked his way out of his remaining obligations to Universal in the early eighties, Spielberg has taken care to avoid being pinned down to any one studio. Even his own DreamWorks allows him to take directing jobs elsewhere. While ensconced for many years in his cozy headquarters on the Universal lot, Spielberg freelanced projects all over town, but concentrated his work at two studios, Universal and Warner Bros.
THE Warners connection came through his close friendship with Steve Ross, the late chairman of the board of Time Warner. Ross was the most colorful, and controversial, of the film industry mentors to whom Spielberg has attached himself. There can be little doubt that Spielberg’s growing interest in becoming a movie mogul during the eighties was largely a result of their mutually enriching friendship. And if Spielberg imbibed some of Ross’s piratical attitudes along with his largesse, that would hardly have been surprising.
From their first meeting in 1981 until Ross’s death in 1992, Ross carefully cultivated his and Time Warner’s relationships with Spielberg, whose association with the company became a crucial element in its success and stability. Biographer Connie Bruck reported that Ross “was determined to find a (p.383) means to loosen the Universal-Spielberg bond and bring Spielberg to Warner Bros. Spielberg would have been an alluring asset for the Warner studio at any time, but the early eighties were especially fallow.”
“I had typecast what a CEO was—I’d never met one before, and I wasn’t far off, because I’ve met them since—and in my mind, they looked like J. C. Penney,” Spielberg recalled. “And suddenly here was this older movie star. We quickly found out what we had in common: my favorite movies were made between 1932 and 1952 and those were his favorites, too. Steve to me was a blast from the past. He had silver-screen charisma, much like an older Cary Grant, or a Walter Pidgeon. He had style in a tradition that seems to have bred itself out of society. He had flash. He was a magnetic host—eventually, that became his calling card. And at Acapulco, he was the weekend.”
Assuming the roles of Spielberg’s best friend and idealized father-figure, as well as business mentor, Ross began educating Spielberg in the finer aspects of life as a Hollywood mogul. Studio president Terry Semel recalled that when he introduced them, Spielberg “was a young man, in his early thirties, with no business sophistication. He found Steve, who was much older, so fascinating. Steve Ross was into things we knew only a little about—art, planes, homes.” Wooing Spielberg with lavish gifts and hospitality (he once sent the company plane to fly Spielberg’s dogs from California to New York), Ross went so far as to insist that Spielberg become his neighbor in East Hampton, setting the real-estate deal in motion almost before Spielberg knew what was happening.
The Spielberg-Ross relationship resulted in Spielberg making eleven feature films for Warners during the executive’s tenure, including The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, as well as the studio’s TV series Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs (the latter began airing after Ross’s death). Spielberg also lent his name and talents to more ephemeral projects aimed unabashedly at glorifying the house of Ross. When the executive’s wife, Courtney Sale Ross, produced Strokes of Genius, a 1984 TV series of documentaries on artists, Spielberg donated his services as director for the introductions, hosted by Dustin Hoffman. Spielberg himself was one of the hosts of the 1991 TV special Here’s Looking at You, Warner Bros. And when Columbia Pictures vacated the former Burbank Studios in 1990 and Warners reclaimed sole ownership of the lot, Ross tapped Spielberg to serve as an executive producer for a “Celebration of Tradition,” an outlandishly decadent super-A-list party costing $3 million. While being driven through the lot on trams, guests watched spectacular musical numbers being performed in the studio streets before arriving at a soundstage transformed into Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca, with the added attraction of bathing beauties diving into a swimming pool for a Busby Berkeley-style homage.
Ross rewarded Spielberg’s professional favors with unusually generous film deals and stock options. The other stockholders did not complain about this special treatment. Explaining the hidden benefits of letting Spielberg use (p.384) the company’s Acapulco villa, Ross once said, “Look, Spielberg goes down there on the company plane and wakes up in the middle of the night after a nightmare. He can’t sleep, and in the morning he gets up and writes the script for The Goonies.* That’s worth tens of millions to us.”
Perhaps even more important to Ross, Spielberg threw his power and prestige behind the executive during periods of upheaval at Warner Communications Inc. and its successor, Time Warner. At a WCI shareholders meeting in 1987, Spielberg said, “I am too secure in my line of work, and too fat as a result of it, to be seduced by deals and perks and promises. I have settled down to live and work in only two houses.… MCA and WCI.” He said he had decided to do so because of his “respect and admiration… for two people in particular, Sidney J. Sheinberg and Steven J. Ross.”
SPIELBERG’S involvement as producer has varied greatly from film to film, ranging from his virtual takeover of the directing of Poltergeist to his far more tangential involvement as executive producer on movies with strong directors he respects, such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Don Bluth, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood. On their movies, Spielberg has regarded himself largely as the filmmakers’ advocate, protecting them against studio interference. Describing Spielberg as “a perfect executive producer” on Back to the Future, Zemeckis said, “The most important thing he does is create an atmosphere for you to comfortably create a movie. He says, ‘It’s your movie—but if you need me, I’m here.’ He respects the filmmaker’s vision. He lets you do the movie the way you see it.”
Spielberg’s reluctance to play the heavy with other filmmakers, even mediocre ones, sometimes has led him to be too much of a hands-off executive, when a firmer hand might have been more advisable. “The worst thing about working at Amblin,” Richard Benjamin said while directing The Money Pit, “is that one day I’m going to have to leave it and go back to the real world.” That film’s screenwriter-producer, David Giler, says Spielberg’s greatest strength as an executive producer is that “he’s got final say. He doesn’t really have to ask anybody else. You convince him, it stops there.”
Spielberg’s popular instincts enabled him to go against conventional Hollywood wisdom when he produced the original Back to the Future. The biggest hit Amblin has produced, other than the films Spielberg himself has directed, it grossed $211 million in domestic box office. But the rest of Hollywood had turned thumbs down on the script by Zemeckis and Gale, believing that movies about time travel never make money. “Steven was the only guy who said, ‘I want to do this,’” Zemeckis recalled. “And I said, ‘Steven, if I do another movie with you that fails, the reality of the situation (p.385) is that I will never work again.’ And he said, ‘You’re probably right.’ A lot of lean years went by because I had done two movies that he executive-produced [I Wanna Hold Your Hand and the 1980 black comedy Used Cars] and they did no business. The word was getting around town: Bob Zemeckis can’t get work unless Steven Spielberg is the executive producer.” After Zemeckis finally directed a hit movie away from Spielberg’s company, Romancing the Stone, he took Back to the Future back to Spielberg, who set up the deal with Sid Sheinberg at Universal.
Spielberg also participated in the painful decision to replace the star of the movie (Eric Stoltz) with Michael J. Fox after five weeks of shooting, a decision that necessitated the scrapping of $4 million in footage and proved a serious setback to Stoltz’s career, but added a crucial element to the picture’s box-office chemistry. “We’ve got to do something drastic, because this isn’t funny,” Spielberg said after the worried director showed him the Stoltz footage. Spielberg blamed himself for not voicing his reservations earlier, “but I didn’t do anything about it [at first] because I thought it was up to Bob to make his movie.”
“I’ll tell you a great story about how Steven earned his executive-producer fee on Back to the Future [a reported $20 million],” adds Gale. “Sid Sheinberg will deny this story, because he doesn’t remember it, but it’s a true story. Sid Sheinberg didn’t like the title Back to the Future. Every other executive at Universal thought it was a great title, as did Steven, as did we. And Sheinberg would not get off [the idea] that Back to the Future was a bad title. He said, ‘It’s not hip, like Ghostbusters was hip.’ So he sent us a memo and he said, ‘My suggestion for the new title of this movie is Spaceman from Pluto. Here are some notes I have regarding the script and how we can make reference to this in the movie.’
“There’s a scene in the movie when the DeLorean is in the barn and the kid has a comic book, and it’s called Space Zombies from Pluto. Sheinberg said, ‘Change that to Spaceman from Pluto, and have the kid say, “Look, it’s a spaceman from Pluto!” And in the scene when Marty intimidates George McFly by saying, “My name is Darth Vader—I’m an extraterrestrial from the Planet Vulcan,” have him say that he’s a spaceman from Pluto.’ We were saying, ‘He’s serious about this, Steven. What do we do? We don’t want to change the title of this movie.’ Steven said, ‘OK, I know what to do.’ So Steven dictated a memo back to Sid, and the memo said something like this: ‘Dear Sid, Thank you for your most humorous memo of such-and-such a date. We all got a big laugh out of it. Keep ’em coming.’ Steven said, ‘Sheinberg will be so embarrassed to tell us that he was serious about this that we’ll never hear from him about it again.’ And he was right.”*
Spielberg has admitted that in his relationships with directors, he has “found out that not everyone is like Bob Zemeckis.” As a result, he said in (p.386) 1992, “Producing has been the least fulfilling aspect of what I’ve done in the last decade.” He began scaling back his producing in the nineties partly for that reason and also because he finally recognized that his name was appearing on too many inferior movies. Furthermore, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy were becoming restless and wanted to start their own independent company; Marshall also was branching out into directing, starting with second-unit work for Spielberg before making his solo debut in 1990 with Amblin’s horror comedy Arachnophobia.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Spielberg its Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1987, an honor given to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” That award was generally regarded as more a gesture of apology by the Academy for past slights of his work as a director than a genuine measure of his highly uneven track record as a producer.* Far too willing to encourage his many protégés to make faux Spielberg movies rather than express their own individual visions, he has not been responsible for developing even half as many first-rate talents as B-movie meister Roger Corman. Spielberg may have given the world at least one genuine original, Zemeckis, and elevated Dante to A-picture status, but he has given his imprimatur to a host of forgettable talents as well. Could it be that he has a problem fostering genuine competition? The occasional films Amblin has made with major directors, such as Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (199D, Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off (1992), and Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995), have been solid pieces of craftsmanship but not among those directors’ most important work. In some cases, including Cape Fear and Madison County, Amblin’s productions have been projects Spielberg seriously considered directing before losing interest.
Spielberg occasionally has reached out to help one of the legendary directors whose work has given him inspiration. He and George Lucas found financing and distribution from Warner Bros, for a 1990 film by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Dreams. But no such support was forthcoming when Orson Welles, near the end of his life in 1985, invited Spielberg and Amy Irving to lunch at the West Hollywood bistro Ma Maison. Welles hoped Spielberg would finance his stalled project The Cradle Will Rock, in which Irving had agreed to play Welles’s first wife. Just a few months earlier, Spielberg had spent $60,500 to buy a Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane as “a symbolic medallion of quality in movies. When you look at Rosebud, you don’t think of fast dollars, fast sequels, and remakes. This to me says that movies of my generation had better be good.” But rather than offering to help Welles with The Cradle Will Rock, Spielberg spent most of their luncheon asking questions about Citizen Kane.
(p.387) “Why can’t I direct an Amazing Stories?” Welles later wondered. “Everybody else is doing Amazing Stories.”*
AMAZING Stories was Spielberg’s “elephant burial ground for ideas that will never make it to the movie screen because they are just too short-form. And if I didn’t exorcise them in one form or the other, they would just float around in my head and mess me up later in my life.”
“This man is a fountain of story ideas,” says Peter Z. Orton, story editor during the series’ second season. “When I first got on the show, they gave me a looseleaf binder of story ideas. I realized when I got a quarter of the way through that they were all by Steven. That notebook I saw was about three inches thick. When people ask me to describe Steven, I say, ‘He’s a guy you’d swear had just drunk four cups of coffee, but that’s just him.’ He gets his enjoyment out of his work. He’s there at seven in the morning making matzohs and he’s there until nine or ten at night. Ten to fifteen percent of what he says is way over the top, about fifty percent makes you think, and twenty percent is absolutely great. If you wait long enough, he’ll have a genius idea.”
Launched with loud fanfare and great expectations by NBC-TV in the fall of 1985, Amazing Stories was touted as a blend of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, filtered through the visionary talents of Steven Spielberg. But Spielberg’s anthology series, a highly uneven mixture of fantasy with often leaden doses of whimsy, soon proved an expensive, embarrassing dud, like most of his TV ventures before he finally managed to strike gold in 1994 with the hyperkinetic medical series ER.
Speculating on the failure of Amazing Stories to find an audience, Orton offers the theory “that when people watch television, what they’re looking for are continuing characters. The anthology shows that succeeded had a modicum of continuity. They had the same host, Walt Disney or Rod Serling, who would be there at the beginning of every show. At the time there was some discussion of Steven Spielberg hosting Amazing Stories. He nixed that idea. He felt, ‘I don’t want to be mobbed every time I go out.’ He tends to be a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. He likes to let the work speak for itself.” Spielberg also vetoed the network’s suggestion of calling it Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, saying, “I don’t want my name to give it that false continuity.” He might not have the same qualms today, since he has become increasingly comfortable over the years appearing in public and promoting his work.
Amazing Stories never lived up to the grandiose promise of its title, borrowed from the venerable pulp magazine that inspired Arnold Spielberg’s (p.388) boyhood interest in science fiction. “I like stories that were the sort told to me when I was sitting on my father’s knee at four or five years old,” Steven said. But TV critics were quick to seize on the title as a handy battering ram against Spielberg. Tom Shales of The Washington Post wrote in his review of the first program, “I hear America asking, what was so Amazing about that?” Indeed, the sense of wonder that Spielberg conjures up so naturally in his best theatrical films was largely absent from the overly literal-minded, often fatally hokey series. Ironically enough, it was the stories themselves (many of them credited to Spielberg) that constituted the weakest element of Amazing Stories. Even so, it was hard to shake the suspicion that in writing off the series as hastily and completely as they did, the critics were betraying an eagerness to see the cocky, fabulously wealthy wunderkind fall flat on his face.
That was especially unfortunate because the opening program was the underrated “Ghost Train,” an eerie and poignant vignette directed by Spielberg and photographed by Allen Daviau. Inspired by Spielberg’s childhood memory of hearing an unseen train speeding each night through his neighborhood in New Jersey, as well as by his love for his Grandpa Fievel, “Ghost Train” (written by Frank Deese) tells the story of a seemingly blinkered elderly man (Roberts Blossom) who tenderly convinces his grandson (Lukas Haas) that he must board the ancient express taking him to his rendezvous with death.
“The most amazing thing about the first episode, in fact, was that Steven Spielberg directed it,” wrote David Blum in New York magazine. Amazing Stories proved that “the emperor is naked,” L.A. Reader television critic Michael Kaplan charged just a few weeks after the premiere. Kaplan claimed Spielberg had already “squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to reshape a commercial medium that has opened itself up completely to one man’s artistic vision.”
Spielberg was his own series’s worst enemy, feeding the press’s antagonism with what was widely perceived as an arrogant approach to publicity. Not only did Spielberg follow his habitual practice of keeping sets off-limits to virtually all members of the media—with the exception of two reporters from Time preparing that magazine’s Spielberg cover story—but he even refused to allow NBC to preview Amazing Stories programs for TV reporters and reviewers, claiming that to do so would rob the series of its ability to surprise the audience. The network later persuaded him that he had made a serious mistake.
His secretiveness provoked an all-out attack profile by Richard Turner in the August 2, 1986, issue of TV Guide, perhaps the single most negative piece of writing ever published on Spielberg. Turner, then the Hollywood bureau chief of the nation’s most widely distributed magazine, painted Spielberg as autocratic, paranoid, and stingy in his dealings with employees and the press, and as a “consummate Hollywood insider” who bullied network executives into acceding to his demands. “Spielberg tends his public image (p.389) carefully,” Turner wrote, “and it’s no coincidence that stories about him are almost universally positive.” The reality, charged Turner, was that people who worked with him “were scared. Scared? Of Steven Spielberg? That beneficent troll, that kindly gremlin whose gentle fantasies transport millions? Scared? They were terrified.” Sid Sheinberg told the Los Angeles Times he had to read Turner’s article two or three times because “at first, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.… It characterized Steven as being greedy, cold, and selfish. But that’s not the Steven Spielberg I know. You’re talking about someone I’ve known for seventeen or eighteen years.”
Spielberg’s remarkable deal with NBC helped bring about the resentment in Hollywood, particularly after Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, described Spielberg as behaving like an “800-pound gorilla.” Without even having to make a pilot, Spielberg was guaranteed a two-year commitment for Amazing Stories, ensuring that forty-four shows would be broadcast no matter how the series performed in the ratings. He was granted creative carte blanche, having to conform only to network standards and practices, which in his case were relaxed considerably. The average budget for each half-hour program was a lavish $1 million, as much as the average hour-long dramatic program on television at that time; NBC put up $750,000 per show, with Universal making up the difference.
Many Amazing Stories directors were Spielberg protégés, such as Joe Dante, Phil Joanou, Kevin Reynolds, and Lesli Linka Glatter. The unusually generous budgets and shooting schedules helped attract such major feature directors as Scorsese, Eastwood, Zemeckis, and Irvin Kershner. While directing “Ghost Train,” Spielberg invited his idol, David Lean, to visit the set. The famously perfectionistic Lean could not resist the temptation to offer a suggestion: “Don’t you think on the next take that it would be absolutely marvelous if the debris fell a beat sooner than it had on the first two takes?” “Absolutely!” said Spielberg, yelling to his special-effects crew. “Drop the day-bree a beat sooner!” Then he asked Lean, “Would you like to do one of these?”
“Well, dear boy,” Lean replied, “how many days do you give a director?”
“Between six and eight,” said Spielberg.
“Oh, my,” said Lean. “Well, if you perhaps add a zero after the six or the eight, I’ll consider.”
Some Amazing Stories directors, mostly those who came from features, nevertheless managed to exceed their budgets and schedules. The series “was impeccably produced—too impeccably produced,” Dante feels. “And because the shows were so overproduced, it diminished the series.” The second show Spielberg directed, a thinly plotted World War II fantasy titled “The Mission,” was padded to fill an hour slot when his first cut clocked in eight minutes too long.
Such disparities between the elaborate scale of production and the tongue-in-cheek wispiness of the storylines were a recurring problem. As far as Amazing Stories had any particular formula, Orton says, it was to introduce (p.390) “one drop of magic” into a dramatic setting and then “develop it in a realistic way.” On rare occasions, the magic worked, such as in the haunting “What If…?,” directed by Joan Darling from a script by Spielberg’s sister Anne. This show has what most other Amazing Stories programs lack—a powerful emotional situation leading to a satisfying fantasy presented with conviction and a minimum of gimmickry. The tale of a small boy who suffers from parental neglect and is granted his wish to be reborn as the child of a kindly female stranger, “What If…?” touches the heart much like E.T., by providing a delicate fable of childhood pain, but it does so with a freshness and originality that never seems imitative of Steven Spielberg. On too many other Amazing Stories programs, “Steven would come up with the ideas and the people who wrote the shows would be afraid to deviate from them,” Dante observes. “They would do slavish versions of his ideas.” While lambasting Spielberg for encouraging “an infantilization of the culture” through the work of his imitators, Pauline Kael added caustically of Amazing Stories, “I can’t think of any other director who’s started paying homage to himself so early.”
After the series finished its first season a disastrous thirty-fifth in the ratings, one of its producers, David E. Vogel, said that “the spectacular visual effects for which Mr. Spielberg is renowned didn’t work on television,” such as the locomotive crashing through the living room of a suburban ranch-house in “Ghost Train.” Tartikoff thought the series was too childish, and Spielberg vowed that in the second season, “The silly factor will be seriously minimalized,” but the series played out its run to diminishing audiences.
Spielberg’s “The Mission” was a perfect exemplar of the “silly factor.” The director staged the crash landing of a bomber with elaborate, often dazzling camerawork, but the story built up to a ridiculous climax.* A young crew member (Casey Siemaszko) trapped in a plastic gunnery bubble under the plane draws cartoon wheels that magically materialize so the plane can land safely. Richard B. Matheson, who served as a story consultant on Amazing Stories, “had to be more honest with Spielberg than is smart to be. I told him they spent all this money on The Mission,’ they had a great cast, and it was all based on this guy drawing a wheel! On The Twilight Zone, the stories were so interesting. There were not enough interesting or involving stories on Amazing Stories.”
“Steven never could make up his mind what the show was going to be, whether it was going to be scary or whether it was going to be fantasy,” says writer and story consultant Bob Gale. “Every month Steven would change his mind about what direction we should go. Television is not a director’s medium, and it’s great that Steven got all these directors in there to do these shows, but the scripts weren’t any good. He should have spent more time getting the best writers in the world to contribute, and then worrying about the directors.”
(p.391) Spielberg expressed similar sentiments in his eloquent speech when accepting his Thalberg Award at the 1987 Oscar ceremony: “Most of my life has been spent in the dark watching movies. Movies have been the literature of my life. The literature of Irving Thalberg’s generation was books and plays. They read the great words of great minds. And in our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities of film and video, I think we’ve partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it’s time to renew our romance with the word. I’m as culpable as anyone of exalting the image at the expense of the word.… I’m proud to have my name on this award in his honor, because it reminds me of how much growth as an artist I have ahead of me in order to be worthy of standing in the company of those who have received this before me.”
IN the mid-eighties, Spielberg attempted to produce a feature film for David Lean, who had returned to directing with A Passage to India after a fourteen-year hiatus. Lean was considering filming J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. The 1984 roman à clef dealt with the author’s harrowing experiences as a boy living in Shanghai’s British Protectorate and interned without his parents in a Japanese prison camp during the World War II occupation. Spielberg initially agreed to produce Lean’s film version of Empire of the Sun for Warner Bros., which controlled the rights.*
But the elderly director became daunted by the prospect of working in China and by the problems of adapting the novel. “I worked on it for about a year,” he told biographer Kevin Brownlow, “and in the end I gave it up because I thought, This is like a diary. It’s bloody well written and very interesting, but I don’t think it’s a movie for me because it hasn’t got a dramatic shape.… I gave it up and Steven said, ‘Do you mind if I have it?’ I said, ‘Of course I don’t.’ And he did it and I must say a bit of what I felt, I felt about his film, too.” (Spielberg subsequently agreed to produce Lean’s planned film version of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo for Warner Bros., but angered Lean in February 1987 by handing him a detailed memo suggesting changes in Christopher Hampton’s screenplay. “Who does he think he is?” Lean demanded, waving the memo at Hampton, who replied, “He thinks he’s the producer, and he is.” Spielberg withdrew from the project, Hampton said, “because he could see there would be some sort of fight between him and David and he wanted to avoid that.” Lean continued preparing Nostromo until soon before his death in 1991.)
Spielberg’s 1987 film version of Empire of the Sun combined Lean’s epic grandeur with Spielberg’s own thematic concentration on the painful process of growing up. “The kid in E.T. that Henry Thomas played was as much who Steven Spielberg was when he made that movie as the kid in Empire of the (p.392) Sun was when he made Empire of the Sun,” Bob Gale observes. “By the time he made Empire of the Sun, Steven was cut off from normal, everyday stuff by virtue of his success and how he lived. He was the kid in the ivory tower, so to speak, the kid in the sequestered existence. He was identifying with that kid [splendidly played by thirteen-year-old Christian Bale], because that was more who he was than the kid he was when he made E.T.”
“From the moment I read the [Ballard] novel, I secretly wanted to do it myself,” Spielberg admitted. “I had never read anything with an adult setting—even Oliver Twist—where a child saw things through a man’s eyes as opposed to a man discovering things through the child in him. This was just the reverse of what I felt—leading up to Empire—was my credo. And then I discovered very quickly that this movie and turning forty [in December 1986] happening at almost the same time was no coincidence—that I had decided to do a movie with grown-up themes and values, although spoken through a voice that hadn’t changed through puberty as yet.”
By adventuring into Lean territory and, indeed, Oedipally taking over a project from Lean himself, Spielberg was making a further declaration of artistic manhood.* When he was a schoolboy, his favorite movie was Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which similarly takes place in a Japanese prison camp. His obsession with World War II also was stimulated by his father’s stories about his experiences as a B-25 radio operator in the China-Burma-India Theater. Like J. G. [James Graham] Ballard’s surrogate in the novel, Jim Graham, the young Spielberg developed an obsession with airplanes. “It’s a fetish, I guess,” he said in 1991. “I think it’s interesting to be psychoanalyzed via my films, and I agree with this idea because I consciously like flying and have flying in all of my films. But I’m afraid to fly in real life, so there’s an interesting conflict here.”
To Spielberg, as to Jim, flying symbolizes both the possibility and the danger of escape. Jim’s growing alienation from his prewar self and society is reflected in his hero-worship of the Japanese aviators based at the airfield adjoining the camp. “I think it’s true that the Japanese were pretty brutal with the Chinese, so I didn’t have any particularly sentimental view of them,” Ballard recalled. “But small boys tend to find their heroes where they can. One thing there was no doubt about, and that was that the Japanese were extremely brave. One had very complicated views about patriotism [and] loyalty to one’s own nation. Jim is constantly identifying himself, first with (p.393) the Japanese, then when the Americans start flying over in their Mustangs and B-29s, he’s very drawn to the Americans.”
The apocalyptic wartime setting and the climactic moment when Jim sees the distant white flash of the atomic bomb being dropped over Nagasaki gave Spielberg powerful visual metaphors “to draw a parallel story between the death of this boy’s innocence and the death of the innocence of the entire world,” he said at the time of the film’s release. “… I don’t think I’ve made a dark movie. But it’s as dark as I’ve allowed myself to get, and that was perversely very compelling to me.” Perhaps with this story about “the death of innocence,” Spielberg was still working out his feelings about the Twilight Zone helicopter crash, as well as grappling with more of the unsettling “adult truths” that faced him as a husband and father. Empire of the Sun may have tapped into some of the same emotional anxieties in Spielberg as another story he was considering filming, one that also dealt with families being torn apart in World War II.
THE film rights to Schindler’s List, Thomas Keneally’s Holocaust novel about the rescuing of Jews by the righteous gentile Oskar Schindler, were purchased by Universal shortly after its publication in 1982. Sid Sheinberg, who understood Spielberg’s heart as well as anyone in Hollywood, sensed that the book would be challenging material for him both as a man and as an artist. Spielberg agreed, but for the next decade he agonized over whether he should direct such a “burdensome subject,” as he described it in a 1989 interview: “[A] feature film about the Holocaust is going to be studied through a microscope, and it’s going to be scrutinized from the Talmud to Ted Koppel. And it has to be accurate and it has to be fair and it cannot in the least come across as entertainment. And it’s very hard, when you’re making a movie, not to violate one or all of those self-imposed rules. So that’s why it’s been stalled for so many years.”
Spielberg could not have made his Holocaust film without first having told the story of the death of Jim Graham’s innocence. Seeing Empire of the Sun today, one is struck by the many visual correspondences between the scenes of chaos in the streets of war-torn Shanghai and in the Kraków ghetto depicted in Schindler’s List. Both films take place largely in prison camps, although Schindler is far more disturbing, since it not only includes scenes taking place in the Plaszów forced-labor camp but also in the Auschwitz extermination camp. The terrifying scene of Jim being separated from his mother when he drops his toy airplane on the crowded Shanghai street in Empire of the Sun is multiplied a hundredfold when the Jewish mothers run screaming after the trucks bearing their unsuspecting children away to Auschwitz in Schindler’s List.
Spielberg acknowledged that his unresolved childhood trauma resulting from the breakup of his family was reflected in his intense identification with (p.394) Jim’s dilemma in being torn from his parents and forced to live in strange, hostile surroundings. The Shanghai setting also had a personal significance for Spielberg, which he did not discuss publicly. Some of his relatives on his father’s side, the Chechiks, lived there after fleeing persecution in their native Russia. Like many Russian Jews, they found a temporary safe haven first in northern China and, later, in Shanghai’s British Protectorate, whose thriving Jewish community managed to survive the war. Anti-Semitism enters only fleetingly into Spielberg’s canvas in Empire of the Sun, when Jim catches a glimpse through the window of his chauffeured automobile of some men in Nazi armbands chasing children along a Shanghai street. But the images of a prewar peace being violently shattered by Axis militarism carry related emotions in both films.
Survival and loss are the predominant themes of both Empire and Schindler. The protagonists of both films outwit the enemy by adapting to wartime corruption with their formidable talents as hustlers and machers. The fact that the hero of Empire is an adolescent boy helped Spielberg ease his way into such treacherous thematic terrain using a familiar emotional compass. It was not until he came to grips with his Jewish heritage that he found a way of dealing with the agony of war from a more fully adult and more historically complete perspective.
BEST known for his dreamlike science-fiction novels, which Spielberg admired as a boy, Ballard recreated his bizarre childhood experiences in China by conjuring up a landscape that was simultaneously a realistic portrayal of a particular time and place and an almost surrealistic evocation of a world gone mad. With his own tendency to view the world through the heightened perspective of dreams and cinematic imagery, Spielberg was especially well suited to film Ballard’s hallucinatory vision.
Working with cinematographer Allen Daviau and production designer Norman Reynolds, Spielberg recreated 1941 Shanghai in images of overwhelming visual beauty, shadowed by an omnipresent sense of nightmarish danger and anxiety. Daviau’s work rivals the best work of Lean and his great cinematographer, Freddie Young.* The poetic, multilayered texture of Daviau’s imagery and its sensitivity to the subtle changes of light on exotic locations make Empire a visual feast. With the possible exception of Janusz Kaminski’s black-and-white photography on Schindler’s List, no other Spielberg film has been so magnificently photographed.
The Shanghai location shoot in the first three weeks of March 1987 required elaborate preplanning, including a year of negotiations with Chinese (p.395) officials by Kennedy and Marshall. “It was superbly prepared, one of the smoothest productions I have ever been on in my life,” Daviau recalls. Made when China was actively courting the American film industry, the $30 million Warner Bros./Amblin production was the first Hollywood movie shot so extensively on Chinese locations. Much of Shanghai’s landscape had remained unchanged since the 1940s; the only major changes required were the installation of signs with the old Chinese characters and the use of smokescreens to block out some modern buildings. The government took the unprecedented step of shutting down seven blocks of the city’s main thoroughfare for Spielberg, and also supplied thousands of extras.
While preparing for the first day of shooting in Shanghai, assistant director David Tomblin “plotted out all the crowd movement and everything, and I planned to keep the road clear so there could be traffic movement. I drew it all out and told everyone what to do. Then five thousand people suddenly flooded the road. I went crazy. I said to Steven, ‘Oh, Jesus, it’s all gone wrong!’ He said, ‘Looks great.’ So I said, ‘Roll the cameras. Action!’ He was happy with how it looked, and I wasn’t going to argue with five thousand people. He’s very good like that. He’s not pedantic. Whatever is there, he makes it work.”
“I THINK the first hour of Empire of the Sun is somewhere in the masterpiece class, as good as anything he ever did,” says playwright Tom Stoppard, who adapted Ballard’s novel.* “It’s up to Schindler’s List, the work of his I like best of all. The scenes in the streets of Shanghai were absolutely remarkable. The way the shots are put together, the balance between the work that Steven is doing against the work which I and J. G. Ballard were doing, the balance there just seemed to me to be perfect.”
The major issue Stoppard and Spielberg worked out together was how to focus the second half of the story, dealing with what Ballard describes as Jim’s “unsentimental education” in the Lunghua prison camp. “The book is a big canvas, with a lot of figures in the foreground,” Stoppard observes. “To film all of it, you’d end up with a film which is maybe four or five hours long. And so, as normal, you make choices, and the auteur— the author as opposed to the screenwriter—is the person who ultimately makes these choices. When it gets to the camp, the book is about several relationships between Jim and other people, not all equally important, but you can’t deal fully with all of them. Steven was most interested in Jim’s relationship with Basie.”
Played by John Malkovich, Basie is Jim’s surrogate father figure. While showing him occasional moments of kindness, Basie also teaches the brutal (p.396) lessons of survival. As Ballard puts it, “Jim’s entire upbringing could have been designed to prevent him from meeting people like Basie, but the war had changed everything.” Jim’s own father (Rupert Frazer) is a pampered fool of a businessman who ignores warnings to evacuate his family from Shanghai and vanishes from his son’s life until the war has come to an end. By then Jim has turned into a feral, hollow-eyed little man who cannot remember what his parents look like. While admiring Basie’s cynical pragmatism as a necessary tool for survival, Jim finally rejects his mentor in disgust, recognizing in Basie the Darwinian ugliness he must transcend to keep his spirit from perishing along with his childhood illusions.
Basie remains a somewhat nebulous character for the generous amount of time he is given on screen. The book’s suggestions of sexual ambiguity in his character and that of his sidekick, Frank (Joe Pantoliano), and of a sexual component to their interest in Jim, remain largely unexplored on screen. Perhaps in part for that reason, the second half of the film, which takes place mostly in the prison camp,* proves a relatively pallid and conventional piece of storytelling. Some of the fault lies with the novel, which is most compelling when evoking Jim’s state of mind as a solitary figure trying to come to grips with dizzying social dislocation, but less so when he interacts dramatically with other characters. The film’s growing emphasis on Basie tends to take the focus away from Jim, making Empire more of a typical prison-camp movie, despite several visually lyrical and deeply emotional scenes dealing with Jim’s experiences of the war’s final stages. Among the most memorable are the scenes of Jim’s twilight song and salute to the departing Japanese kamikaze pilots and his hysterical jubilation over the devastating American bomber attack on the airfield adjoining the camp.
The first half of the film is superior, Stoppard feels, because it “had a compression, a density. There was more room in it for Steven to do what he does. The images were very eloquent—they locked together in a way which aggregated—and not many overtly dramatic events were happening. For example, there’s a moment where the boy is rude to the servant about taking something from the icebox. I didn’t care for it too much on paper. But Steven always knows what he’s doing. When the servant later slaps the boy’s face, the two things, those two moments, are so interdependent. The boy wasn’t trying to be insolent. The boy was just expressing colonialism, he was expressing the ethos of his own society.”
In his Village Voice review, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Christian Bale as Jim gives the most electrifying child performance I have ever seen on the screen, even surpassing… Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel in The Four Hundred Blows.” Les Mayfield’s documentary on the making of the film, The China Odyssey, shows Spielberg crafting the young British actor’s performance in a casual but shrewdly intuitive manner, behaving more like a friend or older brother than an authority figure. Spielberg bought remote-controlled racing (p.397) cars so he and Bale could play with them during lunch breaks. Bale thought of the director as “just like another kid.” At one point during the filming, while coaxing an open-mouthed reaction of shock from Bale, Spielberg boyishly suggested he assume “one of these real cool action-figure positions.” But the director always took care to ensure that his young star understood the deeper meaning of a scene. Preparing Bale for Jim’s separation from his mother, Spielberg said, “I think the reason I want you to have a plane in your hand is because you need to make a choice between your mother’s hand or your airplane, which drops, and you choose your airplane. You let go of your mother to get the airplane and your mother is swept away in this force.”
Before they shot the scene of Jim throwing his battered suitcase into the sea at the end of the war, it was almost as if the director was thinking aloud to Bale about his own painful maturation process: “I guess you could think your life is so simple that it’s everything you once were, contained in this small box. Which is not really a fair measure of who you are, but it’s interesting to think about this box as everything you used to be.” And when the scene was completed, Spielberg told his young alter ego, “This was the only room, I think, in the story for tears, for crying, because this is the last day of his childhood, and he goes into another era after this. For the rest of his life, he will never be the same.”
THERE was little critical consensus on Empire of the Sun. While Sarris was “stirred and moved on a scale I had forgotten still existed,” his colleague J. Hoberman condemned Spielberg for being “shamelessly kiddiecentric… This is The Sorrow and the Pity remade as Oliver!” Faced with what David Ansen of Newsweek called “the first Spielberg adventure set in hell,” many reviewers seemed at a loss for words. “You come out saying, ‘What was that about?,’” wrote The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, describing the film as both “majestically” directed and “mindlessly manipulative.”
Even some who praised it seemed uncomfortable as they tried to deal with Spielberg’s cinematic maturation process while being stuck with a warehouse of outmoded critical clichés. “There are almost too many brilliant, climactic moments; Spielberg hypes the emotions he wants to create rather than just letting them emerge from the marvelous story he’s been given,” thought David Denby of New York magazine. “… But what a prodigious visual imagination! Empire of the Sun is a great, overwrought movie that leaves one wordless and worn out.” Expecting something quite different from the maker of E.T., Sheila Benson complained in the Los Angeles Times that “we don’t have a single character to warm up to. They are either illegal, immoral or fatally malnourished.… Surely the least sentimental young ‘hero’ ever to occupy the center of a massive movie, Jim isn’t shaped by the horrors of his surroundings into a more loving, more admirable or more humane person. He becomes a slicker and more accomplished little con man.”
(p.398) Such complaints must have seemed strange to a filmmaker who previously had been pilloried by many critics for his supposed sentimentality about childhood. His latest attempt to move beyond his familiar suburban milieu was received with more of the supercilious sneering that greeted The Color Purple: “I hope Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun wins him that damn Oscar so he goes back to making movies that give real and lasting pleasure to people,” Peter Rainer wrote in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
Spielberg also was attacked for downplaying Ballard’s details of disease and starvation in the prison camp, and for minimizing the brutality of the Japanese guards. The film “treats the hell of the prison camp as if it were the background for a coming-of-age story,” Kael contended. “… Spielberg seems to be making everything nice, and, as with The Color Purple, there’s something in the source material that’s definitely not nice.” Such comments betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexity of Spielberg’s, and Ballard’s, perspectives on childhood. “I have—I won’t say happy—not unpleasant memories of the camp,” Ballard explained. “I was young, and if you put 400 or 500 children together they have a good time whatever the circumstances.… I know my parents always had very much harsher memories of the camp than I did, because of course they knew the reality of the circumstances. Parents often starved themselves to feed their children. But I think it’s true that the Japanese do like children and are very kindly toward them. The guards didn’t abuse the children at all.… I was totally involved but at the same time saved by the magic of childhood.”
Empire of the Sun was a major commercial disappointment, bringing in only $66.7 million at the worldwide box office, considerably less than even 1941. Spielberg said he knew going in that “my large-canvas personal film… wasn’t going to have a broad audience appeal.” But he consoled himself by feeling, “I’ve earned the right to fail commercially.”
Receiving six Academy Award nominations, all in the craft categories, Empire failed to win a single award. It was nominated neither for Best Picture nor for Best Director. Allen Daviau publicly complained, “I can’t second-guess the Academy, but I feel very sorry that I get nominations and Steven doesn’t.…. It’s his vision that makes it all come together, and if Steven wasn’t making these films, none of us would be here.” Spielberg’s feelings about the critics were made clear to George Lucas, with whom he was planning another Indiana Jones movie. Lucas wanted to start the movie with a sequence showing Indy as a boy, but Spielberg initially demurred because, as Lucas put it, “Steven had been really trashed by the critics for Empire of the Sun, and he said, I just don’t want to do any more films with kids in them.’”
SPIELBERG admitted he was “consciously regressing” in making Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). If many critics and large segments of the public didn’t want him to grow up or scoffed at his attempts to do so, (p.399) then he would stop fighting them. His run for cover would last for the next few years, an uneven creative period that saw him indulging in various forms of cinematic and personal regression in hopes of reconnecting with his audience.
In making Last Crusade, Always (1989), and Hook (1991), Spielberg seemed to be giving up, for the time being, on courting the critics or the members of the Academy. Part of him could not help being concerned about his future as a popular artist. He knew how fickle the moviegoing public could be, and his anxiety about maintaining a high commercial profile drove him back to escapist subject matter—a pulp adventure, a ghost story, a pirate movie—as he recycled tried-and-true material from movies past.
But there was another dimension to those movies. The battering he had taken in attempting to expand his horizons forced him to turn inward, both for self-protection and as personal compensation for playing the commercial game. Those three films examined the wellsprings of his artistic personality in a more covert fashion, treating some of his most cherished psychological obsessions within the framework of genre conventions. Rather than taking daring risks with subject matter as he had with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, he bent traditional genres to express his own style and feelings, like the studio directors he admired from Hollywood’s Golden Age. By disguising his increasingly personal filmmaking as popular entertainment, Spielberg was conducting creative experiments that would help advance him along the path toward Schindler’s List.
In light of the major changes taking place in Spielberg’s personal life during the second half of the 1980s—fatherhood, marriage, and, eventually, divorce—it’s not surprising that the most interesting and unusual thematic elements in Last Crusade, Always, and Hook revolve around troubled relationships between fathers and sons or father-son surrogates. Spielberg’s belated personal maturation forced him to examine the meaning of manhood as it applied to his own life, both as the son of a broken marriage and as the father in what would become a disintegrating marriage. The fact that he seemed to be imitating his own parents’ failure must have caused him to rethink some of his condemnatory attitudes toward his father, as well as giving him a greater understanding of the cost of his own workaholic tendencies.
The career vs. family conflict so central to baby boomer psyches figures largely in these three films, along with Spielberg’s increasingly critical examination of male characters who, like him, suffer from the “Peter Pan Syndrome.” What J. Hoberman (writing of Empire of the Sun) sarcastically called Spielberg’s “Peter Panic” became the director’s explicit subject matter in the aesthetically unsatisfactory but nakedly autobiographical Hook. Peter Pan himself finally occupied the center stage of a Spielberg movie, but the character was no longer the rebellious little boy who won’t grow up. He was a boy in the guise of a fully grown man, a perfectly miserable failure in his roles as a husband and father.
(p.400) The depth of Spielberg’s involvement in his characters’ neuroses in these transitional films makes them resemble cinematic Rorschach inkblots. Spielberg went through psychotherapy around 1987, the first time he had done so since adolescence. “All my friends went to therapy and I thought that maybe I would learn something about myself, so I went for a year,” he said. “But I can’t say that I found the discoveries conclusive. Everything I learned about myself I knew already or I’d guessed for myself.” Shortly after the release of Hook, it was reported that Spielberg had met privately with psychologist John Bradshaw. Bradshaw’s emphasis on dysfunctional families and getting back in touch with one’s “inner child” made him a guru for Hollywood celebrities undergoing midlife crises. Spielberg solicited Bradshaw’s advice on the script of Hook; he also had the psychologist on the set for part of the shooting, and cast Bradshaw’s daughter in the film.
Moviemaking, not formal psychotherapy, has always been Spielberg’s preferred method of working out his personal problems. He may have shared his psychological discoveries somewhat sketchily in Last Crusade, confusedly in Always, and clumsily in Hook, but for viewers alert to reading nuances between the lines, those films are fascinating because they reveal so much about their maker.
FULFILLING his obligation to George Lucas for a final movie in the Indiana Jones trilogy meant that Spielberg had to abandon Rain Man. He had been working for several months in 1987 with Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, and screenwriter Ronald Bass, developing the project about an autistic savant and his mutually enriching relationship with his outwardly normal but (in Spielberg’s words) “emotionally autistic” younger brother.
Spielberg was not yet satisfied with the script of Rain Man by the time he left to begin preproduction on Last Crusade, which had to begin shooting in May 1988 to ensure its scheduled Memorial Day weekend release in 1989. Barry Levinson eventually took over the direction of Rain Man, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hoffman), and Screenplay (Bass and original writer Barry Morrow). “It’s a shame that people who are involved with a film in its interim can’t have their name[s] connected with it,” Bass said. “Spielberg really did a tremendous amount.” Though he could not have helped feeling somewhat jealous over the Oscars Rain Man received, Spielberg was not alone in finding the film “emotionally very distancing. I think I certainly would have pulled tears out of a rather dry movie.… I was very upset not to have been able to do Rain Man, mainly because I’ve wanted to work with Dustin Hoffman ever since I saw The Graduate.”
Lucas initially suggested making Indy III “a haunted-house movie.” He had such a script written by Romancing the Stone screenwriter Diane Thomas before her death in a 1985 car accident, but, Lucas said, “Steven had done Poltergeist, and he didn’t want to do another movie like that.” Fearing further accusations of racism, Spielberg and Lucas both rejected the script (p.401) they commissioned from Chris Columbus about an African Monkey King (half man, half monkey). Taking the safest route, they finally decided to reuse the cartoonish Nazi villains from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Menno Meyjes’s draft about Indy’s quest for the Holy Grail, a plot device suggested by Lucas, left Spielberg dubious.
Spielberg recalled telling the producer that he would make a movie about the Holy Grail, “but I want it to be about a father and son. I want to get Indy’s father involved in the thing. I want a quest for the father.” In the film, Indy’s father, Dr. Henry Jones, a professor of medieval literature, is cut from a sterner, more Victorian code of right and wrong. Unlike his son, whose interest in precious objects stems from a mixture of greed and intellectual curiosity, the elder Dr. Jones has a truly religious obsession with finding the Holy Grail. “I wanted to do Indy in pursuit of his father, sharing his father’s dream,” said Spielberg, “and in the course of searching for their dreams, they rediscover each other.”
Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam gives a different account of how the storyline evolved. Boam, who wrote the final draft,* worked mostly with Lucas, since Spielberg was busy on Empire of the Sun. The father-son story “came from George,” the writer insists. “I think maybe George has his own father fixation. I don’t think Steven had a personal point of view to impose on the material at all. Steven knows these are George’s movies. Steven has no problem with that. He approaches them as what John Ford used to call ‘a job of work.’” In the earlier draft of Last Crusadeby Meyjes, “the father was sort of a MacGuffin [a Hitchcockian device that provides an excuse for the plot],” recalls Boam. “They didn’t find the father until the very end. I said to George, ‘It doesn’t make sense to find the father at the end. Why don’t they find him in the middle?’ Given the fact that it’s the third film in the series, you couldn’t just end with them obtaining the object. That’s how the first two ended. So I thought, Let them lose the object—the Grail—and let the relationship be the main point. It’s an archeological search for Indy’s own identity. Indy coming to accept his father is more what it’s about [than the quest for the Grail].”
The Indiana Jones movies all begin with a cliffhanger action sequence whose underlying function, Boam explains, is to “tell us something new about Indiana Jones.” For Last Crusade, Lucas suggested, “What if we learn about his childhood?” The film opens in 1912 with the adolescent Indy, played by River Phoenix, on a trip to Monument Valley with his Boy Scout troop. Besides performing outlandish feats of derring-do atop a speeding circus train, young Indy acquires his trademark fedora hat and whip and his passion for archeology.
Despite Spielberg’s nostalgia for his own formative days as a Boy Scout, “George felt Steven wouldn’t go for it,” Boam recalls. “Steven felt, ‘I’m always doing movies about children. I did Empire and E.T.’ Then Steven asked his wife [Amy] and his friends and his business associates—he was kind of (p.402) polling his constituency—and said he would do it. I think Steven was most captivated by the idea of the circus train. He had a lot of fun coming up with different gags. Steven is very good with little touches. He is inspired by what is there—he’s able to make it a little funnier, a little more exciting, but he waits until the recipe is written and the meal is cooked, and then he puts his little spices in it. He’s very specific about what he wants. He doesn’t have any ‘nagging qualms that he can’t put his finger on,’ like many people do. When he likes what you’ve done, he really shows his enjoyment. It’s so gratifying to delight him. There’s nothing in the least bit cynical or jaded about him. He responds like a kid with a popcorn box on his lap.”
As so often happens with directors, though, Spielberg may have become so delighted by his writers’ contributions that he began to think he had come up with at least some of them himself. Once he seized on the father-son relationship, he shaped it according to his own emotional need for a more combative relationship. Lucas thought of Indy’s father as a rather ineffectual old gent, “a John Houseman kind of person.” Spielberg wanted Sean Con-nery. The ruggedly sexy Scottish actor, in a sense, already was the father of Indiana Jones, since the series had sprung from the desire of Lucas and Spielberg to rival (and outdo) Connery’s James Bond movies. Connery proves more than a match for his cinematic son, ordering him around and condescendingly calling him “Junior.” The elder Jones, Connery observed, is “eccentric, self-centered, and quite selfish. He does not have the Saturday Evening Post mentality of fatherhood. He’s quite indifferent to his boy’s needs.” At one point, Indy complains that in his childhood, “We never talked.” His father retorts, “You left just when you were becoming interesting.”
In the film’s most memorable comic exchange, which was improvised by the actors, Indy is shocked to realize his father also had an affair with Elsa (Alison Doody), the sinuous blonde who turns out to be a Nazi spy. “I’m as human as the next man,” the elder Dr. Jones insists. “I was the next man,” his son replies. Spielberg had to overcome his own qualms about having Indy and his father sleep with the same woman, an obvious Freudian stand-in for Mom (in an even darker twist, the film also suggests that the treacherous Elsa has slept with Adolf Hitler). When Connery learned that the director, expressing concern about how women would react, had excised his sexual relationship with Elsa, Connery insisted on putting it back into the script. “I didn’t want the father to be so much of a wimp,” he said. In a cocky bit of screen-hero one-upmanship, Connery added, “Aside from the fact that Indiana Jones is not as well-dressed as James Bond, the main difference between them is sexual. Indiana deals with women shyly. In the first film, he’s flustered when the student writes ‘I love you’ on her eyelids. James Bond would have had all those young coeds for breakfast.”
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a graceful piece of popular filmmaking, bursting with the sheer pleasure of cinematic craftsmanship and gratifyingly free of the racist overtones that blighted the two previous films (p.403) in the series. Released by Paramount on May 24, 1989, to then-record opening figures, Last Crusade was Spielberg’s biggest hit since E.T., with $494.7 million in worldwide gross on a production cost of $44 million. It was respectfully received by most reviewers, including the author of this book in Daily Variety.
Some reviewers, however, found the film distasteful when it mixes car-toonish jokes about Nazis (“Nazis! I hate these guys,” Indy snarls) with such real-life elements as a book-burning at a Party rally attended by Hitler (who gives Indy his autograph). “The idea about book-burning was Steven’s,” Boam reports. “He said, ‘I really want to do a scene of them burning books.’ At the time I thought, This must be a warming-up for Schindler’s List. But I had no idea what Schindler’s List was going to be like.”
With all its masterly technique, and the added sparks emanating from the father-son relationship, Last Crusade is mostly a lark, a holiday outing for a director emotionally wrung out from his two previous films. It is also a farewell to a certain kind of soulless action filmmaking, pushed about as far as it can be along the scale of cinematic ambition (even if Spielberg still talks nostalgically from time to time about doing a fourth Indiana Jones movie). “I’ve learned more about movie craft from making the Indiana Jones films than I did from E.T. or Jaws,” he said at the time Last Crusade was released. “And now I feel as if I’ve graduated from the college of Cliffhanger U.”
ON April 24, 1989, Spielberg and Amy Irving announced they would divorce after three and a half years of marriage. “Our mutual decision, however difficult, has been made in a spirit of caring,” they said. “… And our friendship remains both personal and professional.”
They agreed to share custody of their son, Max, maintaining homes near each other in Los Angeles and New York to facilitate their joint parenting responsibilities. Amy also received a large settlement. Although the amount was never officially announced, it was reported that she may have received a sum approximating half of her husband’s net worth. At the time Spielberg made his first appearance on the Forbes 400 list of the nation’s wealthiest people in 1987, his net worth was estimated at “well over $225 million.” Press estimates of Amy’s golden parachute ranged from $93 million to $112.5 million.
The competing stresses of their professional careers were among the primary factors in the failure of their marriage, which had been the subject of rumors in the press for months before the announcement. “I started my career as the daughter of Jules Irving,” she said in 1989. “I don’t want to finish it as the wife of Spielberg or the mother of Max.” Writer-director Matthew Robbins has recalled, “It was no fun to go [to their house], because there was an electric tension in the air. It was competitive as to whose dining table this is, whose career we’re gonna talk about, or whether he even approved of what she was interested in—her friends and her actor life. He (p.404) really was uncomfortable. The child in Spielberg believed so thoroughly in the possibility of perfect marriage, the institution of marriage, the Norman Rockwell turkey on the table, everyone’s head bowed in prayer—all this stuff. And Amy was sort of a glittering prize, smart as hell, gifted, and beautiful, but definitely edgy and provocative and competitive. She would not provide him any ease.”
For much of their final months as a married couple, Steven was in London and Spain making Last Crusade, and Amy was on the New York stage in Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. They previously had agreed to alternate their work assignments, with neither accepting a job that would keep them apart while the other was working. Amy gave up film offers to spend an “isolated and miserable” time in Spain with Max and Steven for Empire of the Sun, and Steven accompanied her when she appeared in director Joan Micklin Silver’s 1988 film Crossing Delancey. When Amy accepted her role in the Fugard play, however, Steven did not want to pass up the opportunity to make Last Crusade. They flew back and forth across the ocean to visit each other whenever they could, but found the situation “impossible,” Amy said. “Everything suffered.… I used to think I could do it all before Max was born. Now everything’s changed.”
She admitted five years after the divorce that she had never managed to shake the “loss of identity” she felt as the wife of Hollywood’s most powerful filmmaker: “During my marriage to Steven, I felt like a politician’s wife. There were certain things expected of me that definitely weren’t me. One of my problems is that I’m very honest and direct. You pay a price for that. But then I behaved myself and I paid a price too.” Part of what made her uncomfortable, evidently, was their complicated, hectic, and extravagant lifestyle. A woman whose idea of heaven has long been her relatively modest adobe home in Santa Fe, Amy never became accustomed to running four additional households: their estates in Pacific Palisades and East Hampton, beach house in Malibu (which was damaged by fire in July 1988 but subsequently rebuilt), and Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan. “This is not really my style,” she complained. “We’re surrounded by live-in help and tennis courts and vegetable gardens.… the last thing I want is to be ‘the lady of the house.’”
Her biggest complaint was not that she had to pass up jobs to be with her husband and son. “It’s been frustrating,” she acknowledged, “but it’s more important that Max is with us and we’re a happy group.… [W]ork has to be really special for us to do it now.” What bothered her even more was her belief that being married to Spielberg made her something of an untouchable in Hollywood. “I know I’ve never gotten work because of Steven,” she said in 1988. “I know I have not gotten work because of Steven. Certain directors’ egos are such that they don’t want somebody from Steven’s camp on their territory. I’ve known of instances when I was supposed to get a part, but they started to worry about Steven Spielberg getting more of a focus on them.”
(p.405) At least one instance when Amy became upset over not being cast in a part involved an Amblin Entertainment production. When Joe Dante was preparing the 1987 Innerspace, he was having trouble casting the role of astronaut Dennis Quaid’s girlfriend. “It was a very awkward situation,” Dante recalls, “because Amy Irving wanted to play the part. Steven would not make me hire Amy Irving, which may have been the cause of a certain dissension in the household. I didn’t think she was right for it. [The character] was supposed to be a tough reporter type. I didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of meeting her and reading her. Every other actress that would come up, Steven would veto. Finally it got close to shooting the role, and [Warner Bros, executive] Lucy Fisher suggested Meg Ryan. We thought she was perfect. Amy was very upset. She sent me a letter: ‘I’m not Mrs. Steven Spielberg. I’m an actress.’” Asked if part of his concern about casting Amy was what might happen if he did not get along with her, Dante conceded that was a situation he “didn’t want to have on the set.”
As it turned out, the only roles Amy played for Amblin during her marriage to Spielberg were the singing voice of cartoon character Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and a virtually invisible cameo (along with her mother, Priscilla Pointer) as a train passenger in Spielberg’s Amazing Stories program “Ghost Train.” Following the divorce, she also played the voice of a cartoon character in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991).
Although she has continued to do notable stage work, such as her role as a Brooklyn Jewish woman haunted by Nazism in Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass, Irving has played only occasional film roles since her divorce from Spielberg. “I think it hurt being Steven Spielberg’s wife, and then it hurt being the ex-Mrs. Steven Spielberg,” she said in 1994. “It was awkward for a while. I don’t know why. I only know that I felt nonexistent.… I’d do a movie with Steven, but I think it would be awkward for him. Our friendship is very valuable to us, and that would probably put a strain on it.” However, she has appeared in films directed by her companion Bruno Barreto, a Brazilian filmmaker she met when he cast her in Show of Force in March 1989, shortly before her divorce announcement.*
The press often linked Kate Capshaw with Spielberg in the months preceding that announcement, but Spielberg’s spokesmen denied there was any romantic attachment between them. However, the marital problems between Steven and Amy were also denied up until the time the marriage collapsed. Kate and Steven kept a low profile together until he invited her to London at the end of June 1989 for the premiere of Last Crusade. They made no attempt to keep their relationship clandestine, and Steven thought Amy would have no way of finding out. But Amy read about their tryst in the National Enquirer.
While waiting for Steven’s divorce, Kate cared for a newborn African American foster child, Theo, whom she and then also Spielberg later (p.406) adopted. On May 14, 1990, she gave birth to her first child with Spielberg, a daughter named Sasha. After converting to Judaism, Kate married Steven in a traditional Jewish ceremony on October 12, 1991, at their country estate in East Hampton, under a tent filled with Hollywood friends, including Steve Ross, Barbra Streisand, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, and Robin Williams.
The two worst times of his life, Spielberg recalled in 1994, were the divorce of his parents and his own divorce from Amy. But he has always remained guarded about the subject of his divorce. “I’ve never talked [to the press] about my personal life with Amy,” he said in 1989. “She talks about it.” The way he has expressed his feelings is to make movies about them.
ALWAYS can best be understood as a movie about Spielberg’s acceptance of loss. His on-screen surrogate in this loose remake of the 1943 movie A Guy Named Joe, a reckless pilot played by Richard Dreyfuss, loses his life flying and is sent back to Earth to help his former lover and fellow pilot (Holly Hunter) find happiness with another man. In Spielberg’s own life at the time he made Always, he was trying to come to terms with several kinds of loss—the loss of his wife, the aging of his parents, and the loss of his childhood—as well as with the inevitable feelings of failure a divorced man faces in his roles as husband and father.
Spielberg’s interest in the story traces back to the time his own parents’ marriage was starting to fall apart. He first watched A Guy Named Joe on TV in Phoenix, and later said it was “a story that touched my soul… the second movie, after Bambi, that made me cry.” Written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Victor Fleming, the MGM movie stars Spencer Tracy as a World War II pilot who dies in combat but returns to reassure his grieving widow (Irene Dunne) that it’s not wrong to fall in love with another man (Van Johnson). The young Spielberg—whose fascination with airplanes always seemed to involve his feelings about his father—needed to hear the message that life would go on despite separation and loss. “I didn’t understand why I cried,” he said. “But I did. [The Tracy character] is powerless, unable to influence events, like a piece of furniture. As a child I was very frustrated, and maybe I saw my own parents in it. I was also short of girlfriends. And it stuck with me.”
In remaking one of his most cherished childhood favorites, Spielberg also made one of his rare commercial missteps: Always grossed a relatively disappointing $77.1 million worldwide. The personal imperatives of the project blinded Spielberg to its irrelevance for contemporary audiences. He seemed not to understand that what gave A Guy Named Joe its wide appeal in 1943 was its wartime setting and its audience’s shared ethos of sacrifice. A nation of grieving families and war widows hungered for that kind of emotional boost; the audience of 1989 could not be faulted for finding the situation of Always little more than a curiosity. Setting the remake in World War (p.407) II would not have solved the problem, but Spielberg’s decision to transpose the story to the present day, among pilots fighting forest fires in Montana, robbed it of the social context that had made its self-sacrificial fantasy acceptable and meaningful in 1943. The hybrid nature of the film is emphasized by Spielberg’s use of World War II-vintage airplanes, 1940s slang (“dollface,” “you big lug,” “moxie,” “Your number is up”), and retro romantic scenes, demonstrating the director’s overly literal fixation on his mood as a twelve-year-old child. From its spectacular flying sequences to its emphasis on romantic voyeurism and its obsession with surrogate fatherhood, Always is a smorgasbord of Spielbergian motifs and psychological hangups.
The project had begun taking shape in his mind in 1974, when he discovered that Richard Dreyfuss shared his fondness for the original movie. Although Spielberg thought of Dreyfuss as their generation’s equivalent of Spencer Tracy, he hesitated about giving the role to his “alter ego,” whose persona seems a bit too cerebral for the part of a rough-and-tumble pilot. The director also considered such older, more conventionally romantic stars as Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Debra Winger (an old flame of Spielberg’s) was discussed for the female lead and Harrison Ford for the thankless role of the other pilot.
After the project was first announced at MGM in 1980 as A Guy Named Joe, Spielberg commissioned a dozen screenplays* but kept delaying the start of shooting, making Always seem like one of those pet projects that somehow never get off the ground. “In a lot of the earlier drafts, Richard walked through walls,” Spielberg recalled. “He put his hands through things. He glowed. It was riddled with gimmicks and tricks and all the stuff that I guess I do really well. I guess that’s why I didn’t want to do it.… Every special effect that we had was written out of the movie.… I had a lot of false starts, but I think it all came down to the fact that I wasn’t ready to make it.… If I had made it in 1980, I think it would have been more of a comedy. I’d have hidden all of the deep feelings.”
Hiding deep feelings is part of the problem Spielberg’s alter ego faces in Always. Dreyfuss’s Pete Sandich is unable to admit he loves his girlfriend, Dorinda (Hunter), until he finds himself in the afterlife. He is brought back to Earth for a dual purpose: to serve as guardian angel to the callow young flyer Ted Baker (Brad Johnson) and to let go of his unrequited emotional attachment to Dorinda. Pete’s own guardian angel is a blithe spirit named Hap, perhaps an allusion to General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, the World War II chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces, in which Spielberg’s father served. When the father figure from Last Crusade, Sean Connery, was unavailable to play Hap, Spielberg made the unconventional casting choice of Audrey Hepburn, figuring she “was closer to the maternal side of nature.”
The fantasy framework adds a level of poignancy to a triangular romance (p.408) that the director otherwise treats with the jocular tone of 1940s romantic comedy. But the fantasy elements also underscore the curiously asexual nature of what was touted as Spielberg’s first “adult love story.” The most moving, and most genuinely romantic, scene depends on the audience’s awareness that the two lovers are unable to touch each other. Dorinda’s solitary dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is accompanied by the ghostly Pete, whom she cannot see. As Dorinda glides around her living room, wearing the clingy white “girl clothes” Pete gave her before he died, Spielberg’s graceful, gently caressing camera movements wistfully express feelings of loss and remembrance.*
But for some (perhaps most) contemporary viewers, unrequited love of the sort on view in Always may seem more annoying than charming. And for Spielberg’s detractors, this old-fashioned, asexual plot was simply another sign of his arrested development, further proof that he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—grow up. When Dorinda makes her first appearance in her shimmering white dress before a roomful of comically awe-stricken fliers and grease monkeys, “It’s the most purely sexless moment in Spielberg’s long, long career as a boy,” wrote David Denby in New York magazine, “and it made me realize to what extent sex in his movies is a matter of dreams and idealization.”
Spielberg, it is true, has yet to explore the full dimensions of adult sexuality on screen. His occasional forays in that direction, such as the lesbian love scene in The Color Purple, have tended to be shy and tentative. The director’s handling of romantic scenes in Always is often marred by an excessively juvenile tone, with characters breaking into nervous giggles like high school kids embarrassed at playing grown-up. To compare Holly Hunter’s girlish hysteria in Always with Irene Dunne’s serene womanly grace in A Guy Named Joe is to recognize how far Spielberg still has to go in dealing with mature female sexuality.
Spielberg is more in his element dealing with male anxieties, such as Pete’s possessiveness toward Dorinda, his lack of emotional commitment, his discomfort with her career, and his masochistic jealousy over watching her being courted by Ted. The director imbalances the drama, however, by making Ted a cartoonish oaf, perhaps because making Pete’s rival a man of equal stature would have felt too threatening. Pete eventually realizes that the happiness of the woman he loves depends on his own willingness to accept that she has found someone else. His process of letting go is a process of emotional maturation.
It’s unlikely Spielberg could have found these feelings in himself without having first experienced the pain of separation and divorce. The paternal (p.409) way Pete learns to treat Ted seems to reflect Spielberg’s own pleasure in his newfound role as a father. And by showing Pete acting as Ted’s professional mentor, Spielberg is echoing the role he likes to play with younger directors.
Photographed by Mikael Salomon, Always contains some of Spielberg’s most ravishing images, and the aerial firefighting sequences (partly filmed during the 1988 Yellowstone fires) are far superior to the studiobound visuals of A Guy Named Joe. Where Always falters is in the wide disparity between the sophistication of its craftsmanship and the relative shallowness of its romantic relationships.
FOR a film that was widely anticipated as an artistic culmination for Spielberg—his definitive statement on the “Peter Pan Syndrome”—Hook mostly serves to demonstrate the middle-aged director’s overwhelming sense of boredom with Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, and all they represent about the anarchic spirit of childhood. The filmmaker’s passion is stimulated only by the more somber parts of the story, in which the grown-up Pan, Peter Banning (Robin Williams), movingly comes to terms with his failure as a father to his embittered young son, Jack (Charlie Korsmo). But otherwise Hook is a lumbering white elephant, marred by protracted, tediously chaotic tomfoolery in the pirate village and Neverland.
Perhaps Spielberg simply had waited too long to get around to making his Peter Pan movie. In one way or another, of course, he had been making it forever. Even Spielberg’s first amateur feature, made twenty-eight years earlier, owes a debt to Peter Pan, for Tinkerbell flies around in the form of a firelight. Henry Sheehan, one of the few critics to regard Hook as a major Spielberg work, wrote in Film Comment that the movie “pulled together the many different thematic strands, visual motifs, and character types that had been haphazardly scattered through his first fifteen [sic] years of work, and patterned them into a rich, coherent whole.” But as revealing as Hook may be for students of Spielberg’s life and work, most of it is far more “rich” and “coherent” in the abstract than in its execution.
During the early 1980s, Spielberg developed a live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney and, later, Paramount. He considered Michael Jackson for the title role (as a singing and dancing Pan) and Dustin Hoffman for Captain James Hook. “I decided not to make Peter Pan really when Max was born,” the director explained in 1990, “and I guess it was just bad timing. Peter Pan came at a time when I had my first child and I didn’t want to go to London and have seven kids on wires in front of blue screens swinging around. I wanted to be home as a dad, not a surrogate dad.”
Spielberg had moved on to new problems and more adult concerns. As he showed in Empire of the Sun, he no longer felt comfortable with mere celebrations of childhood innocence, but now was concerned about the death of innocence and the coming of manhood. Around that same time, he briefly considered directing Big, his sister Anne’s screenplay (in collaboration (p.410) with Gary Ross) about a twelve-year-old boy who suddenly finds himself a grown man and becomes a phenomenally successful designer of toys. The boy-man played by Tom Hanks in director Penny Marshall’s 1988 movie bears more than a casual resemblance to Steven Spielberg himself; indeed, Big can be seen as his sister’s affectionately satirical commentary on his life and career. But what would have been the point of making it? He already had lived the tale, and now he was trying to outgrow it.*
Fittingly, Hook was the brainchild of a small boy. In 1982, screenwriter Jim V. Hart’s three-year-old son, Jake, showed his family a drawing. “We asked Jake what it was,” Hart recalled, “and he said it was a crocodile eating Captain Hook, but that the crocodile really didn’t eat him, he got away. As it happens, I had been trying to crack Peter Pan for years, but I didn’t just want to do a remake. So I went, ‘Wow. Hook is not dead. The crocodile is. We’ve all been fooled.’ Four years later, our family was having dinner and Jake said, ‘Daddy, did Peter Pan ever grow up?’ My immediate response was, ‘No, of course not.’ And Jake said, ‘But what if he did?’ And that unlocked all the doors that had been closed to me. I realized that Peter did grow up, just like all of us baby boomers who are now in our forties. I patterned him after several of my friends on Wall Street, where the pirates wear three-piece suits and ride in limos.”
Hook was being developed by Hart and director Nick Castle at TriStar when the Japanese electronics giant Sony bought Columbia-TriStar in 1989. The following year, Sony hired Mike Medavoy to run TriStar. Medavoy, who had been Spielberg’s first agent, sent Hart’s script to Spielberg, who quickly committed to direct it. Castle, who had worked for Spielberg on Amazing Stories, was taken off Hook and given a $500,000 settlement, as well as a story credit with Hart. Spielberg received unfavorable publicity for what some took to be an arrogant power play against a less prominent director, but Medavoy says, “He didn’t want anything to do with taking another director off a picture. I said, ‘I’ve already done it.’ Because Dustin and Robin weren’t going to work with [Castle].”
Spielberg had no trouble seeing reflections of himself in Hart’s workaholic protagonist, yuppie arbitrageur Peter Banning: “He’s very representative of a lot of people today who race headlong into the future, nodding hello and good-bye to their families. I’m part of a generation that is extremely motivated by career, and I’ve caught myself in the unenviable position of being Peter Banning from time to time. I’ve seen myself overworked, and not spending enough time at home, and I got a couple of good lessons from making the movie.”
Hart, however, found himself replaced by other writers, including Malia Scotch Marmo and actress/novelist Carrie Fisher. “I loved Jim Hart’s script,” (p.411) claimed Spielberg, “but I didn’t feel he had written Captain Hook, and neither did Dustin. Malia rescued that.” Marmo received screenplay credit along with Hart, but Fisher was uncredited for rewriting comedic dialogue for Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts). “Steven tends to use writers like paintbrushes,” Hart noted. “He wants this writer for this, this writer for that. The joke was that everyone in town who had his fax number was writing for it.”
Much of the press coverage generated by Hook came for reasons that had little to do with the story of Peter Pan growing up. The gargantuan scale of the production made it a prominent symbol of 1990s runaway excess in Hollywood, with lavish sets filling nine stages on the Sony lot in Culver City. Although, as usual, Spielberg kept the sets closed to most of the press, a constant flow of Hollywood celebrities made Hook the town’s “in” attraction after filming began on February 19, 1991, continuing into the summer.
Spielberg, Hoffman, and Williams did not take salaries for the film. Their deal, negotiated by the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), instead called for the trio to split 40 percent of the distributor’s gross revenues from all markets. They were to receive a total of $20 million from the first $50 million in gross theatrical film rentals, with TriStar keeping the next $70 million in rentals before the three resumed receiving their percentage. As Medavoy pointed out at the time, if Spielberg and the two stars “went out and got their regular salaries, they would have gotten a lot more than the aggregate of 40 percent of $50 million. A huge amount more. I think it was a fair deal for everybody.” Medavoy’s explanations did not stop the absurdly exaggerated gossip around Hollywood that the film would have to gross as much as $300 million to $500 million to see any profits.
When Hook opened with less than expected box-office numbers in December 1991, many people wrote it off as a bomb. With a production cost variously estimated at between $60 million and $80 million, far in excess of its original budget of $48 million, it is often regarded as one of the most conspicuous money-wasting debacles in Sony’s profligate Hollywood spending spree. In fact, says Medavoy, “Sony made a lot of money on that picture. It did better overseas, but it did just an enormous amount here [the total worldwide theatrical gross was $288 million]. The video sold well. The studio will do somewhere between $40 million and $50 million profit.” As for Spielberg, Hoffman, and Williams, “They made a lot of money,” Medavoy says. “But so did everybody else.”
Medavoy points out that Hook also was designed as a way for Sony to say to Hollywood, “Take notice. The studio is open for business, and it’s going to do big movies.” Unfortunately, that attitude seemed to infect everyone on the set, including Spielberg. Although he had been practicing frugality ever since his “rehab” on Raiders of the Lost Ark, he became intoxicated with the sheer scale of the production* and reverted to the kind of indulgence that (p.412) characterized his work on 1941. Hook ran forty days over its seventy-six-day shooting schedule. Among the other contributors to the laborious shooting pace were the notoriously perfectionistic Dustin Hoffman, the physically and emotionally overwrought Julia Roberts, some amateurish child actors, elaborate special effects, and crowd scenes with hundreds of extras and stuntmen. But Spielberg said, “It was all my fault.… Nobody else made it go over budget. I began to work at a slower pace than I usually do.… For some reason this movie was such a dinosaur coming out of the gate. It dragged me along behind it.… Every day I came on to the set, I thought, Is this flying out of control?”
HOOK “gets the prize for the most lavish, extravagant, opulent ode to simple joys and basic values ever made,” quipped Village Voice reviewer Georgia Brown. The more intimate scenes, particularly those revolving around Peter’s relationship with his son, are so far superior to the spectacle scenes that it almost seems as if another director made the rest of the movie. The lifeless and garishly photographed scenes in the pirate village, the overly ornate and pointlessly cluttered production design,* the slapdash construction of the Neverland sequences, and the forced humor involving the punk-ish Lost Boys betray what New Yorker reviewer Terrence Rafferty called “a profound weariness in Steven Spielberg’s attitude toward his art and his audience. In this version of Peter Pan, the imagination seems like a burden—a terrible, crushing obligation.”
Spielberg intends the audience to come away feeling that Peter is freed of his anal-retentive, Type-A behavior by immersing himself in the carefree behavior of childhood. The director’s confused notion was that Peter “rescued his past. He rescued that memory of himself as a child and carried that best friend with him the rest of his life. It will never leave him again.” But the movie actually seems to be saying the opposite—that Peter needs to get his infantile tendencies out of his system for once and for all, through this one last monumental effort of regression, before he can go back to his family and behave like a mensch. Saving his children from Captain Hook requires that he give up his wish “to be a little boy and have fun.” “I can’t stay and play,” Peter sadly tells the Lost Boys, although he carries away from Neverland a renewed sense of the importance of play in everyday life and an awareness of the futility of a life devoted exclusively to greed and ambition.
The troubled relationship between Peter and his son, so full of echoes of Spielberg’s relationship with his own father, is the emotional heart of the film. An orphan himself, raised by his Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), Peter (p.413) says, “I knew why I grew up. I wanted to be a father.” But he is a terrible failure as a husband and father, so “obsessed with success” at the expense of his family (as Captain Hook puts it) that he takes a business call during his daughter’s school performance of Peter Pan and sends an assistant to videotape his son’s Little League baseball game. When he promises to attend games in the future, adding, “My word is my bond,” his son bitterly replies, “Yeah—junk bond.” Scarcely repressing his hostility toward his father, Jack nevertheless retains a tender core of wounded love that he finally is able to express when his father stands against the devious, child-hating Captain Hook.
After kidnapping Jack and his sister Maggie (Amber Scott)—the latest in a long string of child abductions in Spielberg movies—Hook woos them from their family allegiance with a lecture entitled “Why Parents Hate Their Children.” Hook’s arguments are so persuasive because they are so accurate. “Jack and Maggie are gone because Peter has wished them gone,” Henry Sheehan noted in Film Comment. “Hook is merely the agent of Peter’s most secret, repressed desires, and as such is his mirror image. When Peter first confronts Hook and is taunted by the mustachioed pirate into attempting a rescue, his failure to do so is deeply ambiguous, the result partly of physical shortcoming [ironically, a fear of heights] but also partly of nerve and, hence, desire.” In one of the most quietly affecting scenes in the movie, Peter’s wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) chides him by saying, “Your children love you. They want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts? Soon Jack may not even want you to come to his games. We have a few special years with our children, when they’re the ones who want us around. After that you’re going to be running off to them for a bit of attention. So fast, Peter—it’s a few years, then it’s over. You are not being careful. And you are missing it.”
That is the lesson Peter Banning learns in Hook, and it is one Spielberg took to heart in his own life, even while he was being pulled in the other direction by his own obsession with success. In learning to take the responsibility of fatherhood, Spielberg also learned to take greater responsibility as an artist.
“So,” Granny Wendy tells Peter, “your adventures are over.”
“Oh, no,” he replies. “To live—to live will be an awfully big adventure!”
(*) Aside from the phenomenally successful ER (NBC-TV, 1994-present) and his animated series for children (which also include the droll and sophisticated Animaniacs), Spielberg’s record as a TV producer has been disappointing. Such prime-time series as seaQuest DSV, Earth 2, and Champs have not added to his luster.
(*) When he was a teenager, Spielberg talked his way into an interview with one of his idols, John Ford. After showing the nervous youngster his collection of Western prints and growling, “When you understand what makes a great Western painting, you’ll be a great Western director,” Ford ended the brief meeting with a succinct piece of advice: “And never spend your own money to make a movie. Now get the hell out of here.” That advice governed Spielberg’s career until the founding of DreamWorks, but it’s worth noting that even before he met Ford, Spielberg spent his parents’ money to make Firelight.
(*) Spielberg was an executive producer on The Goonies and received story credit for the Amblin production, with Chris Columbus receiving screenplay credit.
(*) Sheinberg did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this book.
(*) He said in his acceptance speech, “I’m resisting like crazy to use Sally Field’s line from two years ago” (“I can’t deny the fact you like me. Right now, you like me!”).
(*) Spielberg may have been miffed over Welles’s mischievous comment to the press that “the sled he bought was a fake.”
(*) Menno Meyjes wrote the teleplay, based on a Spielberg story originally titled “Round Trip.”
(*) Harold Becker originally was to have directed the film, with former studio president Robert Shapiro producing; Shapiro eventually became the executive producer.
(*) Also in 1987, Spielberg helped convince Columbia Pictures to support the Robert A. Harris-Jim Painten restoration of Lean’s mutilated masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, which was completed triumphantly in 1989. The project kindled Spielberg’s passion for the twin causes of film preservation and the moral rights of filmmakers, which he has championed along with Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and other filmmakers. As Spielberg put it in 1988, “Moral rights are essential to protect future generations from the kind of big-business greed that doesn’t care about the desecration of timeless treasures.”
(*) One day in England, Spielberg was shooting in an abandoned gasworks serving as the initial detention camp “where the boy did an Oliver Twist and went up and asked for more. It was very strange,” assistant director David Tomblin recalls, “because that was the day David Lean came down. I said, ‘We’re doing some remakes on Oliver Twist.’”
(*) Stoppard wrote the first draft of the screenplay when Harold Becker was attached as director. Spielberg hired Menno Meyjes to do an uncredited rewrite before Stoppard was brought back to write the final shooting script.
(*) A set built near Trebujena, Spain.
(*) Boam receives sole screenplay credit, with Lucas and Meyjes sharing story credit.
(*) Amy and Bruno have a son, Gabriel, who was born in 1990.
(*) Jerry Belson and Diane Thomas were among the writers. Ronald Bass worked on the shooting script, but Belson did the final draft and received sole screen credit.
(*) Spielberg’s witty use of the lovely old Jerome Kern ballad as the love song of the two smoke-eaters came about after the director was denied the use of Irving Berlin’s haunting “Always.” In a telephone conversation with Spielberg, the ninety-four-year-old Berlin said he “planned to use it in the future.”
(*) His stated reason for bowing out of the project was that he felt Anne had been “standing in my shadow long enough.… I began to consider the fact that if I directed it, people wouldn’t give Annie any credit.” She and Ross received Oscar nominations for the screenplay.
(*) An Amblin Entertainment film, it was produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, and Gerald R. Molen (Amblin’s production manager, who also served in that capacity on Hook).
(*) Dean Cundey was cinematographer and Norman Garwood production designer; theatrical designer John Napier was hired as the film’s “visual consultant” after Spielberg saw his work on the musical Cats. Spielberg’s animation studio, Amblimation, has been working for years on a film version of Cats.