This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and its Jewish Lives series.
If he felt like an outsider in New Jersey, he would feel like an extraterrestrial in Arizona, living in a Phoenix suburb on the fringe of the desert. Over the course of thirteen years, he lived in three different places, but he considered Scottsdale, where he lived from age nine to sixteen, his real home. The Spielbergs bought a ranch house in a brand new and upwardly mobile development called Arcadia, as middle-American as you could get and anchored in all the unthinking bigotries of the fifties. Women hadn’t begun to shed their Donna Reed aprons and deconstruct the Feminine Mystique, except for one notoriously nonconformist “Lee,” who, for all her assimilationist fervor, was nonplussed by the sheer conventionality of the place.
It was, Spielberg would recall, just like the neighborhood in Poltergeist: “kitchen windows facing kitchen windows facing kitchen windows. People would wave to each other from their windows.” For the ten-year-old, a treasure chest of images: bland surfaces that spoke of conformity and repression, the chockablock sameness of the development against the generously unpeopled vistas and vast night skies at the foot of Camelback Mountain.
If Arizona was the best as well as the worst of places and times for Steven, it represented on the debit side another uprooting, another school where he had to make new friends while enduring the social and hormonal upheaval of being a teenager. He felt more like an outsider than ever, “a wimp in a world of jocks.” His ears stuck out, his nose was too long. Bullies called him “Spielbug.”
He went through what he called a six-month period as a juvenile delinquent, which included terrorizing his sisters in ever more inventive ways and misbehaving at his bar mitzvah (he went up on the roof and pelted guests below with oranges). By now, the friction between Arnold and Leah had erupted into a nonstop war. As Spielberg recounted it years later, Leah would be playing the piano in one room with a coven of female friends, while in another, Arnold was hunched over with fellow engineers, discussing “a computer mousetrap.” The boy would seal himself into his room, stuffing a towel under the door to shut out the noise.
But if Arizona was the social and emotional nadir, it was also where he found his métier, and with it, a growing confidence that helped allay the domestic turmoil and feelings of inadequacy. With a camera in hand, he could not only shut out all the horrors that swirled around him, he could tackle one of them—unpopularity—in his own way.
Arnold lent Steven a Brownie, his first, then gave him an 8 millimeter camera he’d received from a friend. Arnold had always taken the family movies when they went on vacation, but as soon as he showed his son how to use it, Steven, by Arnold’s own account, leaped past his father as a videographer, immediately forgoing the stodgy newsreel style of the home movie genre to reshape, even re-create, reality. He would film the family arriving in a car, shooting from an oblique angle (“from the hubcap” Leah remembered), then, if he wasn’t satisfied, make them do it all over again. “Staging real life was so much more fun than just recording it,” he remembered.
As a budding filmmaker, he was dealing in action and “special effects” from the start, his chief protagonist being his electric train, and his preferred action mode being the train wreck. He was making silent movies, learning by instinct how to create excitement through cutting and tempo and close-ups, his forte being explosions and pileups. Perhaps these also provided an outlet for the rage and free-floating anxiety caused by the friction between his parents. Adding to the tension, his father, a child of the Depression, was constantly badgering him to use less film, which was quite expensive: thus he and Arnold entered into that other fractious dynamic, that of the director and his producer.
There were numerous picnics and camping expeditions, and the vast spaces of Arizona would come to occupy an almost holy place in Steven’s visual repertoire. He had been bowled over when he got his first glimpse of the skies through a telescope kept by his scoutmaster, Uncle Buddy, in his backyard. And his mind was permanently blown into the stratosphere of science fiction when, at the age of ten, he went with his father to Destination Moon, about a rocket voyage. Forever after, and through all the trials at home and school, outer space would be both a refuge and a theater for his fantasies.
Once Arnold woke him up in the middle of the night, put him in the car, and without telling him where they were going, drove into the desert. Arnold had brought along a thermos of coffee. Where was Leah? Steven was scared. (Was his father kidnapping him?) They got out, lay on a blanket, looked up at the sky, so clear and free of smog that the stars seemed larger and closer than they’d ever been. Finally, Arnold told him they were there because he’d read that a comet was supposed to appear at a certain time. What happened instead was a meteor shower. The brightness and intensity of the falling stars disconcerted Arnold, who tried to explain it scientifically, but Steven, no longer frightened, was enraptured by the magnificence of the falling stars. His original fear of domestic upheaval evaporated; everything was all right, more than all right. An aficionado of The Twilight Zone, and its promise of a fourth dimension, Steven simply luxuriated in this celestial wonder.
His reshaping memory was already at work: years later, elements of the heavenly shower would crop up in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Another primal “Christmas” scene, a child awakened in the night, is led shivering and blindfolded to the “tree” with the stars laid out like presents from the Almighty. When he came to use the incident, instead of just father and son, the scene would expand to include hundreds of people on blankets searching the skies for a UFO. Just as crucial is its dark underside and more sinister counterpart, the initial fear, the possible kidnapping of a child, which crops up again and again in Spielberg films.
The embryonic action and science fiction filmmaker was ready to showcase his talent for an audience. Success would come when he became a Boy Scout, joining an institution that would hold a deeply cherished place for him all his life. As a member of the Flaming Arrow Patrol of Ingleside’s Troop 294, he wasn’t good at the usual feats of physical dexterity that earned merit badges, so Arnold suggested that he go for the photography badge by making a film. The result was a nine-minute Western called Gunfight.
He had already learned that he could entertain fellow members with his stories around the campfire (his were the best and scariest); now he would wow them with his movies. His film was ecstatically received. From then on, he would take his camera on expeditions and film the other boys, to their delight. The Boy Scouts filled a vacuum, social, emotional, and quasi-religious. He discovered the male bonding and mentorship he felt Arnold had denied him, and he became part of an institution, a sort of congregation he hadn’t yet found in Judaism. He had gone to Hebrew school, which he hated, and had acted out his rejection of his Jewish identity at his bar mitzvah. It was with the Boy Scouts that, for the first time, he felt a sense of belonging.
After Gunfight, his first story film, would come fiction films of increasing length and ambition. When he wanted to make a Western, Arnold would take the crew—Boy Scouts and neighborhood kids—to a restaurant that had a stagecoach out front. Steven had always been fascinated by World War II and his dad’s experiences in the army. Arnold had enlisted in 1942, then been transferred to the Army Air Forces as a radio operator and seen some action in Southeast Asia. But because of the high value placed on his technological expertise, he’d spent most of the time until his discharge in the squadron’s communications room.
Arnold also helped his son get permits for his movies and arranged for him to use a real plane for a World War II film, Fighter Squad, begun in the seventh grade—an action film about G.I.’s escaping from a German fighter squad, using the plane mixed with stock footage.
What was remarkable, according to all who knew him, was the focus and intensity Steven displayed, the absolute confidence on the “set,” how coolly he went about telling his “cast” and “crew” (family and friends) what to do.
There would be girls, but mostly as friends. Some remembered him as being shy but friendlier than some of the boys. Where they would torment girls and tie them to trees (a behavior Steven reserved for his little sisters and younger girls), he would feature his favorite girls in 8 mm movies.
Steven’s already timid relationship with the opposite sex would be shocked into inertia by the consequences of his first date. In the fifth grade, according to Steven’s later telling, he had a crush on a girl, and Arnold took the two to a drive-in. At some point, the girl put her head on his arm. When he got home, Arnold reported the incident to Leah, and there was hell to pay. “Promiscuous” was the word they used. This scared him off girls, or at least served as a good reason to stay clear of entanglements. Afterward, he rarely dated: he didn’t have time and he needed to save money for film.
He now expanded his areas of expertise and became an exhibitor, publicist, and pollster. He got 16 mm Disney films available for nonprofit showings, promoted them with flyers and posters he and Arnold made, then ran them for neighborhood kids in the Spielberg family room. He would also occasionally throw in his own films as curtain raisers, like A Day in the Life of Thunder, which featured his cocker spaniel ambling around the neighborhood all day, his leash harnessed to a camera on a cart—Lawrence of Arcadia?
After showings of a movie like Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, he’d conduct his own focus group, quizzing the audience on its likes and dislikes. He also began his future career as a philanthropist. He charged admission, planning to buy more film with the money, but Arnold suggested he’d get a lot more credit and goodwill if he gave it to charity. He therefore donated his first profits to the Perry Institute Home for Mentally Handicapped Children, a cause—children’s health and welfare—that would become a lifelong commitment.
As prelude to his shrewd sense of ancillary profits and diversification, he did keep the proceeds from the “concession stand” run by his sisters at the home screenings, giving them a percentage. And he did other odd jobs for neighbors to get money for films. All of his activities, day and night, were directed toward film—buying film, planning films, making them. Even at so young an age, he was driven, as if time were running out.
When not at school or skipping school to make movies, he was reading science fiction, watching television, or going to the movies. Arnold took him and another boy to see Psycho at the drive-in, and all three were terrified. In the backyard, he and a friend put together a silent, two-reel Western homage to John Ford’s The Searchers.
There are conflicting stories, including his own, about how much or how little he watched television. When he was small, certain programs so terrified him that Arnold rigged the set with a booby trap—making it more desirable, of course. Later, Steven said his television diet was severely restricted, but the many references in his films and interviews indicate that this wasn’t true. Probably the Spielbergs simply looked down on television as trash and, like most families in that quaint era of parental authority, tried to limit the viewing hours. But the guilty feeling that something he instinctively loved was considered culturally inferior would have fed both the guilt (a betrayal of those higher ambitions fostered by Arnold) and the perverse longing to make just that kind of fare.
This was the height of his animus toward his father, whom he needed to blame for everything—for being absent, for being too strict. At this point, according to a friend, he was totally his mother’s child, and embittered about his father to the point that he “disowned” him. Seeing Arnold’s enthusiastic involvement with his son’s movie activities makes us wonder about Steven’s deep and abiding anger at his father. But Arnold wasn’t casually nurturing, didn’t hang out with the boy and play catch. And even more important, he was a classic “brain,” a fifties high achiever, successful in the sort of intellectual pursuits at which Steven could never excel. Steven constantly felt his father’s disappointment, a blight over his young life. His inventiveness and imagination counted for nothing in the scale of things, were even a handicap to seriousness. Television to the rescue, as a “stepparent” and an act of low-culture defiance that stimulated and comforted him and brought order in the midst of confusion.
Arnold’s intellectualism was synonymous with “wimp,” which in turn seemed equated with Jewishness: tormentors often conflated the two. So he would identify with the non-Jewish philistines and jocks and turn the Jewish Holy Grail— intellectual achievement—into an object of scorn. Hence the ambivalence bordering on contempt for the boy in Amblin’, the Steven surrogate, who, as it happens, was played by a librarian. According to biographer Joseph McBride, Spielberg once said he wanted to be a gentile with the same intensity that he wanted to be a filmmaker.
Despite the tensions between father and son over grades, academic commitment, the baleful influence of television, they had much in common. Arnold would share with Steven his fascination with science fiction, and would tell stories about going to the movies as a kid and loving Douglas Fairbanks in swashbuckling adventures like The Thief of Baghdad. Even the interest in technology—he actually made a television set in the 1950s, as well as bringing home that transistor—was something Steven shared, though from a different perspective.
Arnold’s sin of absenteeism was the pattern of so many suburban dads, trying to provide for a growing family, working longer hours for ever-increasing paychecks and nicer houses. But his absences did mean that, given Leah’s permissiveness, there was no adult figure on the scene. And Steven was at an age when he needed discipline, even conventionality.
Like one of those notorious mother-son outlaw pairs, she was his partner in crime, even his Lady Macbeth. She drove the jeep on scouting expeditions, she told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes in 1993, and “wrote notes to teachers. … I loved to keep him home. I had a pith helmet and fatigues and would drive him out into the desert.”
Neighbors in Arizona thought Leah decidedly odd, especially as she was often seen with Bernie, the couple’s best friend. It was, of course, only years later, when Leah was on the point of remarrying, that Steven would learn that his mother had fallen for their “Uncle Bernie.” What were the children to make of Uncle Bernie and the morality of this Orthodox Jew?
Leah never denied the affair. “I was smitten,” she would say. “I was madly in love.”
Leah’s nonconformism, her bohemian reputation, had begun to embarrass him. Now he longed for a mother who played bridge and attended PTA meetings like the other mothers. “The conventional always appealed to Steven,” she told an interviewer, “maybe because we weren’t.”
The next cinematic coup was Fighter Squad, begun in 1959 and completed and shown in 1962 to prizes and acclaim. Shot with six cameras, incorporating stock footage, and using the actual plane that Arnold had somehow managed to obtain, the movie was a dazzling action display. If the characters were less than skin deep, they served a useful purpose: as an early example of his curiosity about the enemy Other, he himself played the Nazi villain, and he found a part for one of the guys who’d bullied him, thus co-opting him forever. Though he fared poorly in schoolyard combat, he’d learned how to disarm the enemy without use of force.
All the emotional undercurrents in his life—the family tensions and his own restless search for identity—only intensified after he graduated from elementary school and went to Arcadia High, a huge, state-of-the-art school that was more conservative, more upper-middle-class, than Ingleside. But it was where he also found kindred souls, creative weirdos like himself, and even formed a circle of friends. As in most suburban high schools, athletics were paramount. But there were Jews in the student body mix; there were top-flight facilities, including a drama club and a band, both of which he joined. He still saw arty enterprises like the drama club from the jocks’ point of view, calling it “the leper colony.” He tried acting, but was shy and awkward, couldn’t remember his lines (a liability that would enable him to identify with actors in later years), and stumbled in reading and did poorly in school. Because of his habit of faking illness to stay home and work on his movies, he was often subject to disciplinary action. His weak academic performance and a lack of interest in going to college—unique among this fairly elite student body—caused friction with Arnold, who was pressuring him to become a doctor or an electrical engineer.
Nevertheless he and Leah got behind Firelight, Steven’s first feature film, about a UFO. He had won a 16 mm camera as a prize, but Arnold convinced him to trade it in for an 8 millimeter, the Bolex Sonerizer, so that he could record direct sound for the first time. He used the Bolex to make a film inspired by the UFO he and Arnie didn’t see that memorable night under the stars. Like most growing up in the fifties, he was fascinated by reports of flying saucers and stories of life forms on other planets.
It was like a dry run for Close Encounters and E.T., with alien invaders, a fragile home life, an isolated youngster. The difference is that the tropes in Firelight are more conventionally fifties sci-fi than Spielbergian, with menacing aliens who threaten to take over the minds of humans, and paranoia toward both the government and the extraterrestrials.
There are also echoes of The Twilight Zone and an obsessed UFO expert. The scientist is both “mad” and right—in other words, a man who warns but to whom nobody listens. This Cassandra-like figure—truth teller or madman, prophet of the apocalypse to an unbelieving world—serves as an archetype in several twentieth-century narratives: in science fiction, the seer who foretells the extinction of man, but also the lone Jew who sees where the cattle cars are headed in Poland and Germany.
The young director deployed family and pets as dramatis personae: a dog is abducted, and later a little girl, played by one of Spielberg’s sisters, disappears, thus (Freudian alert!) causing her mother to die of a heart attack. Evil or the Otherworldly Other responsible for these suburban catastrophes emanates from a red light, the “Master Image,” and an instinctual blend of the fearful and the wondrous.
Arnold and Leah were heading toward divorce; the breakup of the marriage was much on Steven’s mind, and of course figures in the story. The movie tells of a marriage in trouble—only of course it’s the husband who has an eye for another man’s wife. Maybe just as loaded with meaning is the timing of that ominous light, which first appears to a boy and girl in a car, a couple obviously on their first date. She has her head on his shoulder when they witness the flash. Immobilized with fear, she screams before a further transgression can be committed.
As designed by Spielberg with Arnold’s help, Firelight was an incredibly complex undertaking. He wrote a sixty-seven-page screenplay, and for his first original soundtrack, he used the high school band to play a score that he wrote. (He was always musical and an avid record collector. In later years, his longtime composer John Williams would say Spielberg himself could have been a composer.) He played clarinet and Leah the piano. He worked out a host of ingenious visual effects in the Spielberg carport, which was also the studio, while location shooting took place around Phoenix and Camelback Mountain. The acting and dialogue may have been amateurish, the script full of hoary rhetoric, but the storytelling was visually inventive, and Spielberg already showed a masterly ability to orchestrate complex movements. People on the set marveled at both his know-how in performing every facet of filmmaking and the childlike joy with which he did it. Someone who had been with him when he made Fighter Squad said, “He was one of the least childish fourteen year olds I have ever seen.”
Yet in other ways, he was very much a child. As with that other archetypal twentieth-century genius-nerd in the garage also named Steve, Spielberg’s technical and problem-solving skills evolved exponentially, at the expense of his emotional and social side. There would be other points of comparison with Jobs. In redrawing the cultural map, both showmen would run enterprises that were more collective than individual, both would have plenty of help, perhaps more than was ever officially acknowledged. Yet each was a magician—and a salesman of magic—with a powerful personal vision and mastery of style that subsumed, molded, streamlined, and blended the work of others.
It’s the peculiarities of the two childhoods that make all the difference: the inventor of Mac and the iPhone never recovered from the fact of his adoption, and was to all appearances incapable of genuine family feeling; he invented a futuristic gadget that would enable us all to be alone together. The little prince Spielberg, on the other hand, was loved to distraction. The parental battles, however searing, were cushioned by adoration, and the ominous rumbles of divorce just made him that much more appreciative of what he was about to lose. Jobs’s inventions, his manic workaholism, were all an escape from domesticity. Spielberg, by contrast, would place home life at the center; even the future would become family friendly.
On March 24, 1964, Firelight had its grand premiere at a Phoenix theater, complete with searchlights, limousine (carrying the director and his stars), flashbulbs, and reviews. His proud mother called her precocious seventeen-year-old son Cecil B. DeSpielberg. The movie cost less than six hundred dollars, and at seventy-five cents a head, it made a small profit.
The Kid with the Briefcase
It wAS the summer of 1964. His family had been relocated to Silicon Valley, where his father, now in the new field of computer processing, had been recruited for a top job at the IBM plant in San Jose. Another upscale move, this time to Saratoga, a rich, ultraconservative resort town in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was here that Steven would finish his last year of high school, and his parents would finally end the marriage to whose shreds they had mysteriously clung for ten embattled years. It was a year of misery redeemed by tiny but surefooted steps forward on the path to a professional career.
Over the years reporters heard a number of versions of how he “broke into” the film business; Spielberg was as cunning at crafting his own legend as he was at every other aspect of his career. At the fanciful end of the spectrum was the stealth invasion of Universal Studios: he was taking a tour his last summer of high school, when he jumped off the bus, sneaked inside, found an empty office with a telephone, and, like Eloise at the Plaza, made himself at home.
He did eventually have access to an office and a phone, but it came about rather more conventionally, through an interview set up by a family friend, with Chuck Silvers of the Universal editorial department. Silvers, the first of his mentors at Universal, was reorganizing the studio’s film library, while Steven was taking a break and completing postproduction on Firelight. As the two chatted about films, Silvers was impressed by the kid’s knowledge and enthusiasm, and arranged for him to get a pass—a one-day pass that Steven somehow managed to extend so that, as Silvers told McBride, he “was able to walk onto the lot just about any time he damn well pleased.” Silvers found him an office he could share with Julie Raymond, the television editorial department’s purchasing agent, and some clerical work that didn’t involve the union. In return, he would be a “guest apprentice,” given free range of the studio. While his future colleagues were attending film school, he was designing his own curriculum, learning the craft.
“Every day for three months in a row,” he told the Hollywood Reporter, “I walked through the gates dressed in a sincere black suit and carrying a briefcase. I visited every set I could, got to know people, observed techniques, and just generally absorbed the atmosphere.”
He figured people would take him for the son of one of the executives in the Black Tower. It was still a “middle-aged man’s profession,” and one, he quickly realized, that wasn’t about to welcome him with open arms. He was trying for the first and last time to pass as a grown-up, but he was also the thin wedge in the door of the youthful army mustering at the gates of even the most traditional Hollywood studios. Twenty years later, the kid with the briefcase skulking past the uniformed guard would have his own production company, Amblin, occupying lavish quarters within the same studio precincts—a four-to six–million-dollar “gift” from Universal that was both studio and pleasure dome.
When he wasn’t helping Julie, he wandered the back lot, watched films being shot, hung out in the editing room, sometimes making a nuisance of himself, but absorbing whatever he could. He wanted to meet stars, would invite the likes of Charlton Heston and Cary Grant to lunch in the commissary. Some accepted, some didn’t; some directors let him watch the shooting, some kicked him off the set. He had charm, chutzpah, and—crucial to his future profession—an inability to be discouraged by a “no.”
When he went to Saratoga High School for his senior year, the school paper, with a little P. T. Barnum hyperbole, reported that “Steve Spielberg worked with Hollywood directors this summer at Universal Pictures.”
But the headline and the apprenticeship were about the only rays of light in a year of deep unhappiness. Saratoga represented yet another move, another disruption, with all the anxiety of having to make new friends. It was also when his twin demons—anti-Semitic bullying and the noisy and prolonged breakup of his parents—became both unbearable and indistinguishable.
His friends of the time disagreed about the extent of the anti-Semitism he faced. Don Schull, his next door neighbor in Saratoga, didn’t notice the anti-Semitism, but then Schull was a big guy, the kind of imposing teenager who would shield Spielberg from the bullies, in whose presence they would simply disappear. Another friend, Gene Ward Smith, intellectual and self-proclaimed fellow nerd, identified with Spielberg’s insecurities, and witnessed the persecution. When Steven, always angling to be one of the guys, became a reporter for the school paper, he began covering—of all things—sports. Smith thought it a kind of betrayal of the non-jocks, but also realized how deeply Steven needed to feel a part of the group. He was not quite a pariah, but he was, as he would later express it, “caught in the shadows between the popular kids and the outcasts”—a place alive with pitfalls and possibilities. Mirroring the not-quite-one-thing-or-the-other status of his parents’ marriage, he was caught in the middle, close enough to the mainstream to yearn for it. Becoming a sports reporter was one port of entry. With his early and uncanny sense of vocation, perhaps he was instinctively trying to acquire the different kinds of knowledge he would need.
It was Steven who constantly brought up the subject of his Jewishness: what did it mean? He was having trouble squaring Jewishness with his parents’ behavior: they claimed to be Jewish but didn’t worship or observe its tenets in their daily life.
“You want to know what it means to be Jewish?” he asked Mike Augustine, a friend he had brought home one day when his parents were at it as usual. “That’s what it’s like to be Jewish—you have an extra glass of wine a day so you can yell louder at one another.” (An interesting conflation, as it’s usually inhibited Wasps who are associated with imbibing and release.) Augustine’s take was that even though Steven’s parents were ending their marriage, they were “still devoted to one another.” Thus adding an extra layer of emotional complication for the child.
Steven’s anger, though personal and very much his own, would also dovetail with the wave of rebellion “without a cause” that inflamed so many teenagers against their parents in the fifties and sixties. Children began questioning parental authority, charging them with hypocrisy. The surface of virtuous appearances—faith, monogamy, loyalty—was cracking. But the so-called hypocrisy was itself a function of a culture in which marriage was forever, divorce was exceedingly rare, and couples stayed together “for the children.” Because of the instability of hope raised and then deferred, this kind of ongoing tension can be worse than an out-and-out break. Parents fought quietly and tried to keep their differences secret, but the children sensed conflict and, not understanding it, often blamed themselves.
One escape from the difficulties of sorting out his confusion over his Jewish identity, both rejecting and pursuing it, was Steven’s uncomplicated and visceral connection to another history: that of movies, of Hollywood directors. He told Smith, a math brain who was a snob for European films, that American directors were the artists to watch, especially Ford and Hitchcock. What Spielberg loved about Hitchcock after seeing Psycho was his indirection, the power of suggestion; his other attraction was his mass appeal. In talks with Smith, he was also developing a more refined taste in science fiction, turning to authors like Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury.
In the tumultuous early sixties, he might not take to the barricades, but Steven was deeply affected by social events that were going on around him. He was shaken by the Kennedy assassination, and shared with his fellow boomers an awareness of racial discrimination and a growing disillusionment with his country. The personal really was political, as the breakdown in parental authority coincided with, and mirrored, that of America—the “system.” Even as he persisted in asking Why were Jews persecuted? he began to make a connection between blacks and Jews as twin victims of prejudice and persecution.
He and Mike Augustine had long discussions of race, of counterculture; they played Lenny Bruce albums and read Mad magazine. Often in his life he seems to have had a pal like Mike, who was a little more far out and politically aware than he was, pulling him toward the cutting edge. Now, through Lenny Bruce, Steven began to understand the defensive power of Jewish humor; he and Augustine would take turns playing Jew and Nazi. One of the sources of his distress over the persecutions he had endured was shame for not having fought back; he felt like a coward and realized that humor was both weapon and compensation.
He was also against the Vietnam War, both ideologically and practically: he was graduating, and he had to go to college or be drafted. With his poor academic record his only choice was California State College at Long Beach. It had no film department, but was located within easy driving distance of Universal, so that would become his unofficial university. Neither Leah nor Arnold was pleased, but they were busy with their divorce and had to more or less give Steven free rein.
In the separation agreement, the girls would stay with Leah, and Steve would live with Arnold. At this point, Spielberg blamed the breakup on Leah and would enjoy a brief period of bonding with his father. But his anxiety about the future was intense, and the summary manner in which his parents settled his fate seems to have rankled for years, and would turn up in the expulsion from paradise of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Catch Me If You Can. The feeling of emotional fragility, as well as a need to avoid the draft, sent him into psychotherapy. As he told it, he spent fifty dollars a week telling the analyst stories, stories that were film scripts in the making. He was weaving his personal hang-ups into narratives, practicing the art-as-therapy (and therapy-as-art) that came naturally.
Father and son togetherness ended abruptly when Steven stopped going to classes. Mostly, he used Arnold’s apartment as a crash pad while he pursued his plans to enter the film industry. There was a showdown. Later Spielberg would say he wished he’d finished and gotten a degree, but at the time he was a young man in a hurry. Arnold tried to enlist Chuck Silvers in his campaign to keep the boy in college, but Silvers, though he sympathized with Arnold’s point, felt his loyalty was to Steven. Even Leah, the delinquent enabler, was alarmed. He was good in English and at writing … but he didn’t have the patience to read. He was quick-witted and articulate, a guy who could talk his way into and out of situations. Arnold, fed up, simply kicked him out, whereupon he joined a fraternity, the Theta Chi, significantly not a Jewish one. His new hippie pal and roommate, Ralph Burris, said Steven was straitlaced and driven, that he never drank or used drugs. In 1967 the two moved into a house in the Palms section of West LA and continued living together in the area until Spielberg bought his first house in 1971. There were parties, and there were girls in and out, but not his. Burris was busy being a goof-off, while Spielberg went his own focused way, catching up on movies, devouring knowledge, expertise. He again went to acting classes, joined a film society run by Universal’s film buffs. For the first time he saw foreign films, which were showing everywhere in both new releases and retrospectives, and were an education in themselves, even if it wasn’t his own preferred school. He hung out with editors, picked up lessons in acting by watching John Cassavetes making Faces.
At Universal, still under Chuck Silvers’s mentorship, he was learning to adapt to the very system that renegade pals at Nicholas Beach like Coppola and Scorsese were trying to overthrow—or at least co-opt. Universal was the last of the old-fashioned studios, not yet shaken by the forces that were unsettling the country and the other studios. Steven wasn’t one of what Time in 1968 dubbed “The Student Movie Makers,” turning to films as artistic means of expression. He was indeed one of the “movie brats” (another recent coinage), but he was enlisted neither at USC with the “USC Mafia,” John Milius and Robert Zemeckis among them, who were trying to be as professional as possible, nor with the “funkier” UCLA guys—Coppola, Paul Schrader, and Carroll Ballard—who were more personal in their approach. After starting to make a film about high-speed bicycle racing called Slipstream (he ran out of money before completing it), he told a student reporter, “I don’t want to make films like Antonioni or Fellini. I don’t want just the elite. I want everybody to enjoy my films.” He went on to say, in what was a filmmaking credo both modest and ambitious, that he did want his films to have a purpose, to “say something,” but it had to be something meaningful to him that he could convey to an audience. “If, in doing so, I create a style, then that’s my style. I’m trying to be original, but originality tends to become stylized. … The worst thing for me to do at twenty is to develop a style.”
One day Spielberg went to UCLA and was severely jolted when he saw George Lucas’s graduate thesis film, THX 1138 (which would become a theatrical feature three years later). A kid his own age had accomplished more than he had, but he was also excited to find this new mentor.
It was at this juncture that Julie Raymond, his office mate of the previous summer, put him in touch with Denis Hoffman, who wanted to produce and put up $15,000. Together Hoffman and Steven would make Amblin’—the calling card that opened doors. Julie got him an editing room, and they shot in the grueling heat of the desert, with no one getting paid, just working for screen credit. The movie would be a showcase for all of them, especially Spielberg. Hoffman would complain, as did others through the years, that Spielberg hadn’t given him enough credit, and in 1995 would sue Spielberg for failing to fulfill a multiple-film contract.
A precocious display of moviemaking skills all the more impressive for its tiny budget, Amblin’ tells an O. Henry–esque story of two hitchhikers, a boy and a girl, who meet heading west on a desert highway and join forces. The boy (Richard Levin, a librarian in real life), dark-skinned and furtive, is loping along with guitar case and duffel bag, and seems a little lost. The girl (Pamela McMyler), long hair swinging, antic and competitive, is the adventurous one and quickly assumes dominance, out-expectorating the boy in a spitball contest. In the darkness of a cave, where they are framed, John Ford–style, against the bright outdoors, she introduces him to pot … and then—it would seem—to sex. I say “it would seem,” because night has fallen and the shot is in the shadows, obscurely (tactfully?) ambiguous.
Their odyssey, accompanied by riffs on Leone/Morricone and Sergeant Pepper, and guitar thrums keyed to the boy’s baggage, features the alterations in scale that would become a hallmark of Spielberg visual storytelling: the aerial point of view, whereby two tiny figures are reduced to precarious dots in a vast landscape; then the camera moving in for the humanizing close-up. Eventually, the couple arrives at the Pacific coast. The boy, yelping with delight, rushes into the ocean. The girl, sitting on the beach, eyes the guitar and, unable to resist any longer, opens the case. Out of it spill Oxford shoes, a striped tie, a roll of toilet paper, mouthwash—the accessories of ambition—along with a book, Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, a lovely pun of a reference: a tribute to the great science fiction writer, but a title that might suggest a guidebook to LA and the homes of celebrities. The guitar case could have been a stand-in for the briefcase that Steven required for his days impersonating an executive’s son at the entrance to Universal Studios.
Later, Spielberg would dismiss the film as indifferent to the politics of the time. But the movie displayed something other and more surprising than political engagement: a perspective on the cultural divides that, unlike the more leftish movies being made at the time, didn’t take sides. To the extent that it did, the target was the square but ambitious Spielberg surrogate. It was a “youth” movie that the brass at Universal could understand.
His friend and advocate Chuck Silvers was so impressed with the film that he sent it over to Sidney Sheinberg, Universal’s vice president in charge of television, and insisted that he watch it immediately. Sheinberg did, called the kid into his office, and offered him a seven-year contract. Amblin’ would play at various festivals, and after winning a prize at one, it was submitted for Oscar consideration as a live action short, but— in an irony reflecting the divided soul of Hollywood—it was rejected because of the depiction of drugs.
When Spielberg signed with Universal Television, he was twenty-one. He had wanted to make his first feature film by that age, or at least by twenty-five—Orson Welles’s age when he made Citizen Kane. Welles was a prodigy with a remarkably similar genetic background to Steven’s: his mother was a concert pianist, his father an inventor. And there was something about the largeness of Welles, the outsize shadow he cast on popular culture, that made him a yardstick by which Steven needed to measure himself. He ultimately lost the youth race, directing his first feature, The Sugarland Express, at twenty-seven, but he established a record as the youngest to sign a long-term contract with a studio.
Silvers and others advised him against boxing himself in with the long-term contract, but he wanted the security. Besides, it sounded like a dream come true, a chance to show people what he could do. In the event, television both was and wasn’t an ideal testing ground. The downsides were numerous: long fallow periods between assignments, the straitjacket constraints of shooting for television. “I had more fun making 8 millimeter films as a kid than working in television,” he would say, though admitting that the discipline served him well.
As a film stock profligate, he was constantly shooting more film than was acceptable, orchestrating more elaborate setups than was customary, fussing over the editing till they kicked him out of the editing room. He got the reputation of being avant-garde, arty—in other words, difficult. Diva directors weren’t unknown in television: Spielberg was a Boy Scout compared to the cantankerous Robert Altman, who had both chafed and experimented at Universal.
Excerpted from Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, by Molly Haskell. Copyright © 2017 by Molly Haskell. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Molly Haskell is a film critic and the author of five previous books, including From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Love and Other Infectious Diseases, and Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited. She writes and lectures widely on film. She lives in New York City.