By 1997, when the first edition of Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography was published, its author’s previous subjects included Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Frank Capra. To add Steven Spielberg to that list was, McBride surely must have realised, something of a statement. In effect, McBride, with a formidable reputation as a critic, biographer, and screenwriter preceding him, was saying that Spielberg deserved to be in their company, and deserved a book as serious and honest as his previous studies.
Perhaps it is for that reason that I’ve always considered the first edition of Steven Spielberg: A Biography to be McBride’s most impressive work. It took him four years to research and write the book, during the course of which he interviewed a staggering 327 people from every period of Spielberg’s life and career. Among these, the coup remains Spielberg’s father, Arnold, who agreed to talk to McBride despite his son’s decision not to. Such prodigious scholarship was hardly unique for McBride, but the idea that Spielberg merited it was.
Now, with the 2011 publication of the second edition of the book, McBride has implicitly placed Spielberg in the same class as Orson Welles, whose career, at this writing, the author has chronicled in no fewer than three books, including his most recent, 2006’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career. McBride jokes in Hart Perez’s new documentary, Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film Biography (2011), that he may write a fourth someday, if such unfinished Welles films as Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind are ever released. Knowing McBride and his work as well as I do, I don’t think he is entirely kidding. When he is stimulated by a director, as he is in the cases of Welles and Spielberg, there is no one more tireless than he in documenting their work over a period of time.
But “tireless” is too tiny a word for McBride’s approach in Steven Spielberg. He describes the filmmaker’s youth, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and later in New Jersey, Arizona, and California, with a rare depth. In an interview on the first edition’s publication, McBride said, “Writers don’t seem to bother talking to the people from their subjects’ childhood, even though a person’s personality is formed in early childhood.” (1) McBride, on the other hand, spoke with friends, classmates, acquaintances, and relatives dating from Spielberg’s childhood, and the result is beyond edifying. It is no accident that the book’s prologue describes the making and theatrical premiere of one of Spielberg’s most famous amateur films, Firelight (1964), and the first six chapters (documenting family strife, Boy Scouting, and early stabs at filmmaking) remain the book’s most captivating. Indeed, one wishes that Spielberg would get around to filming I’ll Be Home, an unrealised project written by his sister, Anne, about their days in Cincinnati; if the film would be half as fascinating as McBride’s telling of the same period, it would rank among the director’s best. But as far as McBride is concerned, Spielberg needn’t address his life directly, either onscreen or off. “The way he has expressed his feelings,” McBride writes, referring specifically to his divorce from actress Amy Irving, “is to make movies about them.” (p. 406)
As always, McBride’s instincts as an investigative journalist serve him well. His account of how it came to be that Spielberg claimed to be a year younger than he actually was proves to be a fine illustration of the maxim McBride says, in Behind the Curtain, that he lives by: “I like to look behind the official stories, which are usually lies.”
In 1993, it was the announcement that Spielberg would at last film Schindler’s List (the film rights to Thomas Keneally’s great novel had been purchased by Universal in 1982) that was the deciding factor for McBride to write a biography of the director. McBride wrote then, “Once he mustered the courage to confront the Holocaust and his own Jewish heritage, the conflicting impulses of his life and work began to resolve themselves in a way that provided dramatic shape and resolution for a biography.” (p. 533)
While Schindler’s List (1993) remains Spielberg’s masterpiece, his work has continued to develop in fascinating ways. Perhaps if his films since 1997 hadn’t been so bold, McBride would have lacked the incentive to revisit the director now. But, for some time, McBride has been hinting at how strongly he feels about the importance of the director’s recent films, none of which – with the exception of Saving Private Ryan (1998) – has been as acclaimed as Schindler’s List. Thus, the epigraph by Michael Crichton – “He is arguably the most influential popular artist of the twentieth century. And arguably the least understood” – sadly remains as true today as it was 14 years ago.
There was, for example, McBride’s suggestion in 2001 (mere months before the release of Spielberg’s first feature in three years, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) that Spielberg “might be the director best suited” to film Alfred Hitchcock’s unrealised Mary Rose, which McBride properly describes as “the most intriguing unfilmed project of Hitchcock’s career.” (2) A bold assertion, made bolder by McBride’s references to Always (1989) and Hook (1991) (two of Spielberg’s most neglected films, but to my eyes, two of his best) in describing how Spielberg might approach Mary Rose. More substantively, a 2006 review in Cineaste of Lester D. Friedman’s critical study Citizen Spielberg gave McBride the opportunity to indicate where he stood on Spielberg’s films of the 2000s, and his verdict was resounding: “In several recent films as diverse in style and tone as War of the Worlds  and The Terminal , he is boldly depicting and challenging the social darkness that has enveloped us all in the repressive wake of 9/11,” McBride wrote. “The relatively disappointing commercial receptions of A.I. (his most underrated film), Amistad , The Terminal, and Munich  do not seem to have fazed him, as they might have earlier.” (3)
The tone of the four new chapters in Steven Spielberg (consisting of some 82 pages) confirms these first impressions. Indeed, McBride states at the outset that, since 1997, Spielberg has been engaged in “one of the most creatively fecund, versatile, and adventurous periods in his career.” (p. 450) Some of the material in these chapters is drawn from McBride’s exemplary 2009 article, “A reputation: Steven Spielberg and the eyes of the world”, published in New Review of Film and Television Studies (4).
There is an enormous amount of ground to cover: the formation of DreamWorks; the disappointments of The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Amistad; the triumph of Saving Private Ryan; and the seven films Spielberg directed between 2001 and 2008. To reread the earlier chapters is to be reminded of the strength of McBride’s analytic insights – such as his comparison of the ending of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to the ending of George Stevens’ Shane (1953) – and his critical eye is as sharp as ever in the new material.
Here he is on Amistad:
The film focuses constantly on issues of communication, another key Spielberg theme; in place of the musical tones in Close Encounters [Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977] that enable the extraterrestrial visitors to communicate with earthlings, the visitors from another continent in Amistad manage to make a human connection once their insular American sympathizers finally take the trouble to learn their language. (p. 460)
Tapping into Kubrick’s vision and following the late filmmaker’s visual and dramatic plan for much of the film was not the self-effacing act it seemed but a channeling operation that enabled Spielberg to access and express his own deep-seated feelings of sorrow and anger over the limitations of the human race. (p. 483)
On War of the Worlds:
Spielberg’s technical mastery is often breathtaking, as in the 360-degree tracking shot around Ray [Tom Cruise] and his family as they race out of town in their minivan, a shot that echoes a similar camera movement in The Sugarland Express  but at a much higher speed. (p. 503)
McBride is so attuned to Spielberg’s artistry as a whole that one feels let down when his judgement of a particular film differs from one’s own. He makes some interesting connections between Spielberg’s personal life and the “horrifying images” (p. 353) of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), but ultimately concludes that the film is “lurid, melodramatic claptrap, stirring little emotional involvement other than a frequent sense of disgust.” (p. 354) But I’m more inclined to agree with Armond White, Spielberg’s most eloquent defender among the ranks of working film critics, who told me in 2004 that the film was now his favourite of the Indiana Jones trilogy (the fourth film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , had not yet been made when I interviewed White), and that he considered it to contain “the best action filmmaking, period.” White added that none of the inferior films influenced by Temple of Doom could hold a candle to it: “There’s more blood and there’s more explosions in all those others, but not nearly the wit, not nearly the fleet footedness, or light and humane touch.” (5)
At the same time, McBride and White’s concerns often overlap – and even in their respective histories as viewers of Spielberg’s work. Duel was the made-for-television movie that put Spielberg on the map in 1971, but it turns out that it was a later film for the small screen, 1972’s Something Evil, starring Sandy Dennis, that made both critics sit up and take note. Also, as in the first edition, McBride spends a great deal of space on Spielberg’s career as a producer and executive. For White’s part, he paid homage to DreamWorks’ high ambitions to “create distinctive works… rather than formulaic ones” in his negative review of the book The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks (6). McBride concludes that running DreamWorks had a “largely positive” effect on Spielberg’s work as a director; he observes that the director’s “penchant for multitasking, which he finds vital to keeping himself creatively stimulated, stood him in good stead as he took on responsibilities that would give most people vertigo.” (p. 449)
In the end, the only weakness of this extraordinary biography is that by year’s end, yet another revision will be in order. In 2011, for the third time in ten years, Spielberg will release two films in the same year. This time, they are War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and both are sure to break new ground for the director. Last November, Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s editor since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (7), revealed to me that War Horse was cut on the Avid, rather than on film – a first for Spielberg. Kahn put it to me simply: “He decided that he’d like to try it.” (8)
How this new mode of working impacts the style of War Horse, if it does at all, remains to be seen. But Spielberg’s artistic choices are becoming ever more exciting, ever more unfixed. Near the end of Steven Spielberg: A Biography, McBride writes of “Spielberg’s unpredictability and tireless penchant for cinematic experimentation.” (p. 531) That much is undeniable, and it is a good thing that he has a biographer as agile as McBride to keep up with him.
Steven Spielberg: A Biography, second edition, by Joseph McBride, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2011.
- Ron Hogan, “Beatrice Interview: Joseph McBride”, The Beatrice, 1997.
- Joseph McBride, “An Old Master’s Unheard Cri de Coeur: Alfred Hitchcock’s Mary Rose”, Cineaste, Spring 2001, pp. 24-28.
- McBride, “Citizen Spielberg,” Cineaste, vol. 32, no. 2, March, 2007, pp. 80-82.
- McBride, “A reputation: Steven Spielberg and the eyes of the world”, New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1-11.
- Armond White, interview with the author, 1 July, 2004.
- White, “The Big Picture”, The New York Times Book Review, 9 July, 2010.
- Kahn has edited all of Spielberg’s features since Close Encounters, except one: E.T., which was edited by Carol Littleton.
- Peter Tonguette, “Michael Kahn, A.C.E.: A Beginner’s Mind, A Professional’s Craft”, CinemaEditor, First Quarter 2011, p. 48.