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By: Victoria Yates
Steven Allen Spielberg was born on December 18th 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Leah Adler, a restaurateur and concert pianist, and Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer. His family moved frequently while he was growing up, spending time in New Jersey and Arizona.
His flair for filmmaking arrived early with the pre-teen Spielberg shooting amateur 8mm films with his friends and screening them for a fee in his living room. He completed his Boy Scout photography badge requirement with a Western entitled ‘The Last Gunfight.’
At age 14, Spielberg won his first filmmaking prize for a 40-minute war film, Escape to Nowhere. Two years later he wrote and directed his first independent film, a sci-fi called ‘Firelight.’ The 140-minute film had a budget of $500 and ran in his local cinema, grossing $1.
Growing up, Spielberg’s Orthodox Judaism caused him a lot of difficulty. Initially, he struggled with embarrassment over being different and over perceptions of his family. He says that he suffered anti-Semitic abuse and bullying while at school.
"It isn't something I enjoy admitting," he once said, "but when I was seven, eight, nine years old, God forgive me, I was embarrassed because we were Orthodox Jews … My grandfather always wore a long black coat, black hat and long white beard. I was embarrassed to invite my friends over to the house, because he might be in a corner davening [praying], and I wouldn't know how to explain this to my WASP friends."
He made the move to California after his parents divorced, following his father while his mother and three sisters stayed behind in Arizona. After graduating in 1965, Spielberg applied to film school, aiming to attend the University of Southern California. When USC rejected him, he instead choose to study at California State University, but wouldn’t graduate until 2002, thirty-five years later.
While studying he took an internship at Universal Studios where, in 1968, he made his first short film, ‘Amblin’,’ for theatrical release. When the vice president of production at the Universal TV arm saw it, he was so impressed that Spielberg was signed as a television director, making him the youngest director to get a long-term deal with a major studio. It was this offer that led him to drop out of school and pursue directing full-time.
His first professional job came a year later when Spielberg was hired to direct a segment of the TV show ‘Night Gallery.’ The episode is seen as different from his later approach which was more stylized. After another television assignment, this time for ‘Marcus Welby,’ Spielberg got a shot at a feature-length gig, creating a science fiction episode for ‘The Name of the Game.’ The success allowed him to return to ‘Night Gallery’ as well as to direct the first series episode of ‘Columbo.’
From there, Spielberg did his first four TV films. His initial major effort came with the 1974 ‘The Sugarland Express,’ starring Goldie Hawn. Despite positive critical reaction, none were overwhelmingly successful at the box office.
Spielberg’s big break came when Spielberg he was offered ‘Jaws.’ The modern classic was a difficult film to produce; suffering from overrun budgets and long-delays. But Spielberg’s persistence paid off. On its release in 1975, the film was a hit, winning three Academy Awards and grossing almost half a billion dollars worldwide. The film launched Spielberg into the consciousness of film fans everywhere and made him a multimillionaire.
In 1977, he returned to the chair with ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ a film he wrote and directed. It was another hit, with seven Academy Award nominations including Best Director. It went on to win two. The success solidified Spielberg’s independence as a director.
Over the next few years, Spielberg took on various projects that were moderately successful in the box office but largely unappreciated critically. Amongst films of that time was a return to Close Encounter in 1980. In the sequel, Spielberg revisited scenes that he felt weren’t done enough justice in the original.
The next big classic came along in 1981, with 'Raiders of the Lost Arc', the first installment of the Indiana Jones films starring Harrison Ford. It was a massive hit when it opened and again garnered Academy Award nominations including Spielberg’s second as director.
A year later, Spielberg returned to the science fiction genre with yet another classic of the 80s, ‘E.T. The Extraterrestrial,’ the story of a young boy and an alien became the highest grossing film of all time. The film was also a landmark for in movie marketing, with Spielberg pioneering product placement. His films were also leading the way for special effects, utilizing them on an unprecedented scale.
In 1984, Spielberg and Ford teamed up again in the next installment of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’ He took on more producing work throughout the decade as well, in particular backing the children’s films ‘The Goonies’ (85), ‘Gremlins’ (84), ‘An American Tail’ (85), and ‘Back to the Future’ (85). Despite the increasing workload of projects, Spielberg was back in the chair in 1985. This time he took on a literary adaptation with ‘The Color Purple,’ the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Alice Walker about a group of African American women in depression-era America. His foray into drama was widely praised with Roger Ebert declaring it the film of the year.
From 1985 to 1989, Spielberg was married to actress Amy Irving. In their 1989 divorce settlement, she received $100 million the prenuptial agreement written on a napkin was vacated. Their divorce was recorded as the third most costly celebrity divorce in history at that time.
Next up, Spielberg made another record, shooting the first American film in Shanghai since the 1930s with ‘Empire of the Sun,’ starring John Malkovich and Christian Bale. Although it was yet again a hot awards prospect, racking up several Academy Award nominations, the film did little for the public.
As the 80s waned, Spielberg again returned to the whip-wielding archaeologist in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ reuniting again with Ford and George Lucas, his partner on all of the prior installments. It claimed the spot as top grossing film that year, even beyond Tim Burton’s highly anticipated ‘Batman.’
He worked on several other projects including ‘Hook,’ with Robin Williams, and ‘Always,’ a romantic comedy, before returning to pop culture classics with his adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel ‘Jurassic Park.’ George Lucas and Spielberg teamed up to create a revolutionary special effects experience, becoming the highest grossing film worldwide at the box office at over $900 million (the third time Spielberg’s films would claim that accolade).
In another move to drama, Spielberg next took on ‘Schindler’s List,’ the harrowing holocaust epic. Yet again Spielberg found himself an Oscar nominee but this time he had his first win. The film also went on to take Best Picture. Although hugely profitable, Spielberg used that money to set up the Shoah Foundation whose mission is to archive the testimony of Holocaust survivors.
By 1994, Spielberg had been married to Kate Calpshaw for three years. He decided to take a break from directing to spend more time with his family and focus on forming a new studio, Dreamworks SKG, with Jeffrey Katzenverg and David Geffen. He still took on a lot of production work in the 90s, including The Mask of Zorro, Men in Black, and Deep Impact.
Towards the end of the decade, Spielberg again got busy with directing projects including what some have argued to be the best film of his career, ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ (1998) a World War II masterpiece. It was the first big hit for Dreamworks and proved an influence on the genre for the gritty realism of combat portrayals. The Academy agreed and awarded Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar for the opus.
He returned to Science Fiction themes in the 2001 ‘Artificial Intelligence,’ a project started by his friend, the late Stanley Kubrick. It was a rich piece of visual artistry and storytelling. The US was not fully taken with the film, doing only a middling trade in ticket sales, but worldwide it had a better showing, producing a box office gross of $236 million. That same year he again took on war with the mini-series ‘Band of Brothers,’ the story of a company parachuting into France for the Battle of the Bulge, that proved critically and commercially incredibly successful.
Highlights of the next few years included the neo-noir ‘Minority Report,’ a science fiction adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, and another huge success and step forward in CGI technology. The 2002 ‘Catch Me if You Can,’ the real life story of a daring young con artist starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was another success for the public and the media, as well as earning Christopher Walken an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
In 2005, Spielberg had yet another big year. Creating another Academy Award darling with ‘Munich,’ the story of the Israeli athletes assassinated at the Munich Olympics that proved to be his most controversial project to date. Although only a relative success commercially, the film received five Academy Award nominations including another Best Director for Spielberg. He also directed a modern adaptation of War of the Worlds, a box office smash.
That same year, Dreamworks was bought by Paramount Pictures.
Two years later, Indiana Jones returned to our screens with ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ his first film not released by Dreamworks that decade. He followed that up with the ambitious motion capture film ‘The Adventures of Tintin.’ The animation was so complex it wasn’t released until 2011. When it did come out, audiences soaked it up, taking it to moderate commercial success. A sequel, to be directed by Peter Jackson, who partnered with Spielberg on the original, is in the works.
Usually supporting Democrats, Spielberg endorsed the re-election of Hollywood friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican Governor of California, in 2006. In 2007 the Arab League voted to boycott Spielberg's movies after he donated $1 million for relief efforts in Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War.
Most recently, Spielberg turned his talents to an ambitious drama about Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis starring opposite Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln. The project covered the last four months of his life and was written by Tony Kushner. It was a critical hit, receiving wide acclaim and twelve Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director.
Spielberg’s vision has brought us some of the most iconic moments in our recent pop culture history all the while pushing boundaries on style, special effects, and storytelling. Many of his films have recurring themes, such as ordinary characters coming in contact with extraordinary beings or finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances. He also often explored the parent-child relationship.
In all, he won three Academy Awards. He was was nominated for seven, for the category of Best Director, and won two of them (Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan). Nine of the films he directed were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (Schindler's List won).
In most cases, his films broke new ground in subject matter, special effects or style – and were usually optimistic in outlook or outcome. Spielberg is one of the most recognized directors of our time, and a true, innovative leader of cinema.