In the days of the studio system, directors were anchored to one home base. If Louis B. Mayer wanted a helmer to do, in succession, a pirate picture, a romantic tear-jerker and a screwball comedy, he’d better be able to deliver or he’d be out on his seersucker-covered toochis. If Jack Warner needed to pull a director off a gangster flick and put him on a musical, he’d better have nimble feet and be able to think on them.
Then came the era of the auteur. Coined by French critics to describe practitioners like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and others during the New Wave of the 1950s, the term was used to argue that the director was the central force in all moviemaking and that the idea of collaboration wasn’t as important as a powerful and singular vision.
This, of course, inflated the egos of directors — many of which were at their bursting point to begin with — and spawned a movement that lasts to this day. For better or worse, the movies that evolved from the auteur theory bear the director’s imprint. Because of that, versatility went the way of the cape and megaphone among directors. You are unlikely now to see Quentin Tarantino doing an Elizabethan romance, or Cameron Crowe shooting a war picture, or the Farrelly Brothers trying their hands at science fiction.
But there is one prominent holdout who would have been just as comfortable, prolific and celebrated in the time of Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn as he is now with Viacom, NBC-Universal and his own Dreamworks. That would be Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most multifaceted filmmaker working today. There is no one out there who can combine mass entertainment and prestige filmmaking quite like him.
Masses prepare to be entertained
“War of the Worlds” opens on Wednesday. This will undoubtedly show off Spielberg’s forte’, which is mass entertainment that requires some suspension of belief. This is what he’s known for most, and this is probably what he does best. Consider “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Jurassic Park,” to name a few. When it comes to treating audiences to thrilling escapist fare, Spielberg has no peer.
But perhaps the best indicator of his varied gifts could be seen in 2002. That year, both “Catch Me If You Can” and “Minority Report” were released. Those pictures couldn’t be more different. The former was based on the true story of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. and for the most part was a breezy, adventurous tale that was also poignant and moving. The latter was a cold, dark foray into sci-fi, a futuristic chiller that was eons removed from the suburban syrup of “E.T.”
Those two flicks officially erased for good the knock on Spielberg, which is his inability to resist the schmaltz no matter what the genre. Of course, that stigma didn’t develop overnight.
Spielberg first came to the attention of film buffs in 1971 with a television movie called “Duel,” which involved motorist Dennis Weaver in a life-and-death struggle on the freeway with an anonymous and menacing trucker. Before that, he had directed short films and some episodes of television shows, including Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.”
“The Sugarland Express,” his first feature for theatrical release, was an enjoyable chase flick starring Goldie Hawn and William Atherton that still holds up today. It was to Spielberg’s career what “American Graffiti” was to that of George Lucas: the offbeat, character-driven piece that reveals unique talent, portends well for a lasting career and comes right before the avalanche of fame and wealth that follows a blockbuster.
Not just the king of popcorn flicksWhen “Jaws” broke box office records and thrust Spielberg into the heady realm of Hollywood whiz kid, it also branded him as an impresario of popcorn flicks. That reputation was to follow him on pictures like “Close Encounters” through “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” It should be noted that one of his few duds occurred during this period, the World War II comedy, “1941.” It illustrates that no matter how dexterous a director may be, occasionally something comes up that he can’t do. In the case of Spielberg and “1941,” it was comedy, although that was really his only try, and there is an abundance of wit in his other works, notably the “Indiana Jones” series.
Finding a touch of humor in the bleakest of stories is an indication that a filmmaker has endured enough life experience to realize that comedy and tragedy are intertwined. An example can be seen even in “Schindler’s List” when Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler temporarily convinces the despicable Goeth that great rulers of the past spared those who ran afoul of their authority, then watched as a comically vain Goeth attempts to change. That character transformation was understandably short-lived, but it provided a much-needed and brief departure from the relentless brutality.
When a filmmaker reaches the latter stages of his career, the tendency is to avoid risk and stick with the types of pictures that have helped carve a place in the industry. Perhaps because he has nothing to prove and his status in Hollywood is unassailable, Spielberg continues to take on projects that are challenging and distinct. After “War of the Worlds,” he is slated to direct pictures about Abraham Lincoln, the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and a fourth “Indiana Jones” installment.
If he were a director for hire under the old studio system, he wouldn’t be nearly as wealthy or as famous. But his credits would probably look exactly the same.