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There Can Never Be Another Steven Spielberg

The world’s most successful and famous director ascended with a cunning combination of personal artistry and industry savvy. But as a new HBO documentary shows, he may be film’s last great pop artist.

Steven Spielberg Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 1969, a 22-year-old kid from suburban Phoenix, Arizona, was asked to direct the 69-year-old grand dame of cinema, Joan Crawford. How did this happen? The bespectacled kid had been selected to shoot the pilot script of a new TV series called Night Gallery, written and created by Rod Serling, his first television series project since The Twilight Zone. But, how? After holing up on the lot of Universal Studios for months with little to do but fiddle with the phones and dream up ideas, a precocious college student named Steven Spielberg got the call—his shot had finally arrived. How in the world ...? Spielberg had impressed executives at the studio—primarily TV president Sidney Sheinberg—with an audacious 25-minute student film called Amblin’ and quickly rose from lowly Cal State–Long Beach editing department intern to a director with a seven-year contract. Shortly after signing it, Sheinberg told him, “... a lot of people will stick with you in success; I’ll stick with you in failure.” Yes, but how?

Maybe Why? is the better question. These were extraordinary circumstances for a young and unproven filmmaker. Like a lot of Hollywood lore, the Steven Spielberg creation myth is difficult to resolve—an unconnected middle-class nerd from a non-prestigious school took his opportunity and made more of it than any person in the history of show business. Los Angeles is chockablock with legacy kids, privilege mongers, and thriving hacks. Spielberg was none of these things. Luck, talent, timing, savvy—it takes all that to become a force as ubiquitous and influential as Steven Spielberg. And more than that, too.

The awe that Spielberg inspired, even at 21, is evident in the testimony of the actor Tom Bosley (Happy Days), who appeared alongside Crawford in “Eyes,” the Night Gallery episode. “This kid was doing close-ups without masters,” Bosley said, still stunned, many years later. Spielberg, it seems, had focused on shooting closely lensed images of his star without securing the safe, wide shot—a risky choice for an inexperienced TV director. From an early age, he knew exactly what he wanted, and how to get it.

As for the famously stormy Crawford, the actress and her director shared some trepidation about working together. “Directing Joan Crawford was like pitching to Hank Aaron your first time in the game,” Spielberg would later say. Here’s what Crawford said about Spielberg after the experience.

When I began to work with Steven, I understood everything. It was immediately obvious to me, and probably everyone else, that here was a young genius. I thought maybe more experience was important, but then I thought of all of those experienced directors who didn't have Steven's intuitive inspiration and who just kept repeating the same old routine performances. That was called "experience.”

I knew then that Steven Spielberg had a brilliant future ahead of him. Hollywood doesn't always recognize talent, but Steven's was not going to be overlooked. I told him so in a note I wrote him. I wrote to Rod Serling, too. I was so grateful that he had approved Steven as the director. I told him he had been totally right.

“Eyes” is a perfectly clever piece of ’60s pop TV, and was successful enough to help secure a series order for Serling’s Night Gallery. But this anecdote is not some unknown origin story buried in the bowels of movie history. It’s been chronicled again and again, the legend of a generational figure cemented by his earliest collaborators. In the next two years, Spielberg would direct seven more episodes of television, including installments of Marcus Welby, M.D. and Columbo. Then he’d make a TV movie called Duel. His first feature film—for Universal, naturally—was called The Sugarland Express and arrived two years later. A year after that, Jaws struck. By then, 28-year-old Steven Spielberg had become Steven Spielberg. A steady rise resulting in heretofore unseen fame for someone so young.

That’s how it happened for the director, a fact drawn clearly in Susan Lacy’s Spielberg, a new documentary about the filmmaker, set to premiere on HBO this weekend. Time and again, we see that Spielberg is consistently in the right place with the right plan, pushing the right project with the right vision. There is a narrative synchronicity to his life—like one of his movies—that is uncanny. The failures, both personal and professional, inform the art and the commerce. The successes set the agenda for an industry and a template for how to achieve it. He is a contradiction and a complement to himself—he’s credited with propagating the blockbuster age and also fortifying a moral intelligence; he’s revolutionized the use of digital imagery in movies and also told practical, real-life stories with immense rigor; he’s made childlike wonder a selling point, and preserved the adult themes that are so often mourned in American movies. He is a paradox of success: a celebrity and a craftsman, a humanist and a technocrat. There will never be anyone like Steven Spielberg again. And if the whiz kid from Phoenix had never come along, Hollywood would have had to invent him.

Hagiographies are typically tidy, stress-free renditions of a life. Spielberg isn’t quite that—it interrogates the failures of movies like 1941 and The Color Purple, and especially prizes the pain of his parents’ divorce. The story of their marriage and its end is the most tensile thread in his work. But Lacy found an artist trying not to think too hard about where the creativity comes from in the first place.

“I think I saw the threads in his work. I don’t think that he’d ever spent a lot of time thinking about that,” Lacy told me. “I think artists don’t want to actually probe that too much, because there’s a certain unconscious or mysterious [aspect], where you don't know where it’s coming from, these elements that guide you as an artist. It’s like waking up from a dream. ‘Oh my god, I had the best dream.’ You tried to tell somebody the dream, and it wisps away.

Steven Spielberg HBO

“I wanted to see if he saw the threads in the connective tissue. Some of it is very obvious. His parents divorced. It's as obvious as the nose on your face. But some of it isn't. And when I asked him if he saw them, he really didn’t want to answer that question. He said, ‘You know, I don’t want—that’s your job. You do that. I won’t do that.’ And also, I think he doesn’t want to tell people too much.”

In 1974, in her review of The Sugarland Express, The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote, “I can’t tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good moviemakers have got by without being profound.” After his first proper film, Kael hits upon the driving question of Lacy’s documentary: Is Steven Spielberg an artist, or just an entertainer?

In Spielberg’s movies, there is almost always an obsessive force terrorizing its protagonist—a shark, a spaceship, a dinosaur, a husband, a mother, a civil war. These elusive notions haunt his characters. It’s a classicist style, inspired by the Westerns and war movies that fascinated him as a kid—evil may strike at any moment. It’s an essential dynamic: Steven Spielberg thinks about the audience as much as himself. If they’re scared or thrilled or gripped, he’s won.

During the testing process of Jaws, Spielberg remembers a particularly memorable screening in Long Beach. “The audience was screaming and the popcorn was flying in the air,” he told the writer and critic Tom Shone in his book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. “I thought someone had hired 650 clackers, and had paid them a lot of money to scream at all the appropriate moments and laugh at all the appropriate moments.”

They weren’t—the screams were real. The testing process is hell for most directors. Spielberg took the off-the-charts marks Jaws received and sought even more ways to improve it, like a magician refining an already-perfect trick. In so doing, he set a precedent—Spielberg made an unseemly vagary of the movie business into a weapon. Twenty years later, during the making of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton noted Spielberg’s preternatural gift for pointing out the flaw: “Steven was really good about identifying what was wrong. He said, ‘The movie starts too fast.’” The captain of such cruise liners of personal feeling as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Schindlers List is also something of a movie mechanic.

This is what has made Spielberg, approaching 71 and as decorated as any filmmaker ever, still something of a commercial animal. Lacy’s film, which runs more than two hours and 40 minutes, largely avoids the corporate aspect of his career (“I made a decision totally to focus on his directing career, and not on the business side of his life”), but in that too he has been peerless, launching a film studio, investing in restaurants chains and theme parks, and bankrolling technologies that have revolutionized visual effects in Hollywood. Spielberg, who is worth an estimated $3.6 billion, represents money as much as magic.

There is an old saw about an early cut screening of Star Wars that George Lucas organized for his closest friends—Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg, and others. The former film students bashed the cut—amateurish and incomprehensible, they said. Not Spielberg, who encouraged Lucas, and was eventually rewarded with a small piece of the movie’s profit share after winning a lopsided bet over which movie would earn more money, Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We know how that turned out. Even his wagers had industry foresight.

Part of what makes Spielberg peerless is his relentlessness, his unceasing productivity. He has directed 12 movies this century, and has three more on the way before 2020 is out. He has more misses than you may remember: Hook, Always, 1941, The Adventures of Tintin, The Terminal, last year’s The BFG. But they are dwarfed, almost blotted out by his iconic work. His B-roster—Minority Report, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Munich, Amistad—would constitute some of the most audacious work of most any other director on earth. To Spielberg, they are almosts. That vast filmography is what welds Lacy’s movie.

“Steven doesn’t really have that many demons,” Lacy, who created the American Masters series for PBS, says. “His light is not terribly dramatic. And I don't say that in a negative way. He’s had traumas in childhood—like everyone else, he is affected by insecurity, which drives most artists. But, you know, he had one marriage that didn’t work, and then he’s been happily married. He never had any addictions. He’s had a pretty stable life. And yet, there is a very personal Steven that finds its way into all of his movies. But he’s not thought of that way. So I knew that I had to find a story in the work. Really find the story in the work.”

The work reveals a sensitive person questing for greater meaning, to be taken more seriously, to understand himself, why he resents his father, why he’s consumed by intergalactic toys and rapscallion heroes. As Lacy says, Spielberg is, at heart, a geek in repose. “I think in some of that early footage of him—because he talks about it still—he said, ‘Oh my god, I'm such a nerd! I look like such a nerd here!’ But he didn't say take it out. I don’t think he loved seeing that early footage of him, I think he thinks he looks nerdy.” The goofball Spielberg is on display in home movies throughout Lacy’s film. But what’s unmistakable is how consistently he finds himself, nerd or not, at the vanguard of his profession.

Later this year, Spielberg will release The Post, his 30th feature film. Originally conceived as a celebration of the late, longtime Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in Hillary Clinton’s America, the movie has taken on a new meaning. In its depiction of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, The Post has come to represent something more grand about the power and vitality of a democratic free press. Was it merely dumb luck that the presidency of Donald Trump could make this film feels so urgent? Or was it the residue of Spielberg’s design? As always with Spielberg, the How? is unanswerable. It’s the Why? that matters.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.