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Book review: New edition of Spielberg bio enlarges movie mogul’s myth

Dennis King Published: April 26, 2011

Since the candid and revealing “Steven Spielberg: A Biography” was published in 1997 – causing a major re-evaluation of the filmmaker as more than a facile, boy-wonder entertainer – much of import has happened in the life and career of America’s most consistently successful and influential movie mogul.

Now there is a new edition of film historian Joseph McBride’s biography that adds four new chapters to a life story that obviously is still unfolding with new and innovative work.

“Steven Spielberg: A Biography” (second edition, University Press of Mississippi, $30) takes up where the earlier edition left off, chronicling the extremely productive years from 1997 to the present. In that period, Spielberg helped found his own movie studio, DreamWorks SKG, with partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, and directed an ambitious string of movies that includes “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report,” “The Terminal” and “Munich.”

As McBride notes, Spielberg’s rise to eminence has had its ups and downs. Initially hailed as a wunderkind with early successes such as “Duel” and “Sugarland Express,” followed by blockbusters “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and the Indiana Jones movies, Spielberg was largely painted by critics as “a child-man … incapable of dealing with the darker side of life.”

That is, until, “Schindler’s List,” which changed his critical profile radically and positioned him as a truly important filmmaker building a body of work that was not only commercially lucrative but socially and artistically ambitious.

McBride, an associate professor in the cinema department at San Francisco State University, is author of several respected film books, including “Hawks on Hawks” and “What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career.” Having devoted years of research to Spielberg’s life and career, and having conducted more than 300 interviews, he’s uniquely qualified to assess the filmmaker’s career from a solid critical footing.

Clearly it was the author’s challenge to find anyone in the movie business willing to publicly criticize Spielberg. Most of the filmmaker’s friends, relatives and colleagues declined to assist McBride. But while largely admiring his subject’s films, the biographer nonetheless casts a hard eye on several of Spielberg’s directing failures (such as “1941” and “Always”) and his spotty record in producing others’ films and TV series.

Much about Spielberg’s personality and person life remains clouded in myth (some of it cannily promoted by the filmmaker himself). But with thoroughly researched and insightful detailing of Spielberg’s nomadic childhood and contentious relationship with creative but difficult parents, plus thoughtful analysis of his works, McBride creates an entertaining and human-scale portrait of this modern movie giant that’s as engaging as any of his film epics.

- Dennis King


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