Randall Beach: Yale Press Book Describes Spielberg's 'Revenge of the Nerd'

New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), February 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

Randall Beach: Yale Press Book Describes Spielberg's 'Revenge of the Nerd'


Here's a great American success story: how an anxious, insecure, bullied nerd overcame his fears and ridicule by picking up a movie camera as a teenager and used his anxieties to scare, entertain and captivate millions of people.

Yes, he has directed 34 movies, including "Jaws," "E.T." and "Jurassic Park" and is the most successful, popular moviemaker of all time.

And now, at age 70 (really? could it be?) Steven Spielberg is being analyzed and seeing his movies examined by esteemed film critic Molly Haskell in a mini-biography.

She admits she was an unlikely choice for this assignment.

"When Yale University Press came to me with the idea of writing a short biography of Spielberg for its Jewish lives series, I hesitated," Haskell wrote in her preface to "Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films."

It wasn't so much that Haskell isn't Jewish. "More to the point, I had never been an ardent fan."

Haskell loves "art films," many of them foreign. But as she wrote, Spielberg acknowledges he has no feeling for European films. Haskell wrote she embraces "brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings, things left unsaid and the erotic transactions of men and women."

But Spielberg doesn't "do" erotic in his movies. "He can't imagine the full spectrum of adult heterosexual emotions -- attraction, flirtation, desire, even good conversation between a man and a woman," Haskell wrote.

And yet, when Haskell went back to take another look at Spielberg's work, she discovered some movies she deeply admires, especially the relatively unnoticed "Empire of the Sun." She is also impressed with his willingness in more recent times to take on weighty subjects such as the Holocaust ("Schindler's List") and slavery ("Amistad").

The most interesting parts of this 205-page book come in the early chapters when Haskell is taking us through his troubled youth. She had to rely on sources such as Joseph McBride, author of a much more detailed Spielberg biography. Spielberg wouldn't talk to her because he doesn't grant interviews to biographers; McBride managed to "write around" this obstacle.

She also noted something Spielberg once said when he was willing to be quoted: "Everything about me is in my films." And so she approached her book by telling his story through his movies.

But before she settled into that movie-by-movie appraisal, she gave us about 40 pages describing his angst as a kid and teenager.

Addressing why Spielberg, at 70, keeps making movies at such a rapid pace -- "What keeps him going?" -- she wrote: "The answer, or rather the mystery, begins with the outsize fears of a little boy who began biting his nails while still in knee-pants."

But Haskell wrote Spielberg was unusual in that he hung onto his childhood fears instead of burying them: "He nourished their memory, translated them into bold cinematic images and projected them onto a terrified audience."

His father, Arnold, was a workaholic computer engineer who wasn't often available to his son. His mother, Leah, was artistically inclined and permissive.

The family moved around a lot, making it even harder for a socially awkward kid to fit in. They went from Cincinnati to New Jersey and then to Arizona. In the latter two states, he felt like an outsider.

Young Spielberg also had to deal with being Jewish in communities that were predominantly Christian. His "outsider" feeling came mostly from being Jewish and a "non-jock," Haskell wrote.

Haskell dug out this quote from Spielberg: "Being a Jew meant that I was not normal." McBride quoted him saying he wanted to be a gentile with the same intensity that he wanted to be a filmmaker.

His years in Arizona were the most painful, Haskell wrote. "He felt more like an outsider than ever, 'a wimp in a world of jocks. …

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