Reel Streaming: Spielberg Phones Home
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 108
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the family drama The Fabelmans, goes into wide release this Friday (Nov. 25).
Advance publicity and reviews tell us that it is the filmmaker’s most personal work, loosely based on his own childhood growing up in post-WWII Arizona. In this environment, young Sammy Fabelman, the film’s Spielberg surrogate (Fable Man, get it?), discovers the magic and wonder of cinema and how movies are made, just as he comes to realize that his parents are in an unsatisfying marriage and heading for divorce.
A young boy discovering the movies and the seemingly enchanted world of moviemaking is pure Spielberg, if we’re to believe that the stories we’ve heard about his interest in filmmaking from a young age are accurate.
It’s also well-known that Spielberg was a child of divorce—his parents separated in his late teens following years of an unhappy marriage. He himself divorced his first wife, actress Amy Irving, in 1989 after four years of marriage. He went on to marry Kate Capshaw, the leading lady of his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1991. The two are the parents to seven children, a mix of biological children, adopted children and stepchildren from he and Capshaw’s previous marriages.
But Hollywood won’t be talking about Spielberg’s marriages or progeny come Monday, but rather how much money The Fabelmans made in its first weekend in broad distribution.
Before that, it’s worth taking a look at the kind of impression the world’s most celebrated filmmaker has made on the box office over the years. Not that box office returns are an all-telling gauge of success...
According to the film industry trade site boxofficemojo.com, Spielberg’s 35 feature films (directed in just over 48 years) have earned nearly $11 billion at the worldwide box office, give or take a few dozen million.
Spielberg’s box office numbers are a slippery statistic to process—grosses always are, particularly when taking into account inflation adjustments, platform releasing and theatrical re-releases (remember those?). And with Spielberg, there are simply so many box office bonanzas to parse through. The Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies (he directed four Indy entries and two Jurassic Park pics), War of the Worlds (2005), Jaws (1975) and Ready Player One are a solid cross section of his most successful releases, but even with critics’ ratings added to the mix, it’s tough to get a sense of just how popular and enduring his films truly are. While there is a core group of moviegoers who can carefully describe his franchise pictures in depth, there are probably just as many who have enjoyed them but who couldn’t actually tell you much about the later entries in each series.
I would never deny the value and expertise that Spielberg puts into his large-scale, action-adventure creations. But there’s one that stands alone--one Spielberg film that’s simply not like his others and that truly defines what Spielberg is all about in a visual, narrative and thematic sense. And as for the box office, even today, on the film’s 40th anniversary, it continues to hold its own against his biggest productions!
I’m talking about 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a masterwork that is arguably Spielberg’s best-loved and most successful film. (At least, as far as my loose definition of “successful" goes.)
For a record 16 consecutive weeks in the summer and fall of 1982, E.T. was the No. 1 movie at the U.S. box office, an accomplishment that will likely never be matched. A year after it was released, it surpassed his buddy and frequent collaborator George Lucas’s Star Wars as the highest-grossing movie of all time (at that point). And it still places impressively on the all-time highest-grossing list (yes, when adjusted for inflation) among the kind of rollercoaster ride spectacles that Spielberg and Lucas used to bang out summer after summer in the ’80s and ’90s.
(The ones that have been replaced over the past two decades by Marvel Comics epics, Lord of the Rings fantasies, Pixar-styled animated adventures, Harry Potter tales, Fast & Furious acrobatic car movies and a new generation of Star Wars extravaganzas.)
What’s most fascinating here is that E.T. is not a superhero opus or a space opera or a fantastical tale of an alternate world or a chrome-crunching automotive spectacular. E.T.—do I have to remind you?—is a gentle fable, a boy-and-his-dog tale involving the child of a single mother in suburbia whose adventures with an big-eyed, stranded alien tell a lovingly metaphorical tale of the wonder, excitement and magic of childhood itself.
E.T. is sensitive and small. It’s personal.
And it’s fair to say that the modestly budgeted E.T. ($10.5 million) wasn’t designed to bring in the kind of dollars that Transformers or Avengers or other franchise titles are made to do. That by the end of its theatrical run E.T. rang up $620 million worldwide is the ultimate “If you build it, they will come” revenge to any naysayers, not that Spielberg had many at that point in his career. Even more impressive is that Box Office Mojo estimates E.T. sold more than 120 million tickets in the U.S. in its initial theatrical rollout. That was more than half of the country’s population back then.
The beloved movie has some teeth, as well, which may be one of the unspoken factors and nearly subliminal ones that played a role in its success.
Spielberg has said that he modeled the film’s titular visitor on an imaginary friend he created in his head when he was a young teen trying to cope with his parents’ troubled marriage and divorce. The film was written by Melissa Mathison, who reportedly combined elements from two earlier projects that Spielberg had considered. One was a broken-family theme that that was directly lifted from an autobiographical project entitled Growing Up he had planned to make in 1978 following Close Encounters of the Third Kind that never made it past the development stage.
And speaking of Close Encounters, where a wayward father becomes so obsessed with an extraterrestrial encounter that he runs off from his family, well that’s another example of a Spielberg film revolving around a splintered family minus a father.
Hook (1991), Spielberg’s update of the Peter Pan story, and AI Artificial Intelligence (2001), also deal with absent dads. And while daddy is on the scene in Catch Me If You Can (2002), his problems with the IRS doesn't make for a happy family. Hell, even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) finds Indy’s father, played by Sean Connery, coming back into his son’s life after spending the majority of his adulthood away and chasing down the Holy Grail.
In The Fabelmans, the filmmaker is confronting an issue and period that clearly played a role in his formative years and later life. (Spielberg co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Tony Kushner, the first script Spielberg has penned since AI.) He’s dipped into the theme previously as more of a backdrop to larger stories, but now he’s confronting it head-on.
Spielberg is the most successful filmmaker in the history of cinema—and cinema is arguably the most popular form of modern storytelling. That makes Spielberg one of today’s greatest storytellers. And with The Fabelmans, he's crafted an undeniably fascinating tale about the origins of the lights, camera and action that have kept his audiences enraptured for 50 glorious years.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.