July 17, 1997

Eventually, we all will have to read a biography of Steven Spielberg. No other filmmaker, and few other humans, have had such an impact on the culture we live in and the one our children will inherit. So far, it looks like the biography we’ll be reading will be Joseph McBride’s just-published “Steven Spielberg” (Simon & Schuster, $30).

McBride, who has published acclaimed studies on Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles, focuses much of this 490-page tome on the director-as-put-upon-Jewish-wimp. It was the Spielberg family’s constant moving (Arnold Spielberg was a brilliant engineer/technician on every defense contractor’s most-wanted list) followed by his parents’ divorce that reinforced Spielberg’s sense of living “an alien existence” and engendered his creation of a fantasy life underpinned with real longing for a connection with a father. McBride takes a long look at the anti-Semitism Spielberg experienced, and determines that it compelled him, first, to reach out to the widest possible audience and, later, to express his Jewishness through “Schindler’s List” and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

What emerges in this massively researched and elegantly written work is a man driven to make movies. You can fit Spielberg into dozens of psychological categories, but the fact remains that he was dead serious about making movies from the time he was a Boy Scout with an 8mm.

But McBride also makes convincing connections between the themes of almost every movie made by Spielberg-the-Man and the experiences and longings of Spielberg-the-Boy.

“Who the Devil Made It” (Knopf, $39.95) by Peter Bogdanovich.

This book, a compendium of in-depth interviews with 16 of the greatest film directors of all time, is somehow, for all its 804 pages, never boring. Sometimes, it reads like a clear manual of film how-to. And, sometimes, as when Leo McCarey talks about directing the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup,” it quietly drops major revelation in your lap. But, mostly, it endlessly reveals the genius, luck, craft and serendipity at work behind great works of art. In interviews he conducted over the span of three decades, Bogdanovich speaks with such greats as Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger, Chuck Jones, Alfred Hitchcock, Josef Von Sternberg and Raoul Walsh. They offer anecdote, perspective, gossip and drafts of insight into their work, the nature of film and, even, the nature of work.

The other profile to emerge from these interviews is that of Bogdanovich himself. His persistence as a financially challenged Hollywood hanger-on has obscured not only his great filmmaking abilities (“The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” “Mask”) but also his profound knowledge of film, art and history. No journalist could match Bogdanovich’s easy access to questions about particular angles, obscure cameramen and thrown-away scenes. He enables the reader to understand how these men, because they had mastered their own world, helped determine how we experience our own.
A Distant Biography

“Conversations With Dvora” (University of California, $16.95, paper) by Amia Lieblich (translated by Naomi Seidman).

Long before she closed herself up in her Tel Aviv apartment, Dvora Baron had earned a reputation as one of the finest modern Hebrew writers.

Born in Lithuania, in 1887, she was a published short-story writer by age 15. In 1911, she emigrated to Palestine, married a journalist, and became part of the literary intelligentsia. Her fiction covered such groundbreaking topics as incest, divorce and domestic violence. But after her beloved brother died in 1923, Baron closed herself up in her apartment and stayed there until her death in 1956. Author Lieblich never met Baron, but she imagines in this book a series of conversations with Baron taking place in the great writer’s darkened apartment over the last year of her life. The result is interesting if uneven.

Baron’s story, while well-realized and unique, stands as a kind of ur-story for a generation of pioneers. There is hope, disillusionment, fulfillment and tragedy. Lieblich fills her book with such details and makes Baron into a convincing, seductive storyteller. But the artifice at times wears thin — there’s far too many “I askeds” and “she saids.” And the language, especially given Baron’s reputation as an innovator, often stales.

But included in the volume is a translated story by the real Baron. “Fradl” is a powerful and perceptive portrait of a shtetl woman. Reading the story, it’s easy to understand how Lieblich would yearn to know Baron.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.