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Most film directors, like any artists, are influenced in their work by their own life experiences. This is more readily apparent in some director’s films than others, however. The violent and gritty New York City streets of Martin Scorcese’s youth have been featured prominently throughout his career; nearly every one of Oliver Stone’s films are impacted by his experiences in the Vietnam War; and Steven Spielberg’s childhood has a complex effect on the ways in which he portrays family in his films. This essay will focus on the work of Steven Spielberg and the manifestations of his childhood experiences, specifically his relationship with his father, in several of his most beloved films.

Spielberg’s early family difficulties seem to have provided raw material for a filmography crammed with broken homes, abandoned children, and wayward, would-be, or substitute fathers. His family relocated a number of times when he was a child, from Ohio to New Jersey to Arizona to California. While his mother Leah was indulgent to the young boy’s interests, Spielberg’s father Arnold was emotionally distant, and he and Steven did not have a good relationship. He has said that his father never gave him his approval until his dad’s fellow workers walked up to him and said they’d seen his son’s movies and they really liked them.

Eventually, his parents’ marriage began to fall apart. Steven would shove towels under his door to keep out the noise of the arguments. They were soon divorced, and Steven was estranged from his father for 15 years. It is this early hardship that seems to have provided Spielberg with his greatest source of inspiration.

Considering both their authorship by a wide variety of screenwriters and their broad commercial appeal, Spielberg’s films contain a surprising degree of thematic unity, which is focused on human relationships and the model of the family broken and mended. Spielberg refers to himself in interviews as the eternal child and has said that in his movies he has tried to create the warm domestic environment that was absent in his childhood.

The absence of Spielberg’s father in his life has translated itself to the big screen in films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Catch Me If You Can, among others. The theme is perhaps most consciously explored in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook, but in these cases the role of the father is so crucial to the story, and so readily present on the surface, that it becomes less interesting in a formal analysis. All of these films feature a father that is either distant or completely absent from his family, and in each case the audience views the film from the perspective of the child rather than the father, in order to better understand the emotional impact that a father’s distance has on his child.

Close Encounters, released in 1977, is one of the earliest examples of Spielberg’s preoccupation with the estranged father. Although in the film Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, does not leave his family, he does become so emotionally distant that he cannot relate to his wife and children anymore. His obsession over a “close encounter” with alien life eventually pushes everyone else away from him. Neary can be seen as a loose representation of Spielberg’s own father, who cared more for his work than for his own son, even before he was divorced from Steven’s mother and did not see his son for years.

E.T. offers the most overt example of Spielberg’s use of absent fathers to that point in his career. In the film, young Elliott is coping with the departure of his father from the family, which left only his mother to care for Elliott, his older brother Michael, and his younger sister Gertie. The children are dependent solely on their mother, but they must also be more independent in order to help her run the household on her own.

Therefore the children’s mother is the only adult viewed with kindness and sympathy for the majority of the film, while all others are somehow threatening or ominous (in fact, their mother is pretty much the only adult whose face is shown until the end of the film, adding to the audience’s sense of camaraderie with the children). This is part of Spielberg’s strategy to bring the viewer back to the state of a child. Thus, if the viewer is not looking through the eyes of Elliott or ET, he/she is looking at Elliott or ET looking up. In this way the director recreates the way children look up at their parents, other adults, and even the stars. By linking the audience so closely with the emotions of the children, Spielberg accentuates the children’s need for family security and the impact that their father’s absence has on them.

Catch Me If You Can is perhaps the most autobiographical of Spielberg’s films – even though it tells the true story of a man named Frank Abagnale Jr. – in terms of the relationship depicted between parents and child, and the ways in which the young protagonist deals with conflict. 15-year-old Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a child devastated by the divorce of his parents. The split comes when Abagnale’s mother can no longer put up with his father’s extensive IRS burdens, after the family has already moved from their comfortable suburban home to a cramped apartment. Like Abagnale, Spielberg’s family relocated when he was a child, and his parents were subsequently divorced when he was about the same age as Frank. As a method of coping with the division of his family, and left with the difficult task of choosing which parent he wants to live with, adolescent con-artist Frank embarks on a series of charades as a PanAm airline pilot, a doctor and an attorney, while also running a check-forging scam that granted him millions of dollars in fraudulent funds.

Although Abagnale’s story does not exactly parallel Spielberg’s life experiences, there are broad similarities which are interesting to note. During the 1960’s, at the same time that the precocious young Abagnale was concealing his identity, even creating a fake ID to appear ten years older than he really was, the director allegedly started his career in filmmaking by sneaking onto the Universal Studio lot to examine the process up-close. The young Spielberg took up residence in an abandoned janitor’s closet, converting it into an office, and pretended to work for the studio until people actually gave him work to do. When Spielberg later signed a contract with Universal Studios, he lied about his age, claiming to be one year younger than he really was so that he would then be the youngest filmmaker ever contracted to a major studio. Both Spielberg and Abagnale are uniquely driven in their ambitions, and the roots of their motivation can be seen in their family relationships.

In addition to Spielberg’s identification with Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can is also intriguing for its portrayal of the relationship between Abagnale and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI agent who pursues him relentlessly for years. Eventually, through years of playing cat-and-mouse and exchanging annual Christmas phone calls, the audience senses a transition in their relationship. Hanratty transforms into a surrogate father for Abagnale, who has become estranged from his own family, specifically his father. Hanratty even takes Abagnale under his wing at the end of the film, offering him a job and a chance at redemption and a new life. This kind of relationship is another important element in Spielberg’s work, and is seen in many of his most well-known films.

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The absence of one father often necessitates the presence of a replacement, or surrogate, father figure in Spielberg’s work. This technique is used in films such as The Sugarland Express and Saving Private Ryan, but it is also present in E.T. and Catch Me If You Can. It is more than simply a strategy of replacing one character with another, though. The illustrious director has had a series of his own father figures throughout his career as a filmmaker, ever since he signed his initial contract with Universal at the age of 22.

“Just as Spielberg showed the perennial absence of paternal figures in his cinema, he never ceased to look for them in real life,” Christian Ramirez writes in his article “Omnipotence and Surrogate Fathers.” Chuck Silver was Universal’s chief librarian and the first to see Spielberg’s short films, which he had made as a teenager. Sidney Sheinberg was the CEO for MCA who first signed Spielberg as a director, and eventually became president of Universal. Jennings Lang was a television executive and the first to acquire the screen rights to Jaws, a novel by Peter Benchley. Perhaps the most notable, however, is Steve Ross, the late CEO of Time Warner to whom Spielberg dedicated Schindler’s List, and on whom the character of Oskar Schindler is largely based. Ramirez writes, “Those who were closest to the filmmaker testified to Spielberg’s enormous debt to and affection for the executive…whom he came to regard almost as a father.” All of the men mentioned above offered valuable help and advice to Spielberg over the course of his career, and can be considered “surrogate fathers” for the young director at the time.

Although The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film, does include the explicit existence of a father in the character of Clovis Poplin, it is not this relationship with his son Langston that I have chosen to explore. More interesting is Captain Harlin Tanner’s role as a paternal figure to Lou Jean Poplin, Clovis’ wife and Langston’s mother. Whereas the baby Langston is rarely seen onscreen and the depth of his relationship with his parents difficult to determine, as he is so young and unaware of the events going on around him, the relationship between Captain Tanner and the childlike central character of Lou Jean grows as the movie progresses. This is due in large part to Goldie Hawn’s convincing performance as the immature and childish young woman, and her character is even featured clutching a teddy bear – which is meant for her baby but accentuates her position in the film as a little girl in need of protection.

Lou Jean is desperate to reclaim her son, even if it means kidnapping him herself. At the same time, she and her husband are on the run from the law because she has just helped him escape from prison, and Tanner is leading a contingent of police cars in a chase of the married couple. As the plot advances, Lou Jean and Tanner form a close bond, even though they are in separate cars throughout the film and their only form of communication is the police radio.

Nevertheless, Tanner acts as a father figure to the young woman, who herself appears very childlike at various points throughout the film. This is most apparent in a scene in which Lou Jean is seated in the backseat of a cop car that she and her husband have hijacked, with the policeman held hostage. As Tanner talks with Clovis over the police radio, Lou Jean looks back through the rear windshield at the police captain, with a childlike innocence in her eyes. The relationship is further strengthened in the eyes of the audience when Lou Jean’s actual father appears onscreen for the first time. Instead of offering his daughter words of love and support, he berates and insults her over the police radio. Thus her emotional distance from her biological father pushes her towards a stronger trust for Captain Tanner. Throughout the film, Captain Tanner takes a clear interest in making sure that Lou Jean and Clovis are apprehended without being harmed, but in the end he is unfortunately able to save only Lou Jean’s life.

Nearly three decades later, Spielberg includes the figure of a surrogate father in the World War II film Saving Private Ryan. This can be partly attributed to the fact that the film is one of a genre of combat films, in which the platoon of soldiers represents a cross section of the American people, and their older, more confident commanding officer acts as the father figure for the group.

Although this formula is typical of the war film, Spielberg extends the analogy in a character played by Tom Hanks – Captain John Miller. Miller is a schoolteacher in his civilian life, but in war he must lead men through scenes of death and gore, risking their lives and his at every turn. The soldiers are shown as human beings, with human fears, and as they die each man asks for either his mother or father to comfort him in his final moments, and offer him support. Because no family members can possibly be there, the soldiers become brothers to one another, and Miller must act as their father, trying to keep them safe while also leading them into danger. The apparent contradiction of this role is one reason that it is so compelling.

The strongest indication of a surrogate father in the film, however, is the one which separates it from many others of the genre. Miller’s mission is to locate the missing Private James Ryan and send him home to his mother, who has already lost her other three sons in the war. Once he and his men find Ryan, Miller thus becomes a father figure to the soldier, making it his duty to get Ryan home safe to his mother. Even more importantly, Miller literally gives Ryan life by saving him – and in the process sacrificing himself. This paternal relationship is reinforced by the scene that begins and ends the film, in which an aged Ryan, accompanied by his family, mourns over the grave of the long-dead Captain Miller. He mourns Miller like a father, and the audience is aware of the important role that the captain played in saving Ryan’s life.

Even more interesting, when examined in the light of other films that Spielberg had directed prior to Saving Private Ryan, is the filmmaker’s apparent sympathy with a father figure who is mostly distant and detached from his “children.” Although Miller can be considered a surrogate father for his responsibilities to the men under his command, he can also be considered an absent one. The soldiers know very little about their captain, although they have served under him for varying periods of time. He rarely reveals his emotions or any personal information beyond the scope of the war, choosing instead to remain separate from the men even while he is leading them into certain danger. The fact that Spielberg can now, nearly thirty years after starting his career as a filmmaker, be compassionate to such a character, and allow his audience to understand him as well, signifies a change in the director’s own personal outlook.

This leads to yet another way in which Spielberg portrays surrogate fathers. Having gained immense success as a director, producer, and studio executive, Spielberg now acts as a father figure to a younger generation of filmmakers. Because of this gradual shift, and his increasing identification with the idea of the father, he consequently has a growing concern for the theme of power with respect to the father. Part of the reason for this change, according to Ramirez, is the fact that he has so significantly surpassed all of his mentors in terms of success and “influence over cinema and media at large.” This makes it nearly impossible for Spielberg to return to portraying father figures that are irresponsible and even primitive, for he must now represent himself more than he must represent his own father.

Spielberg discussed his motivations in an interview shortly after filming Saving Private Ryan. Once he became a father, he was forced to make the transition “from lost child to all-knowing father figure,” writes interviewer Simon Hattenstone. “I began becoming like my father,” Spielberg says. “It scared me because I saw myself doing things my father did to me that I swore to God I would never do to my child, like lecturing, preaching, saying there’s only one way to approach this thing.” He and his wife Kate Capshaw even went into family therapy together with a psychologist, and Spielberg says that he discovered “how my life was running parallel with my father’s and how I needed to break away from 1940’s caregiving and move into a much more enlightened form of being a parent.” These comments reveal the filmmaker’s preoccupation with both his father and his own fatherhood, and his concern with being the best possible father for his children.

Jurassic Park offers the first illustration of Spielberg’s modified outlook. In the film, Richard Attenborough plays John Hammond, a man with the money and power to conceivably make his imagination come to life. He is the father of an entire new fantasy world, creating new life from nothingness. And in this paternal role, he only abandons his creation when nature proves a more dominant master and functions under its own rules. The movie’s tension can be viewed as representative of Spielberg’s own internal conflict, and his knowledge that power can be used for both constructive and destructive means.

Similar ideas are found in Schindler’s List. The film’s protagonist, Oskar Schindler, is a member of the Nazi party who gains sympathy for the Jews of the ghetto. He uses his significant wealth to save the lives of a large number of these Jews, moving them out of the ghetto and into a foreign factory to ostensibly work for him as skilled laborers. The plan works, but in the end Schindler realizes that for all the good he has done, he could have done even more. In the end he remains unsatisfied and deeply conflicted about the results of his benevolence. Schindler’s sorrow, as Ramirez says, comes from his understanding that “his role as saviour is closely linked with his own wealth: a horrible way of testing the limits of his own omnipotence.”

The 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence features a character that perhaps best articulates Spielberg’s maturing sense of self. Professor Hobby, played by William Hurt, is an inventor who gives life to inanimate objects, even implanting in them the ability to love. However, once he has given “birth” to this new life, Hobby immediately seeks ways to make money from it. The parallels between Hobby’s creations and those of Spielberg are striking. Spielberg seems to be commenting on his own fears of the unpredictable consequences of his influence over film and even future generations. The filmmaker recognizes his “immense power over the development of our collective imagination” (Ramirez) and firmly takes up his role as a father figure in both the world of film and the world of our imaginations.

Over the course of his career, Steven Spielberg has matured as a filmmaker in several ways. He continues to revolutionize the industry, as he always has, but he also continues to evolve in the ways he conveys his own thoughts, feelings and experiences on the screen. Similarly, his own personal outlook is slowly shifting as he has matured from the industry’s 22 year-old “wunderkind” into arguably the most successful filmmaker of all time. The ways in which he displays paternal figures in his films are distinctly “Spielbergian,” and support his position as an auteur in the industry.

Works Cited:

Bick, Ilsa J. “The Look Back in E.T.” Cinema Journal Vol. 31, No. 4. 1992: 25-41.

Hattenstone, Simon. “Steven Spielberg: I had to get all these demons behind me.” Amistad Film Reviews. 17 Sept 1998. 10 Dec 2004.

Kinder, Marsha. “The Return of the Outlaw Couple.” Film Quarterly. 1974: 2-10.

Ramirez, Christian. “Omnipotence and Surrogate Fathers.” Senses of Cinema – The Question Spielberg: A Symposium. 09 Dec 2004.

This essay was written Dec. 2004 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “Comparative Directors: Steven Spielberg/Oliver Stone.”

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