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Steven Spielberg and His Films are Oscar Season Mainstays

Posted on 01 Feb 2018

The twice-awarded director boasts an enduring celluloid output that has fuelled Oscar night nominations, and wins, for over 40 years.

Boy wonder: Steven Spielberg was around 10 years old at the time of this photo. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, his family eventually settled in California - where he remained.

Where would the Oscars be without Steven Spielberg, or his films? The answer doesn’t bear thinking about, largely because the two have co-aligned to such an extraordinary degree over the last 40 or more years, with Spielberg at the helm of Best Picture nominee Jaws in 1976, through to The Post this year.

Indeed, a then 31-year-old Spielberg earned his own first directing nod in 1977 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which remains among the most mysterious, even moving, of all sci-fi films: a genre movie for adults that allowed Spielberg five years later to make its more child-friendly complement E.T., for which Spielberg was also nominated for an Oscar. The two function as companion pieces on the shared theme of humankind’s relationship with the other, while working in celluloid terms as virtuosic moviemaking. That last attribute, surely, is the Spielbergian norm.

At the helm: Steven Spielberg with leading man Liam Neeson on the set of 'Schindler's List', his unsparing portrait of the Holocaust and of the businessman Oskar Schindler (played by Neeson). The film won Spielberg his first competitive Oscar - or, should one say, Oskar?

Spielberg has won two competitive Oscars – for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – as well as an honorary Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1987 for his body of work, a prize some thought was awarded prematurely given that the director shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, there looks to be a gap of just several months between the release of his two most recent films, The Post and Ready Player One: now aged 72, here is a creative talent continually emboldened and energised by the work.

Among Spielberg’s Oscar contenders, which so many of his films have been, Schindler’s List surely stands apart in its unsparing depiction of the Holocaust, alongside the beneficence of the businessman Oskar Schindler, whose quiet determination saved 1100 Jews from extermination during World War Two. The film brought Spielberg the first of his competitive trophies and prompted an enduringly poignant acceptance speech. As his overjoyed mum wept in the audience, Spielberg spoke of “wishing and hoping for Oskar Schindlers in all our lives”, and finished his remarks by honouring “the six million who can’t be watching among the one billion watching this telecast tonight” – a moving way of honouring the unimaginable numbers of the Jewish dead. When, minutes later, the film itself won Best Picture, Spielberg quipped, “This is the best drink of water after the longest drought in my life.”

Life partners: Steven Spielberg on the set of 'Saving Private Ryan' alongside his frequent colleague, and great friend, Tom Hanks, who co-starred with Matt Damon in the World War Two film that brought the director his second competitive Oscar.

The well was replenished in 1999 when Spielberg again stepped to the podium, once again for a film set during World War Two. But whereas Schinder’s List focuses on one man’s efforts to combat genocide, Saving Private Ryan meets the melée of combat head on, not least in its half-hour opening scene that puts spectators in the middle of the Omaha Beach landings on D-Day in June, 1944. (The sequence has won awards as the best battle scene of all time.) “Am I allowed to say I really wanted this?” Spielberg rather shyly asked the crowd, who greeted his second Oscar in five years with an ovation scarcely less remarkable than the first, in 1994.

Spielberg’s films have often resonated at Oscar time even without netting the director himself a win – or sometimes even a nomination. Lincoln won Daniel Day-Lewis his record-breaking third best actor Oscar (Spielberg was nominated that time), while Mark Rylance surprised pundits by pulling off a Supporting Actor victory over sentimental favourite Sylvester Stallone (Creed) for Bridge of Spies (Spielberg did not get a nomination there). Both films found a living pulse in the potentially fusty pages of history, Lincoln in particular resonating as a portrait of political gravitas and devotion that seems ever more necessary in modern times where leadership seems to have taken such a battering.

Scintillating sci-fi: Steven Spielberg on the set of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', his 1977 sci-film-with-a-difference, its gentle embrace of humanism and philosophy to co-existing with ravishing special effects. The film was nominated for 8 Oscars including one for Spielberg's direction.

In 1986, Spielberg’s film version of the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple was nominated for 11 awards but Spielberg was left off the list and the film itself went home empty-handed – but not before bringing to the screen two African-American women who have gone on to become household names: Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. As ever, the director’s eye for burgeoning talent was and remains unerring.

And so we come this year to The Post, which was touted early on as a possible Oscar sleeper in its portrait of the embattled American press living to see another day: cue resonances of many kinds to the Trump-era desire for infringement of the fourth estate. In the end, the film received only two nods, both major ones – for Best Picture and for Meryl Streep (marking her 21st Oscar nomination) as the Washington Post publisher, Katharine Graham, who looked her opposition in the eye and strode boldly onward. As for Ms. Streep’s director, one assumes he will be doing much the same himself for many years to come.

Matt Wolf @ theartsdesk.com

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