Steven Spielberg Waited 60 Years To Tell This Story

When Steven Spielberg was a kid growing up in 1950s Arizona, watching westerns on his family’s 20-inch black-and-white Philco, he would creep right up to the screen, as if to surround himself with the image. He also wished he could see these moving pictures in color. So he’d riffle through his family’s collection of slides, having learned that by holding one transparency or another up to the television screen he could turn grayed-out western skies blue, or the ground to a realistic-looking green. Recalling this story from a conference room at his production company Amblin Entertainment, he winds toward the classic punch line: “So my mom would walk in, and she’d see me holding these slides up to both of my eyes, right next to the TV set. And she’d say, ‘You’re going to burn your eyes out!’”

Spielberg’s mom, like all the other ’50s moms who said the same thing, was wrong about that. But we all know what she must have been thinking: Who is this child?

If you’ve seen even just one Steven Spielberg movie in the past 50-odd years—the bone-rattling shark extravaganza Jaws, the poetic Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, the glorious storybook reverie E.T., not just a film for children but one of the greatest films about childhood ever made—you have some sense of who this child grew up to be. And when you see his new film, The Fabelmans (in theaters Nov. 23), a work of astonishing vividness that’s drawn from his own family’s story, you’ll know even more. Movies have been around for roughly 130 years; Spielberg’s career has covered more than a third of that, and counting. Yet The Fabelmans hardly feels like a late-career movie. It’s more of an intimate reckoning, both joyous and unapologetically direct, a jetway for a new beginning.

Gabriel LaBelle as Spielberg’s Fabelmans stand-in; the director during the production of Firelight, a movie he directed in 1964 at age 17

Not every 75-year-old filmmaker makes a movie like this. Of the brash young guys who remade Hollywood in the early 1970s—among them Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola—Spielberg is one of the few still making vital pictures at a consistent clip. Yet his career is extraordinary in any context. He’s made some box-office disappointments, but naming a badly made Spielberg film is hard, probably because there isn’t one. No living filmmaker can match his devotion to craftsmanship, to finding new ways of showing us things we think we’ve seen a million times before.

Arnold Spielberg and Leah Spielberg in 1951

As an account of Spielberg’s roots, The Fabelmans, which he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, is more immediate than any written memoir could be. It also took him years to be ready to make it. The movie details not just his beginnings as a precocious child filmmaker, but also a secret he shared with his mother Leah until her death at 97, in 2017. At age 16, he learned that his mother was in love with a close family friend, whom Spielberg regarded as an uncle. Spielberg’s mother and his father Arnold would eventually divorce; Leah married that family friend, Bernie Adler, in 1967. But only Spielberg and Leah knew the specifics of the timeline—an instance of a young man having to reckon with his parents as full human beings before reaching adulthood himself.

Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans; Leah Adler, Spielberg’s mother, in 1965 in Saratoga, California.

Read more from the TIME cover story HERE.

Published by Larry Fire

I write an eclectic pop culture blog called THE FIRE WIRE that features articles about books, comics, music, movies, television, gadgets, posters, toys & more!

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