By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 23, 2011 at 12:00PM
It's the classic dilemma of the entertainer, perhaps best embodied in Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels." After a decade or so of delighting audiences with thrills and wonder, Steven Spielberg decided he wanted to be taken seriously; for all the millions of dollars his films had made, making him one of the most successful directors of all time, he'd never won an Oscar, despite three nominations. So, starting with 1985's "The Color Purple," Spielberg has alternated his blockbusters with serious fare; dramatic pictures, often with literary or historical pedigree and acclaimed stars, based on historical events, seemingly designed for the Academy sweet-spot.
It didn't work immediately; "The Color Purple" was nominated for 11 Oscars, but won none, something of a record, while poor reviews and disappointing box office followed his initial non-genre fare. But he was finally validated by 1993's Holocaust drama "Schindler's List," a sober, powerful piece of cinema that proved he could deliver emotion without pandering, and that's continued, with varying degrees of success, ever since, right up until "War Horse," which opens in theaters today (read our review here).
So after our look at Spielberg's escapist movies a few days ago, it's now time to examine his more serious-minded pictures. Again, the division isn't always easy; "Sugarland Express" is as entertaining as it is powerful, while one-time Stanley Kubrick project "A.I." might look like a sci-fi spectacular on the surface, but it's closer to a drama than an action film. These are the films where Spielberg seemed to be aiming to do more than simply entertain, and more often than not, it worked out. Read on for more, and we'll see how "Lincoln," his long-awaited biopic of the great president, fits in when it opens sometime late in 2012.
"The Sugarland Express" (1974)
Spielberg’s first proper theatrical feature, “The Sugarland Express” feels like a young man’s movie in the best of ways. There is a palpable eagerness to make every shot count that hasn’t necessarily persisted as his career has progressed; here, he allows the characters and actions to fill the frame in a way that complements the narrative and grabs your attention. Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) has just busted her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of prison and is now intent on retrieving their infant son from his foster parents. They take a rookie Texas state trooper hostage in the process, and away they go, with an ever-increasing police presence on their tail, even as they win hearts en route to Sugar Land (the proper spelling, adding a hint of print-the-legend recklessness to a story inspired by a real crime). Hawn and Atherton are equally winning and naive, making more believable the adoration that their impossibly slow chase earns from the locals as the Poplins pass from town to town. Spielberg tries to make the most of it all, with his most distinct touch being a car-bound round-about camera maneuver that the Beard would later recycle himself more than three decades later (to distractingly showy effect) in “War of the Worlds.” ‘Sugarland’ marks his first collaboration with John Williams and one of the few downbeat endings in his oeuvre, more bittersweet than anything, and inevitably tragic in spite of the charms which precede it. Though the man would come to take much shit for his sentimental streak and earn much love for his overwhelming sense of spectacle, this stands as perhaps his most humane balance of both. [A]
"The Color Purple" (1985)
The timing is perfect for another look at this film. In retrospect, Steven Spielberg's first "serious" film, "The Color Purple" is sort of like a cross between the Spielberg-produced "The Help" and the Spielberg-directed "War Horse," only not near as charming as the former and almost as overly-sentimental and saccharine as the latter. Based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning story, the film follows the life and trials of a young African American woman in the early 1900s facing every sort of oppression imaginable. While actors like Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey and a revelatory Whoopi Goldberg (in her debut film performance) put in respectable performances, most of their characters, save Whoopi’s, are one-note caricatures. So despite Goldberg's endearing turn as the subjugated protagonist Celie, the overstuffed ‘Color Purple’ tests patience with an overwrought tone, a bloated 2 1/2 hour running time and Africa-set second act that desperately wants to convey a sense of Historical Importance. Ultimately, an expansive story of struggle, race and hardship, admittedly with a few strong notes, Spielberg’s first real foray into drama often feels like it’s been churned out by the affected Oscar-bait generator and it’s a shameless, lesser effort for it. Hollywood would only go on to enable his overblown, tearjerky tendencies by nominating it for 11 Academy Awards, the silver lining of the story being that it won none. [C-]
"Empire of the Sun" (1987)
Originally intended for David Lean to direct and Spielberg to produce, (the pair later fell out over Spielberg's notes on Lean's aborted last project "Nostromo"), the great helmer got cold feet and Spielberg took over the reins of this adaptation of J.G. Ballard's memoir of his time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp as a child. And ultimately, the film was a disappointment, both commercially and critically, failing to pick up any major Oscar nominations. Which is a shame; it's certainly the best of his 1980s run of dramas, and perhaps the closest thing to an underrated picture in his canon. While the director can't resist adding a nostalgic sheen to the picture (it all seems like fun and games up against "Schindler's List"), it's for the most part his darkest, most complex film up to that point, and laudably unsentimental, particularly in the depiction of John Malkovich's Fagin-like mentor (one of the actor's earliest, and very best, performances). There are set-pieces and images that can compete with anything in the director's canon, and among countless great child performances coaxed out by the director, Christian Bale's central turn stands tall, carrying an entire film on his shoulders at the age of just 13, like he's been doing it his whole life. Flawed, certainly, but the first true sign that Spielberg might be able to take on tougher source material with great success. [B+]