Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from 'The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies': David Thomson on Steven Spielberg

Photo of David Thomson By David Thomson | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2012 at 1:06PM

San Francisco-based critic David Thomson, the brainy Brit behind the must-own "Biographical Dictionary of Film," has written an authoritative history of film with his distinctive flair: "The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies." Here's an exclusive look at his chapter on Steven Spielberg, "To Own the Summer."
Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg

"The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies": Excerpt: TO OWN THE SUMMER

Steven Spielberg has so much more mystery than shows in his still young eyes. I can never make up my mind about him. I watched him recently on television, in conversation with his composer over the years, John Williams. He seemed so young, so earnest, as if he were just beginning. It was hard to remember what a defining success he is, until one looked at the nearly crouched awe in Williams. Spielberg is a phenomenon; it’s easier to say that than to work out the components of artist, businessman, and entertainer. I’m sure he’d say they’re all the same.

I have enthused over some films of the early 1970s, American and otherwise. These were challenging pictures that were well received by many critics; they altered the way we thought about ourselves and introduced new attitudes to the cinema and what it might be. They were not always cheerful experiences, but they left one excited about film. You could call a film “mainstream” then and expect to have people hopeful about it. The Godfather was that kind of show.

Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) was attached to the American bicentennial, though without any conventional optimism: it beheld a panorama of liars, freaks, frauds, and crazies and settled for the vague feeling that, despite all the wreckage, perhaps as a country we must be doing something right. It cost $2.2 million and it grossed $9.9 million in that United States. Altman said it didn’t really make any money, which means that very little got back to him. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) was a psychotic pilgrim’s progress in which, thirty years earlier, the loner would have had his desperate fling and ended shot to pieces. Now he was free again, a strange, isolated figure, frightened and frightening, a disconcerting celebrity. That film cost $1.3 million and grossed $28.2 million. Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) had us watch an amiable, enlivening rebel whose bumpy mind is flatlined by a drab institution. It cost $4.4 million; it grossed $112 million domestically; and it won Best Picture.

I fear there would be little chance of getting such projects made today in the mainstream of American film. But we are still seeing remakes or duplications of another work from 1975, a milestone entertainment yet maybe a millstone, a brilliant exercise, a model of reassuring disaster: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, one of the most influential movies ever made in America.

Spielberg is a decisive achiever in American show business, unrivaled in his record, so close to genius as to be infuriating, and exactly the kind of fellow the business has always wanted to believe in. Not that Jaws is simply his film or vision. It was a commercial enterprise. As anyone on the picture will tell you, the shark was a technology and a nightmare (long before computer-generated imagery). Some say it was the hardest film ever made in movie history, and pictures in such jeopardy survive only if the gamblers stay steady and make their own luck. Just because it was business doesn’t mean it was businesslike.

Peter Benchley, the grandson of Algonquin Round Table humorist Robert Benchley, had had an idea for a novel about a white shark that terrorizes a resort community. Doubleday gave him a starter advance of $1,000 (it grew to $7,500), and after much rewriting, the novel became an object of excitement. It would not be published until 1974, but already in 1973, Bantam had bought the book for paperback for $575,000. Universal wanted the film rights. An executive at the studio, Jennings Lang, had alerted his boss, Lew Wasserman. They were thinking of Hitchcock to direct, with Paul Newman as the police chief. Then the studio’s humble story department read and reported and said they were not impressed.

In that clerical gap, the independent producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck (the son of Darryl Zanuck) stepped in and said they’d buy it independently, and let Universal produce. So the studio would have the film, but on reduced profit terms. It was Zanuck and Brown who assured Benchley they would look after the project personally and who made the deal with the novelist: $150,000 and 10 percent of the net profits, plus $25,000 to be part of the screenplay (plus money for any sequels—if they blew the shark up, they’d put it back together again; it was their shark).

Outside the story department at Universal, everyone who read the galleys was fired up, even the young director Steven Spielberg, who had lifted the galley from Zanuck’s desk. But Spielberg seems to have been the first person to read the book twice, and ask himself the awkward question, “How on earth, or on water, do you film this?” That’s why he was always torn about doing the picture.

This article is related to: Books, Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Lincoln

E-Mail Updates

Festivals on TOH

Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.