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E.T. and Poltergeist: two from the heart
Once upon a time there was a little boy named Steven, who lived in a mythical land called Suburbia. His house was just like everybody else’s house; his family’s car and dog and swimming pool were just like everybody else’s too. But little Steven’s dreams were different. He dreamed of telling the stories of his strange land—wonderful tales of his home and his school, his parents and especially his friends—and making them shine like new. So every night he would tiptoe outside his ranch-style house and make a wish on the brightest star in the suburban sky. Over and over he would whisper, “Help me tell the story.”
One August night, when the sky seemed clearer and the starlight stronger, Steven felt himself drawn to his family’s two-car garage. There, gleaming in a forgotten corner, was an old piece of machinery he had never noticed before: an 8-mm movie camera. He picked up the camera, turned around, and what do you think he saw? Yes, it was a beautiful rainbow, ribboning the night sky: a sign that the little boy had found the key to his dreams. And just before the rainbow disappeared—a rainbow no one else saw that sweet summer night—Steven aimed the camera heavenward and pressed a button. The little boy from suburbia had begun to tell his story.
Steven Spielberg did grow up. He became rich and famous as the director who enjoyed playing with sharks, spacemen and snakes—and turning these fearsome critters into the stuff of blockbusters. Jaws, which Spielberg and Producer Richard Zanuck had feared might prove to be “a shark with turkey feathers,” terrified moviegoers to the tune of $410 million. Close Encounters of the Third Kind built a sense of biblical awe around man’s first meeting with beings from outer space and put another $250 million into the till. Last year Raiders of the Lost Ark sent Saturday-matinee chills down a record-breaking number of spines—another $310 million. Spielberg won plaudits as well as profits for his masterly film-making technique. Still, critics often accused him of creating Pavlovian exercises in zapme thrills—movie machines that destroyed, with systematic elegance, the viewer’s emotional defenses.
Now it can be told: inside Spielberg, the machine that built the machines, was little Steven and his suburban child’s pulsing heart. Look into the mouth of Jaws, and you will find the infant fear of things that go chomp in the night. Search the skies for a Close Encounter, and you can chart a child’s hope that whoever is out there will be just like him: small and smooth and smart and cuddly. Track the Lost Ark’s Raiders, and you will discover the thrill of escape that whets the imagination of every fifth-grade Indiana Jones.
All this was prelude. At 34, Spielberg has tapped directly into the power source of youthful fantasies and produced two remarkable works of popular art. Poltergeist, which he supervised from original story to final cut, is a horror movie about malevolent spirits that infiltrate the home of an ordinary California family. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which he devised and directed, tells of a creature from outer space who is mistakenly abandoned on earth and befriended by three school-age children. “Poltergeist is a scream,” Spielberg says. “E.T. is a whisper.” The first film means to thrill, the second to enthrall. Both succeed beyond anyone’s expectations, perhaps even those of their prodigious creator. They re-establish the movie screen as a magic lantern, where science plays tricks on the eye as an artist enters the heart and nervous system with images that bemuse and beguile.
Spielberg has formidable competition for the attention of moviegoers this summer. The producers of Annie have engineered a powerful media blitz to herald their lavish if lead-souled musical. Tron, a futuristic melodrama set inside a video game, hopes to lure the addicts of the arcades back to moviehouses. New versions of Rocky, Grease, Star Trek and The Thing will tempt old adherents. The Road Warrior and Blade Runner will offer up eye-catching punk-rock apocalypses. Robin Williams will attempt to enter The World According to Garp. Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen have new movies, and Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton will sing and dance their way through The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Even so, Poltergeist‘s intelligence in confecting disaster, its honest laughs and spine-snapping chills—from upended kitchen chairs to ghostly vapors and a gaping, horrid hell mouth—should lead it to the head of the class.
E. T., though, is in a class all by its beautiful self. Of course it should make truckloads of money: its sneak previews have been the most rapturously received since Jaws; industry marketing experts have predicted it as a summer smash; and one professional cynic emerged from a Manhattan screening of the film last week and confidently announced, “$350 million.” But the gleam of moisture in his eye said something else, something everyone else will soon be able to discover: that E. T. is a miracle movie, and one that confirms Spielberg as a master storyteller of his medium.
Not since the glory days of the Walt Disney Productions—40 years and more ago, when Fantasia and Pinocchio and Dumbo first worked their seductive magic on moviegoers of every age—has a film so acutely evoked the twin senses of everyday wonder and otherworldly awe. With astonishing technical finesse and an emotional directness that lifts the heart, E. T. spins its tale of a shy, lonely boy in desperate need of a friend—when suddenly one falls out of the sky. The movie is a perfectly poised mixture of sweet comedy and ten-speed melodrama, of death and resurrection, of a friendship so pure and powerful it seems like an idealized love. None of this can be the result of computerized calculation; instead it stems from a seamless blend of writing, direction, casting and celestial good luck. Even its creator seems pleased: “I put myself on the line with this film, and it wasn’t easy. But I’m proud of it. It’s been a long time since any movie gave me an ‘up’ cry.”
With the exception of 1941, a self-destruct farce starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, every Spielberg feature has been on the mark in jolting the moviegoer with intelligent grins and shudders. A prototype of the new “computer generation” of children, Spielberg uses the cinema’s infernally complex machinery to tunnel into the popular psyche. That is why the most personal film of his youth, Close Encounters, was among his most popular. Poltergeist and especially E.T. should prove even more accessible to all kinds of moviegoers—for here the characters are richer and more human, and the encounters are with the hearts of darkness and light, in a part of America that prides itself on occupying the serene center of the national dream.
Together, the two new films compose a marvelously detailed diptych of suburban life. It is a life that Spielberg, who grew up in a series of bedroom communities, knows from the sheltered inside: “I’ve never been robbed or in a fistfight. I never saw a dead body. Until I went to New York City, I’d never eaten real Italian food. Walt Disney was my parental conscience. And my stepparent was the TV set.” Virtually every Spielberg film has made room for the camaraderie and antagonisms that percolate across the Formica kitchen table. But until now, none of the films had been told or seen from the child’s point of view—where the prefab house seems unique and enveloping, where every utilitarian recess holds its own sly secret, where Mom can be the Queen Mother or a royal pain, and Dad is Santa Claus or the Big Bad Wolf.
At the center of both E. T. and Poltergeist is the suburban family, as normal and American as Pop-Tarts. In Poltergeist, Dad (Craig T. Nelson), late 30s, sells tract houses, reads biographies of Ronald Reagan and furrows his brow to watch his hairline recede. Mom (Jobeth Williams), early 30s, keeps house, sings TV beer jingles and tucks in her son under a Star Wars bedspread. If this seems the derisory stuff of sitcoms, it is not. “I never mock suburbia,” Spielberg declares. “My life comes from there.” He likes these people and communicates that affection. Faced with balky children or a restless preternatural presence, the parents demonstrate their go-with-the-flow resilience. And when things get climactically hairy, these people can be roused to fear and anger, can summon reserves of surprising strength They are the movies’ favorite species: ordinary heroes.
Spielberg’s heroes, whom he sees as extraordinary, are children. At the emotional center of each new film is a trio of siblings: a teenager, a nine-or ten-year-old boy, a fair-haired preschool girl. To the awful pull of the forlorn or malevolent spirits residing inside the Poltergeist house, each child is differently attuned. The teen-age girl is too involved with growing up to take much notice; the boy, Robbie (Oliver Robins), can be reached only on the frequency of fear; but the five-year-old, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), is unaware and unafraid of the spirits’ terrible power—and is theirs for the taking. It is she who releases the poltergeists (literally, noisy ghosts) from their long bondage between this world and the next. Drawn to the blankly fuzzy, humming screen of the living-room TV late one night, Carol Anne speaks to them, and is heard and seduced and swallowed by them into the restless heart of the house. The film’s last hour documents a harrowing tug of wills between Carol Anne’s from and the spectral army surrounding them; between the spirits and two specialists, a parapsychologist (Beatrice Straight) and a child-voiced psychic (Zelda Rubinstein), who exert their powers to “cleanse” the house; and ultimately among the spirits, fighting to release the child or forever claim her for their own.
At first and final glance, Poltergeist is simply a riveting demonstration of the movies’ power to scare the sophistication out of any viewer. It creates honest thrills within the confines of a P.G. rating and reaches for standard shock effects and the forced suspension of disbelief only at the climax, when we realize that the characters are behaving with such obtuseness precisely because they are trapped inside a horror movie. On the plot level, Poltergeist is a warning against trying to build a mobile modern life over the . unquiet graves of the past. The picture can also be seen as a sly comedy supporting the proposition that violence on TV—or, more precisely, in it—can have a dire influence on children who watch it. (Spielberg calls Poltergeist “my revenge on TV.”) Whichever, when the demons escape the TV set, careering around the room like puffs from a deranged steam engine, the little girl turns to her parents and blithely announces: “They’re here!” Right inside the mind of a sensitive child.
In the Spielberg world, there is a reason for this. Children, creatures of innocence and intuition, evolve a fantasy life—their real life—that personalizes everything around them. Machines become toys, toys are animated into pets, pets turn into near-human friends, and all play crucial roles as the saints and dragons of a child’s deepest dreams. In Poltergeist, Carol Anne talks to “the TV people,” and they talk back; they even play with her, to malefic effect. But Spielberg, as he demonstrated in Close Encounters, is no kidnaper. What he takes from the audience—in thrills, anxiety, even children—he gives back, better than new.
In E. T. he goes a step further: he gives back a new fairy tale as good as old. The film opens on a night sky, Disney I blue and full of twinkling stars. In the clearing of a forest that Bambi and Thumper might have been pleased to call home, a spaceship sits — not a high-tech marvel of the NASA future but a bell-shaped spinster of a ship, with old-fashioned street lamps appending and the unmistakable aura of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. A misty crescent moon gives glimpses of child-size figures moving about in capes and cowls on a field expedition for earth flora. One of these figures wanders off and encounters the threatening glare of headlights and the honking of car horns. Before the errant extraterrestrial can return to his comrades, the spaceship abruptly ascends and little E.T. is left, alone and friendless, in an alien climate, where he can never flourish and may not survive.
E.T, a gentle space elf who at first glance seems as homely as a turtle without its shell yet eventually proves as beautiful as an enchanted frog, must find a rescuer. And the rescuer must be a child, whose Galahad strength only E.T. and the moviegoer can immediately discern. The child is Elliott (Henry Thomas), a thin, quiet, wise-faced lad of ten who makes initial contact in a time-honored American fashion: by playing catch with a softball. With the help of his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliott must battle the elements and some prying adults in a children’s crusade to win E.T. his freedom.
To Elliott, E.T. is everything a boy could want: a toy, a pet, a jolly Space Invader of a video game — most of all, a friend whose feelings become his own. To Gertie, E.T. is a youngest sibling’s most welcome addition: someone even smaller than she, an infant brother she can dress up as a bag lady and even teach to speak. E.T. is remarkably adaptable and wonderfully funny in his adventure on earth. Left alone in the house, he toddles around like a middle-aged ironworker on a weekend without the wife, his potbelly peeking out of a plaid bathrobe as he watches TV and gets drunk on Coors beer. Later still, he is a holy sage, a whiz-kid Yoda, constructing a transmitter out of spare parts to signal his spaceship. And he has an extra gift for children. If the moment is propitious, and they truly believe, E.T. can make them fly away from danger and into the harvest-moon sky.
To tell more of the plot would be to spoil one of the film’s pleasures, its gratification of the child’s delight in wondering “What comes next, Daddy?” It is enough to say that E.T. stands securely in the company of some classic children’s stories, from Peter Pan to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With the crucial help of Screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who was present every day on the set, Spielberg has infused comic and dramatic tension into a story in which, one comes to realize, there are no villains. Everyone is nice, and the conflict comes from a taffy pull between good and greater good. That conflict is achingly strong, its resolution euphoric.
The working title for E.T. was A Boy’s Life. And as surely as any work of science fiction can be its author’s autobiography, the boy here is Steven Spielberg. His parents seeded the mix of science and art that would surface in Spielberg’s films: his father Arnold was a computer engineer, his mother Leah a former classical pianist. (They were divorced when Steven was 17.) In many ways, he was a typical boy. He loved animals, especially cocker spaniels—and parakeets, which he kept in his bedroom, flying free. “There would be birds flying around and birdseed all over the floor,” recalls Leah, now 62 and the owner-operator of a kosher delicatessen in West Los Angeles. “I’d just reach in to get the dirty clothes.”
In a house he had to share with three mischievous younger sisters, Steven would take the standard boy’s revenge: lock them in the closet and then throw in the thing they feared most. “He used to scare the hell out of them,” Leah says. “When they were going to sleep, he would creep under their window and whisper, ‘I’m the moon!’ ” But the fraternal bogeyman was also a small festival of phobias. “My biggest fear was a clown doll,” he says. “Also the tree I could see outside my room. Also anything that might be under the bed or in the closet. Also Dragnet on TV. Also a crack in the bedroom wall—I thought ghosts might come from it.” For Spielberg, film making has been a profitable form of psychotherapy: those boyhood fears form the spine of the Poltergeist plot.
He might have hatched that plot in the nursery, for by then Steven had discovered his life’s passion. Leah recalls, “One day Arnold bought a movie camera and started taking pictures of Steven. He was still a baby, but he got up and walked straight for the camera.” At twelve, he got his own movie camera, an inexpensive Kodak, and would spend hours alone writing scripts, drawing shots on sheets of paper that piled up in his room, making movies. He would film head-on crashes of his Lionel trains. He would go on camping trips with his family and turn his home movies into melodramas. (“I never felt life was good enough,” he says now, “so I had to embellish it.”) At his request, Leah boiled cherries jubilee in a pressure cooker until it exploded, and Steven filmed the messy crimson walls and floor. Once Leah asked him to photograph the family in their convertible; Steven took a shot of the hubcap. Leah shakes her head: “I should have known that meant something!”
It did indeed. The boy who was last to be chosen for any pickup baseball team, who was labeled “the retard” by the boys in his phys.-ed. class, who was sickened by having to dissect a frog in junior high and ran outside to vomit with the others—”and the others were all girls”— found he could win friends and influence people with his movies. He enrolled in a Boy Scout photography program, where his success made him at 13 one of the youngest Eagle Scouts ever. (“If I hadn’t been a Scout,” Spielberg cheerfully admits today, “I’d probably have ended up as an ax murderer or a butcher in a Jewish deli.”) One high school jock who used to taunt Steven was won over when the young director cast him in an 8-mm movie called Battle Squad. At Phoenix’s Arcadia High School, Spielberg found fellow spirits in the theater-arts program—”my leper colony. That’s when I realized there were options besides being a jock or a wimp.”
After a couple of years at California State University at Long Beach, he slick-talked his way into an interview with Sid Sheinberg, then president of Universal television, and on the strength of his short film Amblin’, became the youngest director ever signed to a long-term Hollywood studio contract. At 21, he was putting Joan Crawford through the paces of a Night Gallery tale. He directed eleven episodes of various Universal series: a The Name of the Game here, a Columbo or The Psychiatrist there, displaying his tyro talent, learning the business. “TV taught me to think on my feet,” he says. “You have six days to shoot 50 pages of script. TV is a well-oiled machine. Either you roll with it or it rolls over you.” He rolled, all right: within three years he had directed his first TV movie, Duel, about an evil driverless truck bent on crushing a mild motorist on the endless blacktop of the Southwest. Shot in twelve days for $300,000, Duel went on to earn Universal $9 million when it was released to theaters in Europe.
Now the big leagues were calling. After his debut feature film The Sugarland Express, an eccentric car-chase comedy starring Goldie Hawn, Spielberg found himself off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard directing a huge cast and crew—and one wayward mechanical shark—in Jaws. A 55-day shooting schedule ballooned to 155 days; the $4 million budget soared to $8 million. Studio executives were threatening to close down the film and put “Bruce,” the shark, on exhibit as part of the Universal City tour. The crew was wavering daily between seasickness and shell shock. “It was almost Mutiny on the Bounty,” Spielberg recalls, gleefully mixing his analogies, “with me tied to Moby Dick.” But audiences responded to the film with the same question that Steven’s mentor, Sid Sheinberg, asked when he first saw it: “Isn’t there any more?” For Universal there was: Jaws set a new record for film grosses. And Close Encounters solidified Spielberg’s reputation for touching minds and pocketbooks with equal acuity.
It was too much, too fast, too easy. Few worried when Spielberg spent double his Jaws budget and then overextended himself by $6.2 million on Close Encounters; after all, everybody got rich anyway. With 1941 there was no such reprieve. Though the film eventually broke even—and though, frame for frame, it was every bit as adroitly assembled as his hits had been—1941 tarnished the boy wonder’s luster. “Until then I thought I was immune to failure,” he says. “But I couldn’t come down from the power high of making big films on large canvases. I threw everything in, and it killed the soup. 1941 was my encounter with economic reality.”
Fortunately for Spielberg, he soon had a closer, more crucial encounter, when George Lucas, whom Spielberg had known since 1967, asked him to direct the first film in a new adventure series called Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the Star Wars films, Lucas had demonstrated that energy, invention and an appealing ingenuity could somehow balance themselves on Hollywood’s bottom line. “George knows how to put the most on the screen for the cheapest price,” Spielberg says. “He did more than anyone to help me make a movie on budget. While we were preparing Raiders he would tell me, ‘You’ve got a $50 million imagination with a $10 million thought behind it.’ ” Together, the two young tycoons built plenty of twists into their roller coaster of a plot, brought Raiders in under its $20 million budget and made it one of the top four money-earning films in the U.S. The other three: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Jaws.
The problem, as Spielberg sees it, is the ambition for megabucks: “Everybody is aiming for the rightfield stands.” But hatching a blockbuster may be the only way for a film maker to outsmart the deal makers running the big studios. Spielberg and Director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) recently haggled with two major studios over the rights to Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel Congo. “A deal is a work of science fiction,” Spielberg says. “I wasted three months learning how not to make one. Eventually, Brian and I walked away. The whole ‘movie game’ is just one more useless experience.” He wishes the studios would put some of their profits into development of new talent: “If each studio would take $1 million profit per big movie and invest it in film schools and writing programs, we’d have the industry that David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg created.” The director has given $500,000 to the U.S.C. film program. “We must become like Walter Huston in Treasure of Sierra Madre—we must put the mountain back.”
Like Lucas, Spielberg has earned the right to create and shape his own film projects, whether or not he is the nominal director. He had planned only to produce Poltergeist, but soon found himself rewriting the script (from his original story) and, word had it, taking over from Director Tobe Hooper, who had surged to midnight-movie prominence seven years earlier with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a relentless exercise in terror set, like Poltergeist, in a darkened house. He might have had a chance if he had banned Spielberg from the set. But Spielberg had chosen the cast and locations and “storyboarded” the film—devised sketches that approximated virtually every scene the director would shoot. “My taking over had less to do with Tobe’s competence,” Spielberg says, “and more with the fact that I’m bullish about my ideas.”
With Elliott and his little friend E.T., though, all was smooth sailing—a dream of a set for a dream movie. The mechanical creature performed beautifully as a machine and as an actor. And Spielberg found the children easy to work with, explaining the story in terms of fairy tales and board games. For the main roles he had interviewed more than 300 children. “Many of them were remarkable,” he says, “but they weren’t real. They thought before they felt. Then, just a few weeks before we were to start shooting, Henry Thomas walked in. He gave a dreadful reading. I could see he was petrified. But when I asked him to improvise a scene with our casting director, he transformed immediately into Elliott. He can act and react. He’s gifted and malleable. He gave an incredibly controlled performance.” Mature and childlike by turns, utterly unaffected yet supremely resourceful as an actor, Thomas is largely responsible for making scenes between a boy and a pile of steel and foam rubber glisten with feeling.
Spielberg hopes that with E.T. and Poltergeist he will be taken seriously as a director of actors. He has every reason to be. In both pictures, the children are natural and winning. As the mother in Poltergeist, Jobeth Williams, who Spielberg predicts could some day be on a par with Jill Clayburgh, creates a surprisingly rounded character. She gives the movie audience an electrifying shiver the moment her character feels Carol Anne’s spirit moving through her body. In E.T., Dee Wallace has some quietly affecting scenes as Elliott’s mother, who cannot quite hide from her children the ache of loneliness at her husband’s desertion. In Spielberg’s previous features, only one actor (Melinda Dillon, in Close Encounters) was nominated for an Academy Award. That figure should change next year, and Spielberg should emerge from under his portable cloud of Mr. Special Effects.
In fact, only one of his future projects—the sequel to Raiders—will rely heavily on effects. He is developing a musical with Composer-Arranger Quincy Jones, and wants to remake the 1943 fantasy film A Guy Named Joe (a scene from it appears in Poltergeist). He is shepherding a number of film-school graduates through their first commercial movies. And fermenting in the back of his busy brain is a plot line for E. T. II. If he realizes half of the projects he has planned, he could be busy for the next 50 years. And when will he stop making films? Says Steven the Indefatigable: “When I’m Henry Fonda’s age.” Even then, one suspects, Spielberg—the Ahab of Jaws, the star child of Close Encounters, the Adventureland warrior of Raiders, the scheming spirit behind Poltergeist, the bright little boy of E.T.—will still be infusing familiar stories with his craft and his cagey innocence. For moviegoers, that may be as close as they can get to an old-fashioned ‘ ‘happily ever after.”
With reporting by Martha Smilgis/Los Angeles
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