Brooklyn BookBeat: Molly Haskell: Thank God, But First Thank Spielberg
By Peter Stamelman
Special to Brooklyn Eagle
Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film “Bridge of Spies,” an Academy Award-nominated Cold War thriller, was shot extensively in Brooklyn. During the October, 2014 location filming, if you lived in Brooklyn Heights, Ditmas Park or DUMBO, you might have spotted Spielberg, his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and cast members Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Amy Ryan (who, in an instance of art imitating life, actually does live in Brooklyn) in many or all of those locations.
Now, as part of its “Jewish Lives” series, Yale University Press has published “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films” by the eminent film scholar Molly Haskell. (Haskell’s previous books have included “Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited,” “Love and Other Infectious Diseases” and her seminal 1974 “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” one of the first books to chronicle women’s images in film.) Haskell served as the long-running film critic at the Village Voice, and also at New York Magazine and Vogue. She has taught at Columbia, Barnard and Sarah Lawrence. She is a writer of exceptional perception and wit; she brings to her criticism uncommon breadth and erudition.
She is also gracious, welcoming and warm, as I discovered two weeks ago while interviewing her at her Upper East Side apartment. Haskell was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and was raised in Richmond, Virginia. She attended Sweet Briar College, then studied at the University of London and at the Sorbonne. Despite being so cosmopolitan and having lived in New York for almost half a century, she hasn’t lost her dulcet Southern accent. In fact, in transcribing the interview, I would often rewind and play back parts of our conversation just to savor the cadence and color of her voice. It was one of the rare times transcribing was a joy.
I begin by asking Haskell about her approach to her subject.
Eagle: You appear to have had a lot of fun writing this book — do you think not getting Spielberg’s cooperation and the fact that you were not a major Spielberg fan to begin with liberated you?
Molly Haskell: Well, fun and not fun. Yes, as I believe I indicate in the book, I was actually grateful for the fact that he refused my request for an interview. I think if I had met him I would have been co-opted in some way. First of all, I’m a nice Southern girl [laughing], so I was raised not to say bad things about people! But, yes, you’re right — not actually talking with Spielberg and not really being a fan, that was liberating. But what was not so much fun was that I wanted to write a book that was not just for film buffs, but that would reach beyond that audience. At the same time, I knew I had to be scrupulous about the film “stuff” in it because this new breed of film reviewers, particularly online, when they write a film review it’s like they’re writing a doctoral thesis. They know everything: every camera movement, every cut, every dissolve [laughing] — the internet has made it a new world on that score and I knew I had to be impeccable. So, that made it hard; you’re sort of looking over your shoulder. But it was great that Yale University Press allowed someone who wasn’t all that sympathetic to Spielberg’s films, especially the early action and sci-fi movies, which were not my cup of tea, to take this on. It was also counter-intuitive to have someone who — well, I always call myself a film critic first and then a feminist, not a feminist film critic (if that makes sense) — was not the obvious first choice, to have that person write this book.
Eagle: Well, as a film critic first, then a feminist, what’s your take on Spielberg and his women characters?
MH: I feel that there are American directors — and there are many, Spielberg’s not alone — who don’t have an empathetic or sympathetic feeling about women, who don’t portray women interestingly or use women interestingly, who seldom make films about men and women, which has always been my primary interest. It’s something of a failing: that he can’t portray adult relationships between men and women.
Eagle: That’s a good segue to my next question: Why do you think it is that so many American film directors — not only, as you said, Spielberg, but also George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Oliver Stone — cannot “do” women?
MH: It’s fascinating, because they’re all of that generation. The previous generation — [Robert] Altman, [Peter] Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, Arthur Penn — all have fully dimensional, interesting women in their films. And then suddenly you get this sort of “boys club” type of director, who is retreating into various forms of infancy or pre-adolescence. And somehow, they are taking the culture with them backwards at that time. Because I think we were (in the ’60s and early ’70s) in a period of exciting ferment, when American directors were using Hollywood money to make auteurist films. Of course, it was never going to be a long period because that money was being made available by the studios because they were losing audiences and they wanted to experiment, so they gave the directorial reins to these exciting young directors. However, what Lucas and Spielberg did, in embracing sci-fi, was to engineer this retreat, not only into infancy, but into the blockbuster phenomenon, which required lots of young male “repeaters,” viewers who were going over and over again to see “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” So, the whole pattern of production and distribution changed as a result.
Eagle: Wouldn’t you also include Scorsese in that group? I mean, after “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” he seemed to abandon women.
MH: Well, he did direct “The Age of Innocence” after that — but he did it just to prove something, (which I don’t think he proved very well) so, yes, I agree with you. Even [Francis Ford] Coppola, with “The Rain People,” did a great late ’60s to early ’70s — what I call neo-women’s film — in which category I would also include “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Klute.” Generally, what the male directors’ films were about was men on the road, men opting out of domesticity. The Leslie Fiedler hero abandoning his family, going out on his own into the great unknown. (Think, even, of the Richard Dreyfuss character in “Close Encounters.”) But in “The Rain People” here was a woman opting out of marriage. Yet Coppola never went back to that theme, or to a woman like that. A woman who looks around her and says, “What is this, is that what I want?” A woman being afforded the same sense of dissatisfaction and yearning as men — and, remember, this was just before women were actively getting into the [film] profession. But I do think there’s a reciprocal flight of men because of the emerging women’s movement and the increasing power of women. So, what’s really happening is that we’re beginning to redefine gender, and that’s scary for men.
Eagle: And for the [almost exclusively male] studio executives also, right?
MH: Yes, because they no longer wanted to make “women’s pictures” (which I think is a misnomer) anymore. Romantic films, melodramas, screwball comedies, men and women, happy endings. [The studio executives] just wanted to get out of all that, get rid of that template, and also there was no longer this studio mandate about women in the audience. All of a sudden, it was no longer the women deciding what movies the couple went to see on a Saturday night, it was the guys. And it became a “guy” audience. And it may have been as a result of feminism, a retreat from feminism, a retreat from the adult world.
Eagle: Interestingly, I think Spielberg is good with ancillary women’s roles — like Natalie Baye in “Catch Me if You Can” and Amy Ryan in “Bridge of Spies,” but not when he makes a woman one of the principals, as he did with Holly Hunter in “Always.” What do you see Spielberg lacking, why can’t he “get” women?
MH: Well I think he became a filmmaker before he became a person. And his whole persona is that of a filmmaker. He found it was the one thing that gave him confidence, the one thing he could do well. Up until then he’d been a misfit — growing up Jewish in primarily Gentile suburban communities, being shy around girls — all of those outsider characteristics. And suddenly he discovered film and telling stories. He had been a Boy Scout and his fellow Scouts had responded to his wild tall tales around the campfire. He realized that he didn't have to be a jock, he didn’t have to be a Don Juan. He could be a storyteller, a filmmaker and everything went toward that. He couldn’t go on dates because he was saving money to make his first film. I mean he did have some good relationships with girls, he wasn’t completely speechless or tongue-tied, but they were “friend” girls, not girlfriends. And I think a lot of that comes from his family dynamic, which was such a closeness to his mother and because he blamed his father for the dysfunctional marriage. He never could identify with his father. Also, because his father was a kind of science genius, which Steven felt he never would be, since he wasn’t academic. So instead of identifying with the father, and getting beyond the mother, which one does, if you believe in Freud, and I think pretty much everybody believes that, Spielberg never went through that particular passage into manhood. So, he remained a “boy” and all the girls in his early-to-mid-range films are sisters, or sister-like. Holly Hunter, Karen Allen, Melinda Dillon. They’re “girl buddies.”
Eagle: To the best of my recollection — and you’ve just looked at all the films for the book so you may correct me on this — but the only actual love-making scene I can recall in any Spielberg film is in “Munich.” And even then, he cuts between the love-making to flashbacks of the Black September attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
MH: As you know, I talk about that scene in the book, because I think it’s quite stunning. And it’s also a deeply troubling scene. People always associate Spielberg with sweetness and light and being sentimental, and he does like the affirmative, he is a humanist, but once in a while the darkness shows. First of all, he’s used source material from very dark writers — JG Ballard [“Empire of the Sun”], Philip Dick [“Minority Report”]. They’re about the bleakest writers on the planet — and he doesn’t betray that bleakness, he utilizes it. And that scene in “Munich” you refer to is simply extraordinary. And apparently, there is a psychological foundation for this: studies of PTSD have found that your reflexes are so shaped by the hostility and the constant danger of war that sort of any rush of adrenaline, as with lovemaking, takes you back to those fears. Guys come home and their electrical wiring is attuned to war and self-defense and they can’t experience the normal desires and arousals and satisfactions. And I think, in that love-making scene, Spielberg alludes to this in a very subtle way and it’s quite amazing. It’s breath-taking in showing how the ramifications of war seep into every human encounter, even the love-making between a husband and wife.
Eagle: Why do you think Spielberg always feels this need to “italicize?” Even after he’s made his point? I’m thinking of the endings of “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” and “Lincoln.” Even “Bridge of Spies,” which I think should have ended with Hanks collapsed on the bed, but Spielberg italicizes with a final scene contrasting the quotidian scenes Hanks watches from the commuter train in New York with the horrific scenes he’d watched from the tram in East Berlin.
MH: It’s part of his habitual instinct, which started at an early age, to please his audience. When those Boy Scouts around the fire were laughing or shrieking with horror at Steven’s stories, that’s what he wanted. He wanted huge numbers of people — he always said he didn’t want to make “European-type films” for small audiences — he didn’t want people to “respect” his movies, he wanted them to love them, to go to them over and over, and I think he felt wrongly that if he was pitching his film to the widest possible audience, that he had to underline the emotion and hammer it home. But that’s part of who he is — the majestic John Williams scores, the shock editing that gets an audience to jump out of their seats. I think it’s also his part of his sense that old Hollywood movies were made that way. And, on the positive side, that’s what’s exciting about Spielberg’s direction: he’s able to use the traditional Hollywood vernacular, to shock and awe his audiences — just as he was shocked and awed when he saw “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He wants to recreate those experiences for contemporary audiences.
Eagle: Do you find it ironic, as I do, that many of the “old Hollywood” directors Spielberg so admires were able to depict fully formed and engaged women, which Spielberg can’t seem to do? I mean look at Howard Hawks — and Hawks is my favorite director…
MH: Yes, I love Hawks, too.
Eagle: Hawks created strong, feisty, sexy women. Women with agency. Women who were many times — as with Jean Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings” — the conscience of the film. And the same could be said of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston. You just don’t find those women in Spielberg films.
MH: Well, all of those directors did have their own hang-ups about women, and those hang-ups are on display in the films. But, you’re right, the women in the films of those directors are adult women. Spielberg’s hang-ups are about child-like fear and fully formed women don’t really play a role. He wants to stay in that childhood place, even as he’s evolved as a filmmaker and as a man. You’re also right, he never really shows powerful women, women of agency. Hawks did have actresses play tomboys but they were tomboys who go further, they’re sexy.
Eagle: For example, I can’t imagine Spielberg doing a scene like the one Hawks does at the beginning of “Red River,” where when John Wayne decides to leave the wagon train and the woman who loves him says, and I’m paraphrasing, “You’ll need me, Tom, you’ll need me. Those nights will be long.”
MH: Well that’s a thing Spielberg can’t acknowledge: sexual need.
Eagle: In fact, I can’t think of any scene of sexual desire in a Spielberg film.
MH: The only one is in “The Color Purple” — and that’s between two women.
Eagle: Well, I rest my case.
MH: [laughing] Well, yes, that is ironic. Because at the time people criticized that scene for being too tame. Even Alice Walker, the author of the novel, got on Spielberg’s case about that. Getting back to your point about Ford, Hawks, Huston and women: those directors had strong streaks of macho. If there’s one thing Spielberg’s not, it’s macho.
Eagle: I do have to give Spielberg enormous credit for getting from Sally Field that remarkable performance as Mrs. Lincoln.
MH: I agree. It’s not a role of sexual desire, but it is one of a fully realized woman. In fact, it’s such a powerful performance that sometimes you want to look away from it. I think it’s great that Spielberg didn’t sanctify her, that he showed her pathology.
Eagle: What do you make of the fact that Spielberg has never expressed a desire to direct theater?
MH: You know, it’s interesting: I was doing a radio interview with the New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein and we were talking about this quote that I thought was from Pauline [Kael] but wasn’t although she used it: With Spielberg, there’s no proscenium. That’s all you need to say. That’s why he doesn’t do theater. He doesn’t want a proscenium — he wants immersion. And I think he was one of the first directors to want to achieve that immersion. Now, of course, everyone talks about it; it’s a cliché, “immersion cinema.” All the noise, mayhem, destruction. It’s become sort of a repellent extreme. Look at all the trailers shown during the Super Bowl: they’re all just noise, explosions, action, action, action. But I think Spielberg was on to this idea of immersion right from the start of his career. These young, hyperventilating imitators could learn a lot about how to achieve it [immersion] obliquely rather than directly by watching “Jaws.”
Eagle: Even though he has gotten several strong, memorable performances from Tom Hanks, Leonardo di Caprio, Tom Cruise, do you agree one can’t really call Spielberg an actor’s director? Particularly regarding women actors. I mean I can’t imagine him directing Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman.
MH: He’s said that he doesn’t want to direct actors who bring “baggage” with them. He doesn’t want them to be “auteurs.” Inevitably when you get one of those stars you mentioned, it becomes their film as much as the directors. That’s his thinking anyway, I believe. [Laughing] I mean I think his experience with Joan Crawford on “Night Gallery” at the beginning of his career pretty much put him off “stars” forever! I think he is very good with children — one of the great, unforgettable Spielberg-directed performances is that of Christian Bale, when Bale was a child actor in “Empire of the Sun.” He did an unbelievable job with Bale, and he’s always exceptionally good with children, which makes sense. He really understands children and can really speak to children.
Eagle: I’m going to finish with a macro question: What do you think is Spielberg’s cinematic legacy?
MH: For one, he’s been a great mentor to other filmmakers; that’s why that Academy Award thing is so funny. [As Haskell recounts in the book “In the weeks leading up to the 2014 Academy Awards, one of the factoids that newscasters dished out to whet viewer appetites was a statistic on who Oscar winners thanked the most. The two top names, according to NBC’s Lester Holt, were Steven Spielberg and God, with the latter receiving only 19 mentions to the former’s 42.) For better or worse, he’s inspired a whole group of young filmmakers. In fact, when I was in the initial stages of outlining this book I suddenly realized that a not insubstantial group that this book is intended for is [laughing] all those 19-year-old males, who want to be filmmakers and are saving all their money to buy cameras. Spielberg is obviously an inspiration to them. But, on a more significant note, I think people fail to appreciate how grounded Spielberg is in his love of cinema and how different he is from the kind of franchise movie directors — even though he has directed sequels to his own movies (which usually don’t turn out so great) — whose films clutter our multiplex screens with tired superhero tentpoles. Spielberg’s movies, whether spectacle or large canvas historical dramas, always have a strong humanistic element, which those soul-less tent-pole pictures don’t. And Spielberg always does care about character, even in the midst of all the technical wizardry -again, which these other directors don’t. As I said earlier, he became a filmmaker before he became a fully formed man, before he became a man who knew women, before he became a person with all sorts of personal qualities and characteristics. Filmmaking preceded, and superseded, every other aspect of his life. Nevertheless, I think he is both an astoundingly talented filmmaker and an honorable human being. He’s espoused a lot of Jewish causes, health causes…
Eagle: Political causes. He’s supported all the “right” people.
MH: Yes, exactly. He’s really put his money where his mouth is. He’s sort of hiding in plain sight. He doesn’t want to be a celebrity, he values his family and his, and their, privacy. Yes, he’s become internationally famous, but that wasn’t the goal. And, finally, something extremely important: I think he’s a connection to the past. For example, I just finished a piece on Frank Borzage — and nobody knows who he is. Or King Vidor. [Note: both were visionary filmmakers not generally known to today’s audience]. Spielberg is a connection to these great, under-appreciated directors (he certainly knows who they are). I think he deserves great credit, and honor, for the sort of large canvas, socially conscious movies — “Schindler’s List,” “Munich,” Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” — that not too many other directors have made or are making. And, finally, I think many of his talents are concealed, how it really takes true film buffs to recognize and appreciate his skills: how he can show you a huge, sprawling, teeming Shanghai at the start of World War II, but never lose sight of Bale’s character. Both the cosmic and the minutely human are kept in focus. This is Spielberg’s gift.
“Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films” is published by Yale University Press. For more information, visit www.yalebooks.com.