As writer-for-hire on “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films,” the pioneering feminist movie critic Molly Haskell is such a counterintuitive choice of contract employee that she acknowledges the weirdness of the situation upfront, confessing her qualms about taking on the project.
The pairing is the work of imps, apparently, who preside over the Jewish Lives series, billed as “interpretive” biographies, now rolling out steadily from Yale University Press. A publisher’s note alongside the robust catalog explains that the editorial matchmaking is done based on the ability “to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of Jewish experience from antiquity through the present.” And by those standards, done and done: The exploration here is lively, the critic is deeply informed, and she approaches her mandate with a calmness of inquiry that is a gift often bestowed on the outsider anthropologist impervious to tribal influences.
Indeed, Haskell is as elegant and cultured a Southern-bred shiksa as one could hope to read for an analysis of evolving Jewish identity in the director of “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List.” She is especially attuned to the ambivalence the filmmaker felt about his heritage as a boy and younger man, tied to anger about long-simmering family tensions leading up to his parents’ divorce when he was 19. Besides, in her preface, Haskell quite sensibly dismisses differences in gender and ethnic culture (a far subtler and more mysterious blend of spices than “religion”) between author and subject as any cause for concern, with gracious reasoning: One of Spielberg’s “greatest traits has always been a kind of natural ecumenism, a generosity of spirit.”
Still. Haskell, a former critic at The Village Voice and Vogue and author of the groundbreaking 1974 study “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,” is also, famously, an auteurist and cinephile who has spent a lifetime swooning over (frequently European) cinematic depictions of the complicated, erotic ways of men and women. And as such, she declares, with all the Southern charm she can muster, that she has “never been an ardent fan” of the filmmaker with whom she is meant to keep company for a book’s worth of time. She likes irony; he likes uplift. She likes brooding movies rich with ambiguities; he likes movies that arrive somewhere. She doesn’t respond to genre and has little patience with boys’-world thrills; his brilliance, she says, lies in playing with “men’s fears — of women, of maturity, of sex.”
The result is a fascinating jumble of messages — a study of a critic inevitably analyzing herself as she considers the life (Jewish and otherwise) of Steven Spielberg. Haskell seems to have done no primary research; she was told that her subject has a policy of not granting interviews to biographers. (Or is it, she wonders, because of harsh reviews she and her cohort have given his movies in the past?) Instead, she draws on secondary sources for factual grounding, giving much credit to the legwork done by Joseph McBride in his own Spielberg biography. She devotes her sharpest insights to close readings of the moviemaker’s work for clues to the soul of the (Jewish) man within. Somewhere, she says, Spielberg once declared that “everything about me is in my films.” Haskell takes him at his word and rewatches everything.
It isn’t long before she is her galvanizing self, the less-than-ardent fan who is nevertheless a compelling feminist psychoanalyst. In the director’s 1974 crime drama, “The Sugarland Express,” Haskell zeros in on Goldie Hawn’s portrayal of a beautician on the run — “abrasive and shrill, the first, but not the last, of that Spielberg archetype, the Shrieking Woman.” Further: “One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg, but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” Cocking her head at “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” she focuses on Teri Garr, playing a “scoldy and querulous” wife, commenting that “the normally attractive Garr is cruelly deglamorized.” Considering “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” she pinpoints Karen Allen’s portrayal of the love interest to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, calling her “another deglamorized Spielberg woman, a cartoonish gin-slinging tomboy who will soon be wearing dresses and screaming for help.” And observing the director’s future wife, Kate Capshaw, playing “Spielberg’s most nerve-racking version of the Shrieking Woman” in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” she concludes that “the tortures designed for the actress were excessive even by the standards of the time. Could Spielberg be going overboard, torturing the sassy blonde as if she were one of his kid sisters, because he was attracted to her?”
Such stinging observations may have little to do with her subject’s Jewish journey, but they make for tasty, tart little treyf surprises to offset the lulls where the author appears enervated by the story she has been assigned to tell. Suitably attentive to the importance of “Schindler’s List” both in the world and in its creator’s soul, she starts to flag as she tries to synthesize a dozen big mature-phase Spielberg projects — including “Saving Private Ryan,” “A.I.,” “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies” — in some 40 barreling final pages.
“The wimp dads of the early films are all but gone,” Haskell notes approvingly of Spielberg’s post-“Schindler” output, before setting down for good her burden of contemplating a Jewish life. The director has future projects “for as far as the eye could see,” she says in farewell, packing to return to the cinematic turf she likes best, where adult women and men grapple with the vagaries of love, unmoved by the sight of a little kid cycling across the moon with E.T. in a basket.