Even if you read all 857 pages of the two new unauthorized biographies of Steven Spielberg, both titled simply Steven Spielberg — one by Joseph McBride, the other by John Baxter — you’ll find nothing in them that beats one of the more fascinating articles ever written about the director: a February 1994 story in Harper’s Bazaar involving Kate Capshaw’s 10-year campaign to marry him. The piece memorably detailed her extraordinary tenacity — she was smitten with Spielberg when she auditioned for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had a ”flirtation” with him, and continued to pursue him even after he went back to girlfriend Amy Irving, had a child, and married her. Interviewed for the story, Capshaw dispensed with the usual mythmaking that surrounds most Hollywood unions and called her 1991 marriage to Spielberg as she saw it: a hard-won deal.
Capshaw is a former schoolteacher-turned-actress; her husband is the most successful filmmaker of all time (his movies have grossed more than $4 billion). Surely, Spielberg is the more compelling character. So why, unlike the relatively brief Harper’s piece, are these two books so essentially flat and bloodless?
In both cases, the fault lies first with their subject. No matter how much the authors try to dramatize his Jewish boyhood among the bullying suburban goyim of Scottsdale, Ariz., Spielberg is no Hitchcock, no Orson Welles, no Peter Bogdanovich when it comes to the colorful-and-tortured-life department. The most scandalous things about Spielberg are that he used to shave a year off his age in interviews and is ruthlessly ambitious. In Hollywood, these are not exactly distinctive characteristics.
Still, even without the Harper’s writer’s advantage of talking to Spielberg and Capshaw, the biographers, who spoke to hundreds of the couple’s associates, should have been able to pull together more riveting tales.
Of the two books, McBride’s is far more readable. The author of Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success approached his subject like an investigative journalist, interviewing 325 people about Spielberg, even his rarely quoted father, Arnold. Unlike Baxter, who repeats the tired legend that Spielberg snuck onto the Universal Studios lot as a teenager, McBride tracks down people who worked on the lot at that time; they tell him that Spielberg had actually been given a clerical position for the summer and was there in an official capacity. Baxter’s effort — he has also written similar books about Ken Russell, Federico Fellini, and Luis Bunuel — can only be called a hackography, since it relies so heavily on newspaper and magazine clips.
While Baxter sticks to the movie-by-movie formula of many Hollywood bios, McBride deviates only slightly. Most disappointingly, both authors relegate Spielberg’s love life — the triangle with Irving and Capshaw that apparently endures in a successful blended-family form today — to the status of occasional mention. A writer with Spielberg’s unerring eye for the emotional jugular of a story would have realized that the women in his life might be as much of a clue to his character as his movies. At the very least, more about Irving and Capshaw would give any book about an essentially sphinxlike nerd a jolt of much-needed sensuality and resonance. With any luck, maybe one day they’ll be inspired to write their own bios of him. B