It is impossible to tell the history of cinema without mentioning the name Steven Spielberg. His impact on the industry, both in terms of what’s capable creatively and commercially, is felt to this day and will be until the end of time. His evolution as a filmmaker and figure are fascinating threads that dove tail with each new film. This fall marked his first time having a film premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival with the highly anticipated “The Fablemans,” which recently won the coveted People’s Choice Award from the festival. Usually, his films open in December and eschew the festival process because he’s Steven Spielberg, and the Oscar buzz is already built in. However, with the extra added boost of the Audience prize, it’s not only an Oscar contender, but the semi-autobiographical tale based on his childhood in Arizona with Michelle Williams and Paul Dano playing characters based on his parents is the frontrunner that everyone is going to be chasing after.
“The Fabelmans” is also a rarity for Spielberg as he is a credited writer alongside frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (“Lincoln” & “West Side Story“), with his last writing credit being in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” Suppose the film plays as strongly with general audiences as it did at TIFF. Then there is a readymade narrative in “The Fablemans” serving as a career capper for Spielberg, who has consistently created great cinematic works over 50 years, has won three Oscars (two for Best Director, one for Best Picture), and deserves to be rewarded one last time for a lifetime contribution towards the film industry.
Spielberg’s relationship with the Oscars is fascinating. Yes, he’s won three Oscars and has, up to this point, received nineteen Academy Award nominations, but there has always been a sense that the work he’s been doing is taken for granted. He quested for Oscar legitimization since 1975’s “Jaws.” There’s the infamous footage of him having a documentary crew film him in 1976 watching the Oscar nominations and having a bit of a tantrum when he missed out on a Best Director nomination for “Jaws.” While that might seem like a significant snub, keep in mind the Best Director field was super competitive, with the nominees being Stanly Kubrick for “Barry Lyndon,” Robert Altman for “Nashville,” Sydney Lumet for “Dog Day Afternoon,” Federico Fellini for “Amarcord,” and the winner Milos Forman for “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” There’s no shame in being outside that group. Spielberg would decry the snub as Hollywood punishing him for making a movie that was a cultural and box-office phenomenon. That’s not exactly true, but it does speak to criticism of Spielberg, that he is a talented and skilled filmmaker that only makes popcorn movies. This idea would linger for a long time, no matter how hard Spielberg worked to disprove that notion. His next film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” would get a Best Director nomination, as would 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and 1982’s “E.T.” (losing to Warren Beatty and Richard Attenborough, respectively), but once again they were labeled as massive crowd pleasers and technical achievements. Still, he wasn’t considered serious enough to be embraced by the Academy during this stage of his career.
The late 80s marked a time when Spielberg would attempt to make more profound films that both demonstrated his prowess as a director but eschewed the “childish” elements his films were saddled with. In 1985, he made “The Color Purple,” which adapted Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. While he did receive a Best Picture nomination, he missed out on a Best Director nomination, and the film won none of its eleven nominations. He then made “Empire of the Sun” in 1987, which attempted to blend his serious and blockbuster sensibilities by telling a harrowing World War II story through the eyes of a child (a young Christian Bale), and aside from below-the-line nominations, the Academy ignored it in the above-the-line categories. While he returned to pure blockbuster-style filmmaking with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” he also made “Always” a romantic fantasy that didn’t connect with the Academy or audiences at all. After being labeled a Peter Pan, he made his own grown-up version of a Peter Pan story with 1991’s “Hook,” which received below-the-line nominations but was seen as a low point in his career by critics. He finally scored with the Oscars in 1993 with a movie year that is impossible to replicate. He not only had “Jurassic Park” which was a technical breakthrough and the highest-grossing film of the year, but he also had the deeply personal Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List.” The latter perfectly married his technical acumen and populist instincts with a maturity he hadn’t fully demonstrated to this point. The story was personal as he had a lot of family that had been lost to the Holocaust and threw himself in so deep that he would take international calls from Robin Williams so that he could laugh for a few minutes during the brutal days of shooting. Both his 1993 films combined to win ten Oscars, with “Schindler’s List” winning Best Picture and Best Director. In 1997, after a three-year break where he would help launch Dreamworks Studios, he would try and double dip with “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and the slavery courtroom drama “Amistad.” Both films failed to connect with Oscar voters settling for a few below-the-line nominations and an Anthony Hopkins Best Supporting Actor nomination. Spielberg came back a year later with “Saving Private Ryan,” and he won a second Oscar for Best Director. He ended the 20th century at the peak of his powers, and yet the 21st century would see him still finding new stories to tell and stretch himself as a filmmaker.
His work from 2000 on was a period where his films grew darker, both with his blockbusters and his “serious” movies. His work seemed primarily inspired by the horrific events of 9/11. “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” while made and released prior to 9/11, does do an incredible job of depicting a Sci-Fi dystopia, the same could be said for “Minority Report,” which was made pre-9/11 but released afterward and spoke to where America was in 2002. His other 2002 film, “Catch Me If You Can,” was a fun cat and mouse con man film on the surface. Still, under the surface, it told a dark story about divorce and loneliness, themes that would find their way into many of his films as they were primary staples of his childhood and are thoroughly explored in “The Fabelmans.” The Academy largely ignored all these films, same with 2004’s immigrant dramedy “The Terminal” starring re-occurring collaborator Tom Hanks. He had entered a period where one could say he was being taken for granted, and while 2005’s “War of the Worlds” and “Munich” were challenging films that remained in conversation with where America was during the Iraq War. The Academy did give him nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for “Munich,” but that film always had the tinge of being liked but not loved.
The 2010s would see him further be regarded as a legendary filmmaker that is perhaps out of step with where the industry and country stood. His work, while still comprised of period pieces, the tone was more optimistic and spoke to the power of what people can do when they come together. 2011’s “War Horse” received a Best Picture nomination, and his motion capture film “The Adventures of Tintin” received some below-the-line nominations but missed out on a Best Animated Feature nomination. 2012’s “Lincoln” was his first massive Oscar hit since “Saving Private Ryan.” The film received twelve nominations, and while it didn’t win him Best Picture or Best Director, it still won two awards (Best Actor and Best Production Design); it likely came close in several other categories. His next outing, “Bridge of Spies,” got him a Best Picture nomination and was the second of his films to win an acting award, this time for Mark Rylance. 2016’s “The BFG” became the first Spielberg film since “Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to not receive a single Oscar nomination. In 2017 he released “The Post,” which received a Best Picture nomination and a nomination for Meryl Streep in Best Actress but nothing else. 2018’s “Ready Player One” also received below-the-line nominations. Given the film’s divisive reputation, Spielberg closed out the decade on another film that was considered good but not up to the same level of greatness his previous films achieved. He was no longer seen as being able to make blockbuster films that connected the way they used to, and his more “serious” films weren’t as special.
The 2010s provided doubt that Steven Spielberg would ever truly re-capture the Academy’s attention again, but he proved he could still dazzle. 2021’s “West Side Story” began a wave where his entire body of work got a chance to be reassessed. He gave himself an impossible task and remade a Best Picture winner, putting a bull’s eye on his back. Not only did he deliver a film that rivals the original, but his camerawork was fully unleashed in a way that it hadn’t been since “War of the Worlds” or “The Adventures of Tintin.” The way he shot the musical sequences and his skill for blocking scenes caused many to consider him weirdly underrated. He delivered a spectacle that was needed following the pandemic and helped remind audiences of the power of the movies at a time when theaters were in danger of closing down for good. He received Best Picture and Best Director nominations. While he likely wasn’t going to win, the narrative for him turned as many realized he’s always been consistently excellent and was taken for granted for a decade.
And this brings everything back to “The Fablemans.” One year removed from this re-evaluation of his body of work, following the success of “West Side Story,” Spielberg’s latest is primed to be the crowning moment of his illustrious career, especially considering the film’s personal connection to him. Honoring the film would be honoring the man, and vice-versa. He has stated this is not his last movie by any stretch, but it might be the last time he makes something that resonates with the Academy. No one ever knows these things, but it feels like all of the stars have aligned for Spielberg to be an Oscar winner once again with “The Fabelmans.” It also helps that Michelle Williams, the film’s screenplay, and John Williams’ final film score are all heavily predicted to win in their respective categories as well, which would contribute towards the film and/or Spielberg winning Best Picture and Best Director.
Depicting the build-up and fall out of his parent’s divorce, childhood wonderment with making movies, and the bonds of growing up in a Jewish family, the film resonated enough with the TIFF audience to establish itself as the early frontrunner for Best Picture. While Spielberg is, of course, a cinephile’s cinephile, his movies aren’t referential outside of “Ready Player One.” Yes, his “Indiana Jones” films are inspired by old serials but he never calls any specific film out by name. This is in line with the “Roma” trend, which influenced 2021’s “Belfast” (as well as James Gray’s “Armageddon Time“), which won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Kenneth Branagh and told the story about how the power of movies helped a young boy deal with the horrors of growing up. There seems to be a recipe for success with these established filmmakers and the Academy as of late, and “The Fabelmans” looks to be another example of that which will surely hit big with many voters.
“The Fabelmans” appears to be a unique entry in Spielberg’s vast filmography. While “E.T.,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “AI,” etc., contain a lot of personal elements from his own experience as a child and as a parent, this is the first time he’s been overtly autobiographical. Starting with 1971’s “Duel,” he’s thrilled audiences, delivered massive spectacles, sweeping historical epics, and everything in between, and now he’s dramatizing his own life. This narrative, coupled with the Academy wanting to honor a titan that never faded away, gives him as strong of a case this awards season as he’s had since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Even when other auteurs such as David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, The Coens, and Christopher Nolan became the choice of the next generation and when contemporaries like Martin Scorsese remained edgy, Spielberg remained an entity unto himself. His disciples and imitators have ebbed and flowed critically and commercially. Still, he remained near or at the top of his game through all of this time, consistently reminding us of his talent and unbelievable contribution to the medium. He’s so good at what he does that he became an afterthought in many previous Oscar seasons (including last year) because topping himself has become an impossible task. By returning to his 8mm roots, he does not need to top himself. However, he brings his career and mythos full circle, reminding audiences that he’s still the same kid who made movies in his backyard and started his career by allegedly sneaking onto the Universal lot. For an Academy that wants to both celebrate excellence in film and appeal to the largest audience possible, “The Fabelmans” could very well be the film to do it while honoring the man that is a towering pillar of both.
You can follow Chauncey and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @bigchaunc64