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Oscars 2013 and Spielberg: The storyteller is part of our cultural DNA

Oscars 2013: Oscar or not for 'Lincoln,' Steven Spielberg has not only shaped our fantasies, he's influenced a generation's perspective on history.

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What are his secrets? The armchair pundits suggest it's his adherence to the American dream script: listening to the child within him and trusting his own instincts. Born in the Midwest heartland of Cincinnati in 1946 to an electrical engineer dad and a concert pianist mom, he made a minimovie in 1959 to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. Ever the neighborhood-lemonade-stand entrepreneur, he sold tickets to his friends for home movies, and won his first prize, at age 13, for a short war film.

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The dean of American film critics, Pauline Kael, thought it was Spielberg's bold confidence – undergirded with a suburban-bred innocence and wonder – and innate kindness that made him unafraid to turn timeless themes on their head. Reviewing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" – the big-budget alien-friendly science-fiction movie – she put it this way:

"In routine science-fiction films, any bodies from space are alien invaders.... But in "Close Encounters" ... the intelligent creatures ... are benevolent. They want to get to know us. This vision would be too warm and soul-satisfying if it weren't for the writer-director Steven Spielberg's skeptical, let's-try-it-on spirit. He's an entertainer – a magician in the age of movies. Is Spielberg an artist? Not exactly – or not yet. He's a prodigy – a flimflam wizard technician."

And while the public has voted lavishly with ticket purchases, Spielberg is not flawless by a long shot, if you listen to other critics, who can be skeptically brutal.

Spielberg, wrote critic Peter Biskind in his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," is obsessed with a "sentimental view of our better self as the inner child, the innocent youth we used to be.... He wants to return the boomers to the sandbox."

Sneaking into Universal Studios

When he was 18, Spielberg took a bus tour of Universal Studios while on a visit to Los Angeles. When his fellow tourists got back on the bus after a bathroom break, he hid out of sight in a toilet stall until the bus left, allowing him to wander the back lots.

As recounted in Joseph McBride's biography of the filmmaker, Spielberg has told this story in many ways over the years. In the latest version, included in Richard Schickel's lavishly illustrated "Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective," the director said: "I was on the Universal Studios lot. I had no idea how I'd get home. But I spent the whole afternoon just walking in and out of doors – sound stages, cutting rooms – and took my own tour and had an amazing time."

Quitting time came, and as he was still wandering around trying to figure out how to get back to his relatives' house across the San Fernando Valley, he serendipitously met up with Charles Silver, the head of the film library, who, amused at the kid's audacity, wrote out a pass for the young Spielberg that allowed him future access to the lot.

If curiosity is one key quality, the other most-telling Spielberg trait might be his unflinching determination. Mr. Schickel tells of the time the teenage Spielberg was sent by a chief editor at Universal to fetch a small Moviola editing machine from down the hall. He was told to inform the person using it that it was needed elsewhere. He caused a ruckus unplugging the machine and rolling it out, not realizing (or did he realize?) that the shirtless man using it was Marlon Brando, dressed in Tahitian garb.


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