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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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The 'envelope, please' tension

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Looking back at the gallery of saints and sinners of the last great era of American filmmaking – the "Raging Bulls" and "Easy Riders" – only two survivors still function at the height of their powers: Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Others from that generation – such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and William Friedkin – still plow the fields, but their labors evoke little of the excitement and anticipation that greets each new film by Mr. Scorsese and Spielberg. None matches their breadth and consistency. And, of the two, Spielberg has been the more daring in selecting his projects during recent years. No doubt surprisingly to his detractors, Spielberg has evolved into a director of thought and spirit, not just spectacle and style.

Whether or not "Lincoln" expands Spielberg's trophy case with another Oscar for Best Director remains to be seen.

But the "envelope, please" tension recalls the incident in 1975, when Spielberg, still not yet 30, received an ego jolt that may be behind his humble public demeanor to this day. Certain of receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Director for "Jaws," Spielberg was radiating confidence – so much so that he invited a camera crew from a Los Angeles TV station to be with him on Oscar-nomination day and memorialize his reaction to hearing himself nominated.

Instead of recording exhilaration, however, the crew captured Spielberg's shocked disappointment as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took its first bite out of the wunderkind who had only three features on his résumé. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown got the Best Picture nomination for "Jaws" and the movie was nominated in three other Oscar categories, but Spielberg never heard his name announced among the nominations.

"I got beaten out by Fellini," he groaned into the TV cameras, adding that the Academy's failure to nominate him was "commercial backlash" against the film's overwhelming popularity.

"With 'Schindler's List,' I almost had to wear earplugs because of all the people that kept telling me that it could be our year," Spielberg told Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "That was worse than radio silence. I would have rather heard nothing. When younger people get nominated, I give them this advice: Don't watch television, don't read the trades, don't read blogs – just get on with your life, and whatever happens, happens. I am eternally grateful just to be a movie director. That's the important thing to me."

Lester D. Friedman is professor and chairman of the media and society department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. He is the author of 'Citizen Spielberg' and co-editor of 'Steven Spielberg: Interviews.'

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