In early 1976, while still riding high off of the enormous critical and financial success of Jaws, a young Steven Spielberg, anticipating the impressive haul his epochal film was sure to receive, invited a camera crew to film himself and two friends (one of whom was future Maniac and former Corleone family button-man-turned-fink Joe Spinell) watching and reacting to that year’s Academy Awards nomination announcements. He wanted to be seen live on national television being nominated for his first Best Director Oscar.
Here’s how that worked out:
We can talk about what an obscenely stacked group of Best Director nominees that was at a later date, but what's more important for our purposes is that while Jaws ended up with four nominations (including Best Picture, which was the only category in which it didn’t win) its boy genius director was "overlooked" in favor of a more respected, more artistically relevant veteran. Hardly a lamentable fate, especially for a 27-year-old who was in the process of changing the movie landscape as we knew it by virtue of his unparalleled success and could now write his own ticket, and yet Spielberg’s “snub” was the beginning of a narrative that would largely define his career for nearly two decades - the director perhaps more commercially beloved than any in history and yet consistently overlooked by the more serious artistic establishment.
He would, in fact, be nominated for his very next film, and while there’s nothing to indicate that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a stab at seriousness from a director spurned, the movie nonetheless represents a bold early step in his career towards more personal blockbuster film-making. Using the clout he had gained from directing what was up to that point the most successful film of all time, Spielberg sought to finally tackle a concept which he had been developing in various forms since childhood.
The intensely personal nature of the film is evident everywhere from Spielberg's solo writing credit (the only one he would take in his career) to the multiple revised versions he would later release in an ever-evolving attempt to get the final cut to match his original vision (these reissues, the first instance of a director releasing his own preferred cut of a film after the official release, were indicative of the growing power that the filmmakers of Spielberg’s generation were beginning to achieve), and yet no more so than in the fabric of the story itself. While he had dealt with broken families before, this would mark the first time he married that emotional core to a high science fiction concept. It’s the first chapter in a loose trilogy that would continue through E.T. and War of the Worlds, in which interplanetary visitors are catalysts for both the destruction and ultimate healing of suburban families. Here, the director creates an elaborate rationale for a father’s abandonment of his family, a paternal absence that he would continue to struggle with throughout the rest of his career.
While more of a modest success when compared to the runaway commercial dominance of some of his other work, it is arguably the most transcendent moment in Spielberg's filmography, and along with Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is one of the few science fiction films bold enough to portray an extraterrestrial encounter as one that carries the promise of elevating and enriching humanity rather than threatening its very existence. During the same year in which Star Wars imprinted itself upon the imaginations of children the world over by filling in the corners of a galaxy far, far away, Steven Spielberg, for so many decades labeled to both his credit and detriment as a child who never grew up, appealed to the unsatisfied longing of adult suburban malaise by suggesting a sense of pure wonder at the glorious mysteries of our own universe.
Christopher Sailor is the Programmer of Education with the Atlanta Film Festival. He also waxes cinematic at chrissailor.com.