Steven Spielberg to be honored not as a filmmaker, but as a philanthropist

[5 October 2009]

By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

PHILADELPHIA — This week acclaimed director Steven Spielberg, maker of “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” will return to Philadelphia, his boyhood playground, to collect another award for a crowded mantel.

This prize is not for his achievement as a movie storyteller. The Liberty Medal to be given him Thursday by former President Bill Clinton at the National Constitution Center honors the director’s less known, but no less sweeping, work as a story collector.

In 1994, Spielberg dedicated profits from “Schindler’s List” to create the Shoah Foundation, which has taken video testimony in 56 nations and 32 languages from survivors of the Nazi and Rwandan campaigns of genocide. Spielberg’s initiative ensured that the six million European and one million African casualties of bigotry would not be statistics, but inspirations to defenders of liberty.

“To look in the eyes of a Holocaust survivor or a survivor of ... Rwanda makes it immediate, personal and, above all, undeniable,” Spielberg, 62, said in an e-mail interview last week.

“These are the stories of terror that fill our hearts, with amazement that anyone could have survived, and with pride that the survivors are willing to share their experiences with the whole world,” he wrote.

Spielberg’s movies and the oral histories collected by the foundation “enlist our sympathy for people who are under some sort of moral pressure,” said movie critic Richard Schickel, who directed a documentary about the filmmaker and philanthropist.

“Spielberg is the first visual artist to join the ranks of the presidents, dissidents, and revolutionaries who have received the honor before him,” said Linda E. Johnson, chief executive officer of the Constitution Center. Winners of the medal, the American equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, have included South African President Nelson Mandela, Polish dissident Lech Walesa, and U2 singer-activist Bono.

The most successful director in history — his movies have made more than $8.5 billion (not adjusted for inflation) — Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster with “Jaws” (1975) and reinvented the war movie with “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).

Roger Ebert has called him “the compleat filmmaker: He can go wide (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”), he can go deep (“Schindler’s List”), he can do both at once (“The Color Purple,” “Minority Report”).”

Still, nothing in Spielberg’s resume indicated that he could go wide and deep as a benefactor. “Schindler’s List,” say his friends and associates, was in every way a conversion experience.

“It is not merely a great movie ... deserving of its critical, Academy, and box-office acclaim,” said Tom Pollock, then head of production at Universal Pictures, which financed the film. “But it clearly changed Steven as well. Both during and forever after making this movie, he clearly became proud of his Jewish heritage and spent a very large amount of his time and his fortune in this area.”

Spielberg, “Jurassic Park” novelist Michael Crichton said in 1995, “is arguably the most influential popular artist of the 20th century. And arguably the least understood.”

To better understand “the unpretentious guy in the baseball cap,” as Philadelphia lawyer Stephen A. Cozen described Spielberg, know that the filmmaker wears multiple hats. (Cozen’s family foundation works with Shoah in collecting testimony from Rwandan survivors.)

Spielberg is “a storyteller, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist,” said film scholar Jeanine Basinger, who served with him on the board of the American Film Institute. She likened him to Benjamin Franklin.

Also like Franklin, Spielberg has ties to the region. He moved to South Jersey the year he turned 3, lived in Camden and Haddon Township, and was fascinated by the dinosaur skeleton at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

“My parents used to shop at Wanamaker’s in Philly and would leave me alone under the statue of the American eagle,” he said. “I must have been 6 or 7 at the time, and I would be left sitting for hours with nothing but my imagination to keep me company. A lot of stories started percolating at that department store.”

He cited the Franklin Institute as “one of my favorite haunts. My interest in model trains can be traced to the full-scale steam engines on display there. The first movie I ever made on 8mm was about my model trains, so Philadelphia has always held a nice place in my heart.”

More dreamer than scholar, Spielberg described his teenage self as “a wimp in the world of jocks.” His family moved from Philadelphia to Phoenix to Saratoga, Calif., where he often felt ostracized as the new kid. After rejection letters from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California because of a mediocre academic record, he matriculated briefly at what was then California State College at Long Beach. But his real film school was Universal Studios, where he interned as a high school junior and squatted in an empty office.

In 1968, he made the 26-minute “Amblin’” as a calling card. His boosters at Universal made sure that Sid Sheinberg, a studio executive, saw it. Sheinberg liked what he saw and offered the filmmaker, then 21, a contract. With misgivings — and alacrity — Spielberg accepted the offer and dropped out of school.

Over his four decades as a filmmaker, Spielberg has explored ways to engage the audience. His earliest films (“Duel,” “Jaws”) went for the gut, his next ones (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial”) the heart. In 1982, Sheinberg optioned Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark” for Spielberg. But it would take the filmmaker until 1993 to prepare himself emotionally for the movie, which engaged both gut and heart.

“He basically felt he wasn’t ready,” said his spokesman Marvin Levy. Levy is one of many Spielberg intimates who suggest that Spielberg needed to make “The Color Purple” (1985) and “Empire of the Sun” (1987) — kindred stories of triumph over intolerance — before he could tackle Keneally’s account of the Nazi who saved Jews.

“While filming ‘Schindler,’ many Holocaust survivors approached Steven and said, ‘I want my story told,’” Levy said. “He couldn’t tell all of their stories in a movie, but through the Shoah Foundation he hoped he could compile enough material so the Holocaust could never more be denied.”

“I determined almost from the outset that if ‘Schindler’s List’ made any money for me personally, I would return it to the Jewish community,” recalled Spielberg of the moment that filmmaker became philanthropist. (The testimonies of survivors are housed at USC; excerpts can be seen at

The Shoah Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation are the twin efforts born of “Schindler. RPF has funded documentaries relating to Jewish life, created a digital Yiddish Library, and, said Spielberg, helped young Jews help in the New Orleans recovery effort. RPF “has also helped seed and support local efforts throughout the country that bring Jewish, African-American, and now Latino students together for a year of learning,” said Spielberg, two of whose seven children are African-American.

Much of Spielberg’s giving, which ranges from pediatric centers to tsunami relief to the National Museum of American Jewish History, is anonymous.

“My rule is that when I am part of a cause, kindness goes a lot further when we are more concerned about change than about taking credit for that change,” Spielberg said. “But if granting the use of my name will inspire others to follow suit, that’s the exception to the rule.”

As Cozen sees it: “Steven has used his philanthropic efforts to expose the issues of our time to public scrutiny and to teach the lessons of how to make the world a better place.”

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