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Close encounters of the hugely profitable kind

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- He is, among other achievements, responsible for a generation of movie goers being terrified of swimming in the sea; for ensuring that every child's toy collection contains at least one plastic velociraptor; and for transforming the image of archaeologists from boring, bearded academics to bull-whip-cracking tough guys, and that of aliens from homicidal space monsters to cuddly extra-terrestrial playmates with long fingers that glow in the dark.

On Monday, Steven Spielberg receives the International Emmy Founders Award, a lifetime achievement gong conferred on "an individual or organization that crosses cultural boundaries to touch our common humanity."

It is the latest in a veritable landslide of awards -- including two Best Director Oscars, an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and an honorary British knighthood -- conferred on the man Empire Magazine recently listed as the greatest movie director ever and who Time described as "the most influential figure, for better and worse, in the history of the last third of 20th century cinema."

Whether it be man-eating sharks or cobra-filled Ancient Egyptian tombs, the horror of the Holocaust and World War Two Normandy landings, or the wonder of contact with beings from another world, Spielberg's movies have transfixed audiences, produced images and storylines that have become part of our cultural idiom, and made a quite staggering amount money (he is by some distance the most commercially successful film-maker of all time, with four of his movies -- "Jaws," "E.T.", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Jurassic Park" -- in the top ten list of highest-grossing films ever.)

With this latest acknowledgement of his cultural significance, it is perhaps worth looking back at the life and career of the film legend whom, topping both Empire and Time, LIFE Magazine declared, quite simply, the most influential person of his generation (over such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Apple founder Steven Jobs.)

"He's our Homer and our Hans Christian Andersen," declared LIFE. "An epic fairy-tale-maker with a Midas touch whose films, from E.T. to Schindler's List, show us that the human spirit is alive in the most unlikely places, and charm us into opening our hearts and our wallets."

Rejection and triumph

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 18, 1946, Spielberg, the eldest of four children and descendent of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, fell in love with movies at an early age (he recalls the first film that he ever saw as Cecil B. DeMille's circus extravaganza "The Greatest Show on Earth").

Ironically, for a man who went on to achieve such staggering success, his application to attend the University of Southern California's prestigious School of Cinematic Arts was turned down three times (USC later made amends for their failure to recognize his early genius by awarding him an honorary degree, and making him a university trustee.)

Undeterred by this early rejection -- and possibly spurred on by it -- Spielberg set about making his own movies with a simple handheld camera.

The 24-minute "Amblin'," his first short feature to achieve theatrical release, was made when he was just 21, in 1968, and although it gave little hint of the era-defining works to come, it nonetheless garnered enough attention to earn him a TV-directing contract with Universal Studios ("Amblin" subsequently became the name of Spielberg's personal production company, Amblin Entertainment).

After directing episodes of such classic 60s TV shows such as "Marcus Welby, M.D.," "Name of Game" and "Columbo," his first feature length TV film, made in 1971, was the gloriously disturbing Duel, about a mild-mannered traveling salesman (played by Dennis Weaver) whose journey home across America is turned into a fight for survival when he becomes involved in a highway duel with a psychopathic truck driver (who we never actually see.)

Although low-budget, the movie established Spielberg's reputation as a master of taut and imaginative storytelling (David Lean, director of such classics as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" was a big fan), and gave the young movie-maker the leverage to branch out into bigger projects.

His first theatrical release movie, 1974's "Sugarland Express," also had a "road theme", recounting the real-life story of a couple being chased by the police across Texas (it starred Goldie Horn). While attracting favorable reviews, the movie failed to make a big splash at the box office.

It was a very different story, however, with his next feature, "Jaws." The tale of a small seaside holiday community terrorized by a giant man-eating shark -- the mechanical fish that appeared in the movie was dubbed "the great white turd" by Spielberg on account of its propensity for malfunctioning -- it was, quite literally, a monster hit.

With its spine-tingling score (the latter won composer John Williams an Oscar), innovative camera work and masterful use of suspense, it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and is considered the first true "summer blockbuster," grossing over $100 million. It also launched Spielberg's career into the stratosphere.

Cinema at its best

In the three decades since "Jaws," Spielberg has enjoyed -- or rather not enjoyed -- his fair share of failures. His next movie, "1941," starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, was as big a flop as "Jaws" was a success (a hideously misfiring farce set in the days after Pearl Harbor, Spielberg acknowledged that it should have got him sent to "a Betty Ford clinic for self-indulgent directors.")

"Empire of the Sun," "Always," "Peter Pan," "Amistad" and "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" all, to a greater or lesser degree, failed to win over audiences (although the great director Billy Wilder was a huge fan of the last of these, a joint venture between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, describing it as "the most underrated film of the past few years.")

Against the not-so-successful projects, however, must be set a succession of films which can be considered among the greatest, and certainly most popular ever made, and which have rightly earned Spielberg his place amongst the pantheon of movie greats.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jurassic Park" -- these are films that have defined a generation and represent movie-making at its very best: imaginative, thrilling, moving, unforgettable.

"He is the ultimate blend of Disney and Hitchcock," says Xan Brooks, a leading UK film commentator.

"At the Disney end you've got this at-times glutinous sentimentality that works brilliantly in things like 'E.T.' although can be terribly leaden in films like 'Hook' and 'Amistad.'

"On the Hitchcock side you've got the classic device of an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation which you see in movies like 'Jaws,' 'Jurassic Park' and 'War of the Worlds.'

Technically he is an absolute master. He understands exactly the language of cinema, how to play with an audience, to lift them up and drop them down"

Although his name will always be most closely be associated with colorful, roller-coaster, big-budget movies, Spielberg has in the latter part of his career tried to mix fun-for-all-the-family blockbuster films with darker, more thoughtful projects (although Spielberg being Spielberg, these too have cleaned up at the box office.)

"Schindler's List;" "Saving Private Ryan;" "Minority Report" and "Munich" -- all have been more challenging and complex than much of his earlier work (his Best Director Oscars were won for the first two of these).

While many argue that even his more serious works lack real depth -- "He tends to see the world in primary colors rather than light and shade," says Brooks, "Which is why his recent, darker movies don't quite come off," -- even Spielberg's fiercest critics acknowledge his enormous, era-defining contribution to the cinematic art.

"He is somebody who perhaps more than any other director epitomizes the western mind set in terms of hopes and fears and dreams," says Brooks.

"Of course these things can be schmaltzy. When they work, however, it's what cinema is all about -- a great communal experience that binds us into something greater than ourselves."

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The International Emmys will be presenting Spielberg with their International Emmy Founders Award on Monday.




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