Getting personal isn’t new for Spielberg. He’s been putting personal touches into all of his films for 50 years now. “Most of my movies have been a reflection of things that happened to me in my formative years,” he said. “Everything that a filmmaker puts him or herself into, even if it’s somebody else’s script, your life is going to come spilling out onto celluloid, whether you like it or not. It just happens.”
The divorce of Spielberg’s parents can be thought of as a seismic event, not just for Spielberg’s personal life, but for nearly his entire filmography. Family, both idealized and prosaic, colors the films Spielberg makes, and his work is littered with absentee fathers and father figures. This arose from a misconception: for years, Spielberg blamed his father, Arnold, solely for his parent’s divorce. Like Spielberg, his father was a workaholic, and frequently away from home as a result. In the “Spielberg” documentary, the filmmaker calls his father a “computer genius” who invented the first commercial data processing machine, and adds: “His career demanded a lot of time away from the family.” His father was a man of science; matter-of-fact, and analytical. Spielberg’s mother, Leah, was the complete opposite.
“My mom was Peter Pan. She was a sibling, not a parent,” Spielberg says in the documentary. He says that lovingly but if you stop and think about it, it’s not exactly a positive description. Sure, it’s great to have a “fun mom,” but sometimes you need an actual parent. As he adds, “She was a best friend, not a primary caregiver.”
It’s easy to see why Spielberg blamed his father and took to the side of his mother in the divorce: Arnold was quite literally distant while Leah was more like a buddy than a mom. But Spielberg’s idea of the divorce was skewed.