I saw ET, The Extraterrestrial last week as part of the TCM Film Festival. It was the first time I had seen it since it was first released in the summer of 1982. That said, during that summer, I saw it every Goddamn day. I worked at a movie theater all through high school. ET showed up early in June and didn’t budge until after I had left for college in the fall. By the time it did leave, America was fully in the thrall of ET mania and its director, Steven Spielberg, had joined Alfred Hitchcock in the small club of movie directors who were as famous and identifiable as their stars.
Seeing the film again after so long, l was reminded of Spielberg’s innate ability not only to speak directly to a popular audience, but to put them up onto the screen. Watching Elliott and his family at the beginning of ET was like looking into a mirror. The family on screen looked, spoke, acted and felt like my family. They drank Coke out of the can at the dinner table, left pizza boxes lying around, threw their bikes in the yard and argued incessantly. Only one thing was missing. Dad. In ET, dad has flown the coop. “He’s in Mexico with Sally,” says Drew Barrymore’s Gertie, in an innocent observation that sends mom tearfully away from the table. Even in a Steven Spielberg's idealized American family, things are pretty crappy.
As I said, it was like looking into a mirror.
Mr. Spielberg spoke at the screening I attended and, in a Q&A with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, commented that ET was a combination of two ideas. One was inspired by the ending of his previous alien opus, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. when Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary ascends the steps of the alien mothership (we’ll get to that). Spielberg wondered what would happen if the aliens had left one of their own behind. Sort of asma cultural exchange program. To that story, Spielberg added the sad tale of his own parent’s divorce and viola! ET, the Extraterrestrial.
Filmmakers (and painters, sculptors, authors, songwriters, comedians, jugglers and puppeteers) project their internal trauma onto their work. What I find so interesting about Spielberg’s case is that he is (was) so often criticized for superficiality, yet one of his signature works depicts the American family as a busted unit in desperate need of interstellar intervention.
For an even more glaring depiction of this dichotomy, take a look at Walt Disney. According to his biography, “How To Be Like Walt: Capturing The Disney Magic Every Day Of Your Life,” in the early days of his career, around 1937, Walt had yet to become, you know, “Walt Disney,” but he was still doing well enough to buy his parents a house. The elder Disneys were living in Portland and running a boarding house. Worried about their advancing age, Walt and his brother, Roy bought them a home in California. Regrettably, there was a problem with the furnace in the home. Disney dispatched studio technicians to fix it, but the problem was not tended to properly and the resultant gas leak claimed the life of Walt’s mother. He rarely, if ever, spoke of the tragedy, but as he proceeded building his legend, the list of Disney films where the mother dies in the first act is as long as your arm (Snow White, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, etc. etc.)
Spielberg was in high school when his parents separated, and, at least as far as his filmography implies, Spielberg’s father took the brunt of the blame (time, as always, would reveal the truth to be more complicated). This brings us to ET’s predecessor, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Close Encounters contains several nods to Disney, not only in its story (When You Wish Upon A Star is musically invoked towards the finale), but in the way the father in the film just up and splits. To me, it was always the least believable aspect of the movie, far less believable than the arrival of aliens. Richard Dreyfuss’ character – who is portrayed throughout the film as an excitable if decent fellow – at the end of the film, turn his back on his wife and kids and, with a shrug, zips off into outer space. “Later guys! Maybe mom can get a job.”
Again, it’s not that these families are so ripped up, it’s that they are so ripped up and at the same time so relatable. Which brings me to another colossus of our popular culture, also named Steve. In addition to being as prolific and successful in his chosen field as Spielberg is in his, he shares Mr. Spielberg’s uncanny ability to speak directly to “regular folks,” to see American families as they really are: Stephen King.
Like Spielberg’s characters, King’s drink Coke out of a can, eat at McDonald’s and worry about gas prices, all while struggling to battle supernatural or extraterrestrial forces. And like Spielberg, Mr. King’s childhood was also marked by an absentee father. According to writer Vicki Doudera, writing about King for the website Main Crime Writers, “When Stephen King was just two years old, his father went out for cigarettes and never returned.”
Got it. Is it any wonder that, like Spielberg’s Elliott, King’s Danny Torrance also struggled with, um, paternal issues?