Steven Spielberg – American Film Institute

Steven Spielberg

23rd AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

Steven Spielberg

The youngest recipient of this award, Spielberg is one of the finest talents of his generation and the most commercially successful filmmaker in the history of the cinema.

Some may believe that such overwhelming popularity must indicate a lack of serious artistic intent. But Spielberg has proved repeatedly that intelligent, heartfelt cinema can hold a mass public spellbound. Success on the scale of Spielberg’s is only possible when an emotional and visceral chord is struck deep in audiences’ hearts and minds. His films’ images and ideas of hope, beauty, excitement and nobility speak to the best that is in us.

Steven Spielberg is a child of the cinema who loved movies — and made them — from an impossibly tender age. It has become part of Hollywood lore how he bluffed his way onto a studio lot and set up shop in an empty office, writing screenplays, trying to gain a toehold in the movie business. His scheme worked. In almost no time, he was signed to a seven-year contract with Universal — at the age of 21. How typically Spielbergian: he imagined something and figured out — against the odds — how to make it happen.

Spielberg made his mark in television first, but his work was always distinguished by its cinematic style. DUEL (1971), that nail-biting exercise in pure kinetic cinema, was an eye-opener, signaling to everyone who was paying attention that a striking new talent was on the scene.

After a first-rate theatrical debut with THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), Spielberg forever changed the face of the American cinema with a savage fish tale called JAWS (1975).

From that point on, he went from strength to strength: reimagining space aliens as wondrous figures of hope in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982); reinventing the movie serial as a spectacular carnival ride of adventure and thrills in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981); and crafting three very different views of World War II: 1941 (1979), EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Ironically, Spielberg is often classified as a filmmaker of sentimental fantasy, but his range of subject matter and his variety of cinematic style are impressive. Indeed, you can scan the history of Hollywood without finding a parallel to his remarkable achievement of 1993 when, within the space of a few months, Spielberg released JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST: one, a brilliant and exhilarating masterpiece of special effects, the other, a bitter, moving and heartfelt exploration of this century’s greatest tragedy. Few filmmakers, past or present, have been capable of such diverse statements, so perfectly realized, within so brief a span of time.

Steven Spielberg’s Life Achievement Award comes to him at a time when, conceivably, his best days are still to come. Consider some of the other directors who have received this honor: John Ford, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, David Lean. When they were Spielberg’s age they had THE SEARCHERS, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, VERTIGO, SOME LIKE IT HOT and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA ahead of them.

With the magical and memorable body of work he has already produced, just try and imagine what treasures Steven Spielberg still has in store.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.