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Calendar's Big Oscars Issue : Spielberg and the Gang : The 'Schindler' director, along with De Palma, Coppola, Lucas and Scorsese, has defined film success--both critically and commercially--over the last 20 years (even though the great friends have only one best director Oscar among them--so far). What is it about these guys anyway?

March 20, 1994|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar. and

The odds are strong that Steven Spielberg will win the Academy Award Monday night, but the Oscar he is likely to get at last, for directing "Schindler's List," might seem to some to be merely the old guard's belated concession that he is the most important commercial movie maker in the world.

The academy, after all, is just that--an academy, a repository of received wisdom and guiding tradition. Spielberg and his generation of directors, though the first to be trained in film schools, have not always gone about their careers in academy-like ways as they pursued younger audiences, indulged idiosyncrasy, celebrated technology and sex and, in growing numbers, fled Hollywood altogether.

Spielberg, at 47, is now old enough to embody the academy, or at least the new academy. Furthermore, he's as much a mogul as a director, the emperor of Amblin and all he surveys. But before he takes that expected walk up the red-carpeted aisle to be industrially sanctified Monday night, it's worth noting that for 20 years he has been a member of a smaller, more elite fraternity of directors brought together by time, talent and friendship--an extended family that is rarely seen together in public yet communicates through its own back channels and private screenings, a group that has left an indelible mark on Hollywood, yet has only one director's Oscar to show for it.

The family does not have a fixed number, but at its center are five men: Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma.

In the popular imagination, their names conjure up disparate images and mythologies, but if you talk to them and their associates, you discover that the way they view one another is not at all the way critics and moviegoers see them.

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They each have different styles, interests and sensibilities, but in a business where success can depend on your best friend's failure, they seem to have shared a common regard for the talents of the other members. What is more, they share history.

All of them arrived in Hollywood in the late '60s or early '70s, during the period when the great studios were losing their grip on the business and a new youth culture was clamoring at the gates. Mike Medavoy, the former TriStar and Orion chairman who was then an agent, claims to have introduced many of them to one another after recruiting them for representation.

Lucas and Spielberg together would conceive and create the character of Indiana Jones in 1977, the year they made "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," respectively; last year, when Spielberg had to leave for Poland to film "Schindler's List," he asked Lucas to supervise the final editing of "Jurassic Park." Coppola produced Lucas' "THX 1138" and "American Graffiti," then directed the Vietnam movie that Lucas had initially developed with writer John Milius, "Apocalypse Now." Lucas' ex-wife, Marcia, a film editor, edited Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," whose script was written by Paul Schrader, who also had written an early draft of "Close Encounters" and had been introduced to Scorsese by De Palma.

De Palma also introduced Scorsese to Robert De Niro, who would become the star of "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy" and "Cape Fear," not to mention Coppola's "Godfather II." (De Niro, then unknown, acted in De Palma's first feature, "The Wedding Party," released in 1968.) Coppola recommended Scorsese to actress Ellen Burstyn when she was looking for a director for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" in 1974.

In the fall of 1990 when De Palma was struggling with the final edit of his ill-fated "Bonfire of the Vanities," whom did he call in for an opinion but Spielberg. Spielberg introduced De Palma to De Palma's first wife, actress Nancy Allen, who later appeared in the Spielberg-produced "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." De Palma is the godfather to Spielberg's son, Max, from his marriage to actress Amy Irving, who appeared with Allen in De Palma's "Carrie" and starred in his thriller "The Fury." And so it goes.

Scorsese and De Palma eventually returned to New York and Coppola and Lucas retreated to San Francisco, but the professional and personal ties have stretched across the years.

"All of us in that group have had very positive, reinforcing relationships that have gone on forever and ever," says Lucas, speaking from his headquarters in San Rafael, where he is at work producing the mystery comedy "Radioland Murders."

"Everyone has been supportive of one another and always been there if someone's in trouble, if there've been any problems. Francis and I have had our disagreements over the years, but there's never been anything where we stopped talking to each other. I've disagreed with everybody and everybody has disagreed with me and that goes from Steven and Brian and Marty and everybody else. But I don't believe any of the relationships have ever been strained.

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