Who are Steven Spielberg’s greatest artistic muses?

Mark Rylance is the latest in a list of key collaborators who bring out the best in The Beard.

Words

James Luxford

The BFG stomps into cinemas the week, marking the second collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and its star, Mark Rylance. Following their Oscar glory in Bridge of Spies, and with the director casting Rylance in two upcoming projects, Ready Player One and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, it’s safe to say the filmmaker sees something special in the veteran stage star, the latest in a number of actors who embody certain periods in Spielberg’s career.

To find the first such muse we go right back to the early days, when he was the exciting new kid on the Hollywood block. His third and fourth features, Jaws and Close Encounters of The Third Kind, would leave an indelible mark on cinema and establish a creative tone that has made Spielberg a cherished figure to this day. Both films featured Richard Dreyfus in a prominent role – the sarcastic shark expert Hooper in the former, and Indiana family man Roy Neary in the latter. Neither were heroic, square-jawed matinee idols fearlessly taking on the unknown; they were flawed, ordinary men shoved into extraordinary circumstances.

It’s a quality that would follow through to his most popular creation, Indiana Jones. Gruff, reluctant and abrasive, Dr Jones’ adventures may have been homage to the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth, but Harrison Ford’s character was very much a product of the director’s own style. The fear of snakes and tendency to attract trouble separated him from the One Man Armies and machismo of the ’80s, instead infusing more character depth into the brashest of cinematic eras.

No matter the star, many of Spielberg’s blockbusters leads would carry some baggage – Tom Cruise was a grieving drug addict in Minority Report, while the male lead of Jurassic Park was an awkward, middle aged palaeontologist who hates kids. As the director transitioned from hit maker to historian, however, a different type of muse was needed. This led to one of his most frequent collaborations, with Tom Hanks. It was the two-time Oscar winner’s ability to bring an everyman humanity to parts that made his performance in Saving Private Ryan so compelling, balancing the stoicism and strength of military leadership with the inner damage the horrors of war can bring.

Rare misfire The Terminal aside, it was a quality Spielberg evoked from the actor in future associations. His dogged fraud detective in Catch Me If You Can balances the honest sensibilities of a law enforcer doing his job, but never so likeable that it distracts from the vicarious enjoyment of Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead. Equally, he brought a humble and personable presence to Bridge of Spies, a plain speaker in a world of double-talk.

Being part of a Steven Spielberg film has usually launched or consolidated an actor’s career, but not everyone fulfilled that promise. Having cast him while serving as producer on the film Eagle Eye and three Transformers movies, it was clear Shia LaBeouf was a star the director saw great things in, leading to his casting in Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull. The ending of the controversial film suggested his character, Mutt Williams, could have picked up the fedora (both figuratively and literally) in his own adventures, but his performance was not appreciated by fans. The would-be protégé (who signed on to the film without reading a script) then turned on Spielberg, remarking at the Cannes Film Festival that he ‘dropped the ball’ on the film, and that he baulked at the film maker’s advice to conduct himself in public like Tom Cruise.

Nevertheless, a forthcoming Indiana Jones sequel (minus LaBeouf) suggests neither film nor star were detrimentally damaging. In Rylance, though, he has found another everyman, someone without the conventional good looks but with a depth that means they are endlessly watchable. Given that he called Spielberg “one of the greatest storytellers of all time” in his Oscar acceptance speech. It appears to be a union that suits Rylance just fine as well.

Published 22 Jul 2016

Tags: Mark Rylance Steven Spielberg The BFG Tom Cruise Tom Hanks

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