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THE 66th ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATIONS : A Director’s Dilemma : How Can Spielberg Follow Spielberg? : The commercial triumph of ‘Jurassic’ and artistic coup of ‘Schindler’s’ have left everyone wondering what’s next.

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

So, what does someone who has made, back to back, the biggest grossing motion picture of all time and the most critically acclaimed movie of the year do for an encore? Answer: He has no idea.

Steven Spielberg is poised to win his first best director Oscar this year and his epic Holocaust drama, “Schindler’s List,” looks like the shoo-in of all shoo-ins to capture the best picture award. Meanwhile, his trademark escapist fantasy-adventure tale “Jurassic Park” has merely made world box-office history.

Yet, the 46-year-old filmmaker faces a huge dilemma. If his next film is perceived “pseudo-serious,” Spielberg risks being raked over the critics’ coals, with his work on “Schindler’s” seen as a fluke. After all, it has taken the director some 25 years to win validation for a serious adult movie and not just as history’s most successful filmmaker at the box office. Spielberg’s three dramas, “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Always,” brought him mixed reviews for being overly sentimental.

Perhaps this is why Hollywood insiders say Spielberg is having second thoughts about directing the planned screen version of Robert James Waller’s melodramatic best-seller “The Bridges of Madison County” for Warner Bros.

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The director’s spokesman, Marvin Levy, and Warner executives continue to maintain that Spielberg will not make a definitive decision about directing “Bridges” until the final script is delivered (Richard LaGravenese, an Oscar nominee for “The Fisher King,” is about to undergo a third rewrite). Yet he has expressed his reluctance to some in the industry.

“A little birdie told me he’s not going to do it,” says one highly placed studio executive, referring to a recent conversation he had with Spielberg.

Newsweek movie critic David Ansen also recalled a recent tete-a-tete he had with Spielberg at the New York Film Critics luncheon in which the filmmaker expressly said he had “changed his mind” about directing “Bridges.”

Spielberg was even quoted in a Dallas newspaper saying, “This just wouldn’t be the right time to do it,” despite previous reports that he would be directing Clint Eastwood in the movie. (No cast is set and even if he doesn’t direct, Spielberg will still produce with Kathleen Kennedy through his production company Amblin Entertainment, which bought the Waller book while it was in galley form.)

While Ansen says he thinks it would be a mistake for Spielberg to direct “Bridges” (“it’s major kitsch”), he says the director has a dilemma that is both professional and spiritual.

“The experience of making ‘Schindler’s’ actually changed him and the way he thinks about movies and what he should be doing,” Ansen says. “He told me whatever he does it has to be something that moves him deeply.”

That, Ansen adds, would not necessarily have to be something of the gravity of a “Schindler’s,” and could be “an entertainment movie, but it really has to be something that speaks to him strongly.”

No question about it, critics agree, Spielberg has a tough act to follow.

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So what about returning to the kind of movies on which he built his fame and fortune--mass-appeal stock on the order of “Jurassic Park” and “E.T.--The Extraterrestrial”? Naturally, there is much talk at Universal about a sequel to “Jurassic,” which has grossed nearly $900 million worldwide, and about a fourth installment to his commercially successful “Indiana Jones” series starring Harrison Ford.

“My theory is he can get away without losing his prestige by doing a ‘Jurassic Park’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ sequel or a new mass-entertainment movie because he does it really well,” says a Universal insider. “What he can’t do is be seen as a striver. He can’t say, ‘Now I’ll do Bosnia.’ And he can’t do ‘Bridges’ because it’s false--so he’s got a tough problem.”

But Ansen doubts whether Spielberg will immediately jump into a sequel of “Jurassic” (which author Michael Crichton hasn’t even begun to write), and believes he is “strong enough to withstand any pressure from Universal.”

Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times movie critic, concurs that “there is no reason” for Spielberg to make a sequel right now, unless he simply wants to “make money,” which seems doubtful.

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“It’s a question of what does he want out of his career and what’s the best use of his talents from a critical and an audience point of view,” Turan says. “And ‘Jurassic II’ would not be the best use of his abilities at this point in his career.” Nor for that matter, insists Turan, would “Bridges,” which “would be like falling off a log” for Spielberg because “it’s not going to be a stretch.”

Turan says, “I’d like to see a guy this talented stretch himself more, do things that are challenging. . . . He has to decide how many chances he wants to take with his career. ‘Schindler’s List’ was a risk and it paid off, and I think he’s happy he did it. The more risks he is willing to take, the better films we’re going to see.”

He takes nothing away from Spielberg as a mainstream filmmaker (“thank God he is”), but Turan says, “I think he ought to try and look for films that combine the strengths of both ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Schindler’s List.’ ” Turan says he’s among other critics “who want Steven to make the most interesting mainstream films he can make with depth, integrity and more concern for character--all the things that make ‘Schindler’s’ such a good film.”

Time magazine movie critic Richard Schickel, noting that if he were in Spielberg’s shoes he would simply take a year off and not worry about what to do next, says it’s unfair to expect the director to “now go and make all grown-up, serious movies” just because “Schindler’s” is such a success.

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“I resent the demands of the public on artists, that we expect someone now to do something they may not expect of themselves,” he asserts. “If you have inordinate success, everyone from your agent to your wife to your best friend then expects you to reach a new plateau. The trick is to follow your heart and inclinations and let the chips fall where they may.”

Absent of a “towering subject” like the Holocaust, adds Schickel, “the logical thing for Steven to do is a smaller, more intense drama with a small cast.”

In any case, Schickel allows, “We should let him alone and let him enjoy his commercial and artistic success and let him think it over and follow what his inclination is. He has a golden problem. He doesn’t have to think where his next nickel is coming from.”

Spielberg’s handlers say the director won’t even begin to focus on what to do next until after the Oscars on March 21, a night he will likely long remember.

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