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Spielberg Receives Usual ‘Actors Studio’ Reverence

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perhaps “sycophancy” is the wrong word for it. Yet what’s amazing about James Lipton, the host of Bravo’s interview series “Inside the Actors Studio,” is that he puckers up for celebrities while maintaining a magisterial, professorial tone calculated to chill the blood of undergraduates. He’s like “SCTV’s” Sammy Maudlin, a hammy Vegas talk-show host, crossed with John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.”

“My students hate me,” Lipton wryly observes, when a pun draws groans during his hem-kissing two-hour session with Steven Spielberg, due Sunday. But his famous guests visibly love Lipton, and not only because he allows them to review the tapes and expunge anything uncomfortable. For the Hollywood and theater folk he ropes in, the suggestion in Lipton’s manner that there is an iron hand inside the chamois glove seems to be disarming.

Some of Lipton’s questions do pinpoint interesting connections. Knowing that Spielberg’s mom and dad were a concert pianist and a computer engineer, respectively, adds something to our appreciation of the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” finale when, as Lipton says, “humans and aliens speak to each other by playing music through their computers.” A child of divorce who has often depicted crumbling families, Spielberg in effect brought his parents back together, as collaborators at an imagined turning point of human history. This is intimate wish-fulfillment enacted on an operatic/cosmic scale, a Spielberg trademark.

Spielberg’s demeanor is nothing like the pontifical Lipton’s. If anything, he’s too modest. The themes he’s willing to acknowledge (overcoming childhood fears, maintaining joy and curiosity in life, finding the courage to do the difficult thing) are nothing to sneeze at. The irony is that these themes may have been embodied more soulfully in his early fantasy pictures than in his recent solemn historical epics. These prizewinners often seem to be shaped less by native impulses than by a sense of what society--or at least the portion that belongs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences--thinks a grown-up ought to be interested in.

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Spielberg would almost certainly disagree. He insists here that the most important trait for an artist is the courage to display himself honestly. Presumably he thinks he’s done this even in “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan.” But that presumption is pretty much all we get. In this case, Lipton’s deferential style may actually do his subject a disservice. Probably Spielberg could have made a stronger case for his recent films as heartfelt personal statements if he had been pressed a little harder.

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* “Inside the Actors Studio: Steven Spielberg” airs Sunday on Bravo, 5 and 9 p.m.


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