Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Steven Spielberg: Mom Always Liked Him Best

Steven Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, made the news a few weeks ago when she passed away at the ripe old age of 97. Not only was she the well-beloved mater familias of the most successful filmmaker in today’s Hollywood, but she had one additional claim to fame. Many Angelenos (myself included) remember her as the spritely presence behind The Milky Way, a dairy restaurant still popular among Orthodox Jews living in the Pico-Robertson section of Los Angeles.

As soon as you walk through the door at the Milky Way, you can’t miss the Steven Spielberg connection. The walls in the entry area are hung with posters from movies like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. An E.T. doll is prominently displayed, as are other Spielberg-related tchotchkes. The food is, by SoCal standards, fairly standard: you order from an eclectic (though strictly meatless) menu that features salads, pastas, blintzes, and enchiladas. Leah Adler once delighted in making the rounds, checking on diners’ satisfaction, dispensing Steven anecdotes, and occasionally busting out a few dance moves. The last time I was at the Milky Way, in November 2015, I was disheartened to see a fragile-looking Leah leaning on a walker and accompanied by an attendant. It was clear her days were numbered, but she had not lost her sunny smile.

Ironically, I read of Leah’s death while I was reading film critic Molly Haskell’s Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films. This book was published by Yale University Press as part of a series that pairs major writers with influential Jewish figures, past and present. Haskell, who is not Jewish, is known as a film reviewer as well as the author of “Frankly, My Dear”: Gone With the Wind, Revisited and the pioneering From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. In writing about the formative influences on Spielberg’s life, she points to his bond with Leah as essential to the molding of his character and the development of his talent.

The Leah Adler I see in my mind’s eye is short, compact, bright-eyed, with close-cropped blonde hair. She’s youthfully dressed, favoring neat pants suits, overalls, Peter Pan collars, and bright red lipstick. Haskell, who gives no sign that she’s met the woman I tend to refer to as “Mama Spielberg,” focuses in her biography on a much younger Leah, one who (in defiance of her religious upbringing) considered herself a bohemian at heart. Trained as a concert pianist, she had the instincts of a performer. She also had a special adoration for her eldest child and only son. In the various suburban communities where Steven and his three sisters were raised, she encouraged his pranks and his early movie-making experiments to the point where Spielberg himself spoke of the two of them as essentially “co-conspirators.” But she also shook up everyone when her love affair with a family friend led to divorce and remarriage.

Haskell finds in some of Spielberg’s early films possible portraits of Leah (see, for instance, the hippie chick in Amblin’). She also examines the Oedipal twist in the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future, in which mother and son meet as contemporaries. In any case, the close bond between Steven and Leah remained solid. I’m charmed by his answer when critics pondered possible Jesus parallels in his film, ET: “I’m a nice Jewish boy from Phoenix, Arizona. If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

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