It was a big, big night last night for Steven Spielberg. The Oscar-winning, 55-year-old phenom unveiled his second great movie of the year, Catch Me If You Can, for an invited audience at the Directors Guild Theatre in New York.
His first great film of 2002, if you don't remember, was Minority Report.
The DreamWorks release doesn't come out until Christmas Day, so I shan't review it in detail here so early. But there are several things that did come out of the DGA screening, not the least of which was the overwhelming and unexpected positive reaction of the audience to Christopher Walken's performance as the father of Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Frank Abagnale.
It's not much of a reach to say that everything about Catch Me will generate buzz for Oscars and other awards — and very deservedly so.
For the time being, it's enough to know that Spielberg dedicated the film to the memory of his great friend, director Bruce Paltrow. There are other surprises, including a progressive jazz score by John Williams and Pink Panther-like opening credits that recall the best of Saul Bass and deserve their own high praise.
The wildly enthusiastic audience — composed of usually jaded types — also caught an inside joke when they spotted some writing on a classroom blackboard. It read: "Steven and Tom's fourth project."
At the question-and-answer session following the screening, conducted by no less an eminence than Martin Scorsese, Spielberg announced that he and Tom Hanks were indeed putting together a new movie to shoot sometime in 2003. (This would be their fourth project, following Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and Catch Me.)
But what a night, considering that the Oscar contest is shaping up as a horse race between Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Spielberg's Catch Me. Despite the opposing studios and coasts, there will be no great Oscar scandal, unlike last year. The two directors have been friends for more than 25 years and share a deep mutual respect which was evident at the session.
Among the revelations in the Q&A: Spielberg and Scorsese each thought when they saw DiCaprio for the first time in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? that he wasn't an actor because he was so true to the part.
"I thought they'd found an extraordinary special-needs child," Spielberg said.
Both directors praised DiCaprio to the sky — they each have him in their films — although they also managed to give fascinating insight into how the kid works when he's not in the tabloids.
"You might only want 40 percent from him and he's giving 100 percent all the time," Spielberg said. "You have to work to modulate him."
DiCaprio, Spielberg observed, became very close to the movie's real-life counterpart/hero, Frank Abagnale, resulting in at least one scene being added to the film that wasn't in the script.
When asked why he hasn't made a Western, Spielberg joked: "I'm allergic to horses. My wife has them, but I stay away from them."
He said he has thought of trying to re-make The Gunfighter, a classic Western that starred Gregory Peck.
Spielberg told the audience of about 400 that this was the first time, with possibly the exception of E.T., that he had used memories of his parents' divorce while shaping a film story.
He also recalled meeting legendary director John Ford when he was 15 years old and Ford telling him how he knew when he was making a good picture by comparing films to paintings. Ford then threw him out of the office.
Spielberg and Scorsese also had high praise for TV writers, especially those on HBO shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Six Feet Under. They compared Larry David's HBO sitcom to the work of Preston Sturges and called it "a perfect screwball comedy."
There will be plenty more opportunities to yak about these two incredible directors, but we'll give it a rest for now. By next month, you won't be able to get away from them! But for now — an extraordinary evening.
Of 20/20 and Catch Me
ABC's 20/20 devoted most of Friday night's show to Catch Me If You Can, including quite the sit-down. Barbara Walters interrogated Spielberg, DiCaprio and Hanks while also spending time with Spielberg in the editing room eloquently — which we saw on camera.
So I was surprised to discover that Walters never saw the completed film or much of it. If she had, she might have been even more interested in it.
The beginning of the movie portrays Frank Abagnale Sr. (eloquently played by Christopher Walken) as a charming con man and ne'er do well who moves his family from posh homes to small apartments when times are bad.
Lou Walters, Barbara's charismatic father, has also been portrayed that way by her biographers and by Barbara herself.
Walters owned the Latin Club nightclub in Times Square, but often moved the family from Park Avenue splendor to Long Beach, Long Island flats when he lost his shirt.
Catch Me opens with a long sequence that could be right out of Lou Walters' own movie. A shame Barbara didn't get to see it.