Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Fabelmans.
Over his 50+ year career, Steven Spielberg has kept himself out of the picture — mostly. His latest, The Fabelmans, may be the closest thing he’s made to an autobiography, but elements of his true self have often creeped into his work. His movies are lousy with broken families, wrecked by divorce (E.T., Catch Me If You Can), the law (The Sugarland Express), cruel spouses (The Color Purple), war (Empire of the Sun), and obsession (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which our hero abandons his family to go to space).
But how much of The Fabelmans is true to life? For one thing, our young, aspiring filmmaker lead (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a boy, Gabriel LaBelle as a teen) is named Sammy Fabelman, not Steven Spielberg. Even if (almost) all the other names are changed, too, there’s a lot that’s true-ish to life. Let’s break down what’s real.
Accurate (more or less):
Spielberg’s mom really did fall in love with his father’s best friend. In the film, Michelle Williams’ Mitzi is secretly in love with Seth Rogen’s Bennie, the best friend of Paul Dano’s Burt. That’s more or less true: Spielberg’s mom divorced her husband Arnold in 1966, one year later marrying his best friend Bernie (that’s one letter off).
Spielberg learned about the affair by accidentally filming it. In the movie, while checking back on footage he filmed of a family-plus-Bennie camping trip, Sammy discovers he accidentally caught images of their tryst. Spielberg recently discussed this with The New York Times’ A.O. Scott. “That was one of the toughest things, I think, that I had to sit down and decide to expose,” he said, “because it was the most powerful secret my mom and I shared since my discovery when I was 16.”
Spielberg’s mom really was a concert pianist. Leah started playing piano at 5 and even studied at the Music Conservatory in Cincinnati. It’s not public whether or not she had to reluctantly clip her long nails before a performance, as Mitzi does in the film.
His mother really did bring home a monkey (though not at the same time as in the film). In The Fabelmans, after the family moves from Phoenix to northern California, a depressed Mitzi one day whimsically brings home a monkey. In real life, she obtained it in Phoenix after walking past a pet store and seeing it looking depressed.
Spielberg really did get bullied by fellow students over his Judaism. In real life, the young Spielberg was one of the few Jewish kids at his Saratoga high school. (In the film, it appears he’s the only one.) He was also bullied by two students over his faith, though it’s unclear if one of them got mad over Spielberg making him look like a golden god in a spring break film shown at prom.
Yes, the final sequence really happened. Spielberg has told the story of how he lucked into meeting John Ford before, and it’s almost the same as it is in the film. Here, the legendary filmmaker is played by another legendary filmmaker, David Lynch, who offers the budding auteur some very specific advice before bluntly kicking him out of his office.
Here’s one of the maybes:
Spielberg may or may not have dated a Christian girl who tried to convert him. Spielberg hasn’t discussed this one (yet), though The Los Angeles Times claims it’s based on a girl he dated in seventh grade. (In the film, they’re seniors.)
So there you have it. Spielberg kept some fact and sprinkled it with fiction. But he didn’t have to print the legend (borrowing a line from one of the films featured in it, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters (mostly) everywhere.