Spielberg, Lucas Celebrate Rockwell's Iconic America What do Norman Rockwell, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas all have in common? Art, storytelling and a new exhibit that combines the filmmakers' Norman Rockwell collections for an exploration of the painter's cinematic Americana.
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Spielberg, Lucas Celebrate Rockwell's Iconic America

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Spielberg, Lucas Celebrate Rockwell's Iconic America

Spielberg, Lucas Celebrate Rockwell's Iconic America

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T: NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has our story.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Did you ever compete for a picture?

: We usually talk beforehand and we decide who gets it.

: It's whoever wants it the most.

: We've spent our whole life like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: You know, we haven't competed on anything.

: No, Uh-uh.

STAMBERG: Great friends these men who gave us "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Indiana Jones," "Close Encounters," "Schindler's List," "E.T.," I'm running out of time; friends who've worked, together or apart, since the 1960s.

: We came, sort of, from the film school generation.

STAMBERG: This is George Lucas.

: And so we were all sort of partners in trying to break into the movie business, we all helped each other.

STAMBERG: The friendship carries over into what they collect. Lucas started buying Norman Rockwell illustrations as soon as he could afford them. Spielberg caught the Rockwell bug, too. Both men grew up with "Saturday Evening Post" covers, which Norman Rockwell painted in oil. Deeply American iconic images: a family Thanksgiving, a kid at the dentist or doing homework with his dad, or raking leaves with his grandfather, or watching a pretty mother primp at the dressing table

: He wasn't cynical. He wasn't mean-spirited.

: But he captured the American ideal of what we wanted to believe we were, and we weren't any better then than we are now. But by having the ideal out there - what we aspired to - it made it so that we could try to be more than what we were.

STAMBERG: George Lucas bought the "Shadow Artist," a 1920 magazine illustration, because it hit so close to home.

: Sort of the beginning of movies. It's the using light and shadow to tell a story, which is what we do for a living.

STAMBERG: Rockwell paints a white-bearded gentleman standing in profile against a wall that's bathed in light from an oil lamp. His raised arms cast shadows.

D: And he's making a little animal with his fingers.

STAMBERG: A shadow dog with open mouth and perky ears. And, says Betsy Broun, Director of the America Art Museum, the shadow artist has an audience.

D: There are three small children, absolutely rapt, in the foreground. We only see the backs of their heads. The girl has a bright red bow; the middle boy has red suspenders; the boy on the right has hair going in different directions and great big ears.

STAMBERG: And all of them are mesmerized by the magic the old man is making with his shadow.

D: That magic is at the heart of every movie.

STAMBERG: Now, this to me, although it belongs to Steven Spielberg, looks like a scene out of "American Graffiti."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN GRAFFITI")

: (as Curt) I just saw a vision. I saw a goddess. Come on, you got to catch up to her.

: It certainly could be. I mean that certainly could be Richard Dreyfuss looking at Suzanne Somers down there, although she didn't have a convertible.

STAMBERG: Rockwell's painting, a 1941 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover, is called "The Flirts." A pretty blond, her convertible down, waits at a stoplight. Next to her, hanging out of the window of an immense turquoise truck, the beefy driver holds a daisy.

D: He's picking the petals off it. And, you know, loves me, loves me not.

STAMBERG: Virginia Mecklenburg is curator of this Rockwell show.

D: He looks at her with a nice smile on his face.

STAMBERG: Very sweet, he's not leery. It's not lascivious.

D: He's not leery. He's just being a guy.

STAMBERG: Again, Betsy Broun.

D: There is a detail, and a care, and an attention to the way he puts the picture together.

STAMBERG: Rockwell's pictures, like those of his collectors, Lucas and Spielberg, were carefully cast.

D: He would cast the picture by interviewing friends and neighbors until he found someone who looked just right.

STAMBERG: No wonder movie Lucas and Spielberg would see, in him, a kindred spirit, although Rockwell gets his knocks - too saccharine, sentimental, soppy.

: In the art world it's called corny and naive.

STAMBERG: George Lucas.

: But, you know, you take the corny and naive out of the American spirit, out of these images, and you end up with a lot of what is going on today - which is the same ideas, only without any of the heart, without any human compassion.

STAMBERG: In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

: And you can see a gallery of paintings by Norman Rockwell on our Web site at NPR.org.

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