Steven Spielberg’s new semi-autobiographical film, “The Fabelmans,” hits many standard biopic beats: A Jewish boy, Sammy Fabelman, falls in love with movies after being spellbound by a train crash in the Cecil B. DeMille 1952 circus drama “The Greatest Show on Earth.” After moving with his family to California, he becomes the target of antisemitic bullies in high school. He’s unable to escape the shadow of his brilliant but distant father, wondering if he’ll ever make something of himself.
But other events — like when his mother adopts a pet monkey — are a little more out there.
Here’s a guide to what’s real and what’s exaggerated.
Did Spielberg’s mother fall in love with his father’s best friend?
Yes. In the film, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) falls in love with her husband’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen). Her real-life counterpart, Leah Adler, left her husband, Arnold Spielberg, for one of his best friends, a man named Bernie Adler. The Spielbergs divorced in 1966.
For years, the director believed that it was his father who’d left his mother. “I figured I could be hurt less than she,” Arnold Spielberg said in the 2017 HBO documentary “Spielberg,” explaining why he and Leah decided he would take the blame. “I still loved her.” Leah and Bernie Adler married in 1967.
Did Spielberg find out about the relationship from watching footage he shot on a camping trip?
Yes. Spielberg told The New York Times’s co-chief film critic A.O. Scott in a recent interview that the dramatic moment of revelation depicted onscreen really happened. “That was one of the toughest things, I think, that I had to sit down and decide to expose, because it was the most powerful secret my mom and I shared since my discovery when I was 16,” he told Scott.
Did his mother bring home a monkey?
As hard as this one may be to believe, yes. Before she died at age 97 in 2017, Leah Adler said in the HBO documentary that she had been visiting a pet store in Phoenix when she saw a monkey that was depressed after being separated from its mother. She brought it home in a cage in the back of her Jeep and — just like Mitzi in the film — adopted it as a household pet for her four children.
It “was a grand distraction, but it was also a therapeutic companion for my mom, who was really at that time in our lives going through a major depression,” Spielberg told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month.
Was Spielberg’s mother a concert pianist?
Yes. She learned to play the piano at age 5 and later studied at the Music Conservatory in Cincinnati. Like Mitzi, she put her career on hold to raise a family.
Was Spielberg the only Jewish student at school?
While he might not have been the only one, he was definitely one of very few. “I felt like I was the only Jew in high school,” he said in an interview with the publisher Behrman House. “I just simply wanted to deny being Jewish. I was ashamed because I was living on a street where at Christmas, we were the only house with nothing but a porch light on. I so much wanted to be assimilated.”
As in “The Fabelmans,” he was bullied by two male classmates after moving to California for his senior year. “I got smacked and kicked around. Two bloody noses. It was horrible,” he told The New York Times in 1993.
Did he date a Christian girl in high school who tried to convert him?
It’s unclear. Sammy’s girlfriend in the film, Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), tries to convert him in a variety of ways, even once instructing Sammy to try to “inhale” Christ before a passionate make-out session. The Los Angeles Times has said she was based on a girl Spielberg dated in the seventh grade, but the director himself has not mentioned it.
Did a teenage Spielberg meet the director John Ford in his office? Did Ford have red lipstick traces all over his face?
Most definitely. Spielberg said at the Toronto International Film Festival that the meeting with Ford when he was 15 occurred just as it appears in the film, “word for word, nothing more, nothing less” — including the kiss marks covering Ford’s face and Ford’s lecture about the placement of the horizon in several pictures on his wall.
Did he nearly abandon filmmaking at the beginning of his career?
Yes, but not because of what happened with his parents: the 16-year-old Spielberg had a crisis of confidence after seeing David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“When the film was over, I wanted to not be a director anymore,” he said in the HBO documentary, “because the bar was too high.
“I had such a profound reaction to the filmmaking, and I went back and saw the film a week later,” he added. “I saw the film a week after that, and I saw the film a week after that, and I realized that there was no going back. This was going to be what I was going to do or I was going to die trying.”