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Is Spielberg still on the blacklist?: 'Schindler's List' is being hailed the year's best picture, but a first Oscar for its director is as elusive as ever

WHEN the great, the good and the not-so-good of the film industry gathered for a Christmas bash at Chasen's, a favourite Hollywood venue, one topic of conversation prevailed: why is Steven Spielberg, the most commercially successful director in cinema history, being snubbed yet again?

Last week Spielberg's latest film, Schindler's List, an adaptation of Thomas Keneally's factually based novel about the Holocaust, opened in the United States to extraordinary critical acclaim - even by the standards of a director who has made four of the 10 highest- grossing movies, including the record-holding Jurassic Park.

Newsweek magazine awarded the film its much-coveted cover story slot, with the headline 'Movie of the Year'. USA Today described it as a masterpiece. The New Yorker magazine, a notoriously tough judge of Tinseltown's grubby wares, gushed with praise. And President Clinton implored Americans to go to see it.

Yet, for all the thunderous applause, Spielberg has so far received short shrift for his work. Three groups, whose annual film awards mark the start of the run-up to the Oscars - the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association, the National Board of Review and the New York Film Circle - last week named Schindler's List as the year's best picture (it opens in London in February). But all three named someone else in the best director category.

This has a grim familiarity for Spielberg, who has been scandalously overlooked before. His 30 films include blockbusters such as ET, Jaws, Back to the Future and the Indiana Jones movies. He has filled Hollywood's coffers with billions of dollars. But he has never won a director's Oscar.

The most stunning snub was administered eight years ago when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the trophies, chose Spielberg's The Color Purple for 11 nominations, but left him out of the best director's category.

'In 58 years of the Academy Awards, only 32 other films had won 11 nominations or more,' Anthony Holden wrote in his book, The Oscars, 'and 31 of their directors had been nominated.' (The academy did give Spielberg the Irving G Thalberg producer's award for 'the body of his work'- but that is not quite the same.)

No one knows exactly why Spielberg is so little liked in Hollywood, but it is no secret that his abrasive manner has something to do with it. He is known to be demanding, pushy and uncompromising, though it is hard to imagine what else to expect from the entertainment world's second richest person (estimated annual income: dollars 42m). A more persuasive explanation, says one industry insider, is old-fashioned jealousy. 'Steven is simply too good for most of the others.'

If this is true, the green- eyed monster must be running amok in Beverly Hills and Malibu, because Schindler's List is being widely acclaimed as Spielberg's best work and Hollywood's most culturally important film for years. It has touched on a raw nerve in the US - and not before time, it seems. Polls show that Americans, despite the presence of a highly influential Jewish community, appear to be forgetting the events of the Second World War at an alarming rate. In one survey last spring, almost one-quarter of respondents said it seemed 'possible' that the Nazi extermination of six million Jews never happened. And more than 50 per cent of American high school students, apparently lost in a coma induced by fast food and television, did not even know what the word 'holocaust' meant.

Advocates of Schindler's List hope it will reverse this trend with the force that only a classic film can exert. It is the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German Catholic businessman who moved to Cracow, after the Nazis occupied Poland. Schindler makes an unlikely hero. He was a womaniser, a wheeler-dealer, and a profiteer who traded heavily on the black market and sucked heavily on the cognac bottle.

He had a penchant for gambling and nightlife, and was happy to hobnob with the SS if it served his interests. But he also made it his business to save some 1,200 Jews from the gas chambers by insisting that they were indispensable workers in his factory. Today, there are some 6,000 descendants of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler's Jews) by whom he is regarded as a saviour, if not a saint. And he is probably the only former member of the Nazi party to be buried in Mount Zion cemetery, Jerusalem.

The story's journey from historical fact to the semi-permanency of celluloid is equally remarkable. Author Thomas Keneally reportedly heard about it only when he paid a visit to a luggage shop in Beverly Hills and was kept waiting while his credit card was cleared. The store's owner, Leopold Page (originally Pfefferberg), owes his life to Schindler, and makes it his business to describe his heroism to anyone willing to listen. Keneally did, and his bestseller, Schindler's Ark, came out in 1982.

Spielberg, who is Jewish and had relatives who died in Ukraine and Poland, often tells how an Auschwitz survivor taught him numbers by showing him those branded on his skin. He also bitterly recalls his first brush with anti-Semitism - at high school in California. Kids would beat him up, throw pennies in his path or cough the word 'Jew' as they walked by. 'To this day, I haven't gotten over it, nor have I forgiven any of them,' he says.

As he grows older - he is 46 - he is reassessing his roots. His second wife, Kate Capshaw, has converted from the Episcopalian Church to Judaism. And these days, visitors to his office say there are mezuzahs (small Jewish prayer scrolls) hanging from the doorways.

(Photograph omitted)