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The third time I saw E.T. in the theater, I ended up sitting next to a huge biker dude. When the lights came up at the end, his eyes were puffed from crying and tears were streaming down his burly cheeks.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial opened 30 years ago, June 11, 1982. It quickly became my favorite movie of all-time for many years until Jaws (1975) eventually reclaimed the #1 spot on the phantom list that’s in my head. For those keeping score, my top four are all Spielberg: Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
While filming Raiders in Tunisia, Spielberg pitched his boy-and-an-alien story to screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who was on set visiting her then-boyfriend (and future husband) Harrison Ford. Mathison, known for adapting The Black Stallion (1979), reportedly wrote the first draft of E.T. in eight weeks that — with a few revisions — was pretty much ready to be filmed.
Spielberg filmed his story under the title A Boy’s Life to maintain the secrecy of the plot. It was largely shot in chronological order to help his young actors deal with emotional continuity — by the time the kids had to say goodbye to E.T. the tears would come easier. In addition, to add to the illusion of E.T. appearing as an actual living being on set, Spielberg made an effort to hide the creature’s puppeteers as much as possible.
The film opens with a sequence showing a bunch of E.T.s near their spaceship collecting earth plants presumably to take back and study. Our E.T. wanders off a little farther where he comes across a group of earth men with keys dangling from their belts and is forced to hide. Knowing that the spaceship is about to depart, E.T. decides to make a run for it.
The amazing thing is that back in 1982, I actually found myself rooting for the little guy to escape, even though in my heart I knew that it wasn’t going to happen. After all, if he did manage to make it to his spaceship in time, we’d have no movie. Yet still, when the ship does leave without him, having waited as long as it could, it’s a devastating moment.
Fortunately our little guy winds up in the care of a young boy named Elliott and an unforgettable friendship takes root. Spielberg found his Elliott in 10-year-old Henry Thomas, who gave such an emotional audition that Spielberg offered him the job right then and there.
For the first two-thirds of the film, with the exception of Elliott’s mom (Dee Wallace), every single adult in the movie is shown from a kid’s eye-level from the waist down, kind of like a Tex Avery or Chuck Jones cartoon. Even E.T.’s main adversary, a man known only as “Keys,” is shown for most of the movie only by the ring of keys on his belt. Keys is the first adult face (other than the mom’s) to be revealed for the last third of the film and when it happens it’s quite a grand, dramatic entrance for actor Peter Coyote.
The final farewell is pure Spielberg cinema — over-the-top, emotional, complete with a rainbow and a priceless reaction by Dee Wallace. The sequence features one of the finest pieces of film music ever composed. On the original album’s liner notes, Spielberg describes the score’s climax as “downright operatic.” John Williams took home the Oscar for his score. If E.T. itself would lose to Gandhi for Best Picture, at least the Academy got the music category right.
While recording the epic music cue for the film’s finale, Williams was having a difficult time because there were so many sync points to hit. After several attempts, Spielberg suggested that Williams record the cue “wild” (without picture), get the best musical performance possible, then Spielberg would re-edit the picture to match the music. The end result became one of the finest marriages of music and film ever done. It’s really no wonder these two have enjoyed such a lasting collaboration (which began in 1974 with Spielberg’s first theatrical film The Sugarland Express).
I’m not going to dwell here about my feelings of the E.T. 20th Anniversary version that was released in 2002, except to plead with all of you to never show that version to your kids. I take comfort in the fact that last September, while addressing a crowd at a screening of Raiders, Spielberg expressed regret that he made the changes. In fact, at the time of this writing it appears that the upcoming Blu-ray release will contain only the 1982 version of the film.
As it should be.