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Humbled Spielberg accepts Liberty Medal
Steven Spielberg has grown accustomed to praise.
One of the world's most successful filmmakers ever, anywhere, he has received Oscars and honorary doctorates, awards for public service and humanitarianism and been granted nearly every superlative a man of art, thought and heart could imagine. But he still seemed sincerely moved tonight to be joining the ranks of the distinguished recipients of the Liberty Medal.
"I am very, very genuinely humbled by this," Spielberg said, after bowing his head so that former President Bill Clinton, chairman of the National Constitution Center, could slip on the red, white and blue ribbon with the heavy medallion.
The 90-minute ceremony was punctuated with clips from some of Spielberg's most moving films. And in the speeches, Spielberg was lauded indirectly for sharing the same kind of nobility with the protagonists in his movies.
On screen, the audience viewed one of the final scenes from Schindler's List, in which Ben Kingsley's character tells Oscar Schindler: "You did so much."
The echo was unmistakable when Mayor Nutter told Spielberg, "You have become a global ambassador of hope."
In his remarks, Spielberg, whose early hits include Jaws and E.T., said that as his career has evolved, he has taken on "darker" subjects. He speculated that this seriousness may have resulted from becoming a father and a feeling a responsibility to shape the kind of world his seven children will inherit.
"Art is one way the human community remembers what it has been through," he said, and can serve as a "mitzvah" in "repairing a broken world."
Spielberg also made pointed references to the need for government to support the arts. While his own films have made him unfathomably wealthy, he said, "I've never believed that the marketplace is a congenial place for all artists," and urged more funding for arts education in schools and artists who test limits. He suggested that perhaps government would be more willing to join forces with artists if it recognized that honorable, effective leadership is an art as well.
"Would the Union have endured if Lincoln hadn't been a writer of genius?" he asked, adding that political leaders like filmmakers need to maintain "regular honest contact with their own souls."
For most of the event, Spielberg, wearing his usual gray bristled beard, (but missing his trademark baseball cap), sat with his hands folded in his lap, before an audience of Holocaust survivors, bankers, World War II veterans, philanthropists, community activists, high school students and one semiretired federal judge.
He broke into a broad smile when Clinton recalled Spielberg's father's service in Burma during World War II. Spielberg then laughed out loud when the former president recalled how after seeing Jaws, his wife, Hillary, refused to go into the ocean unless she was accompanied by someone swimming interference, someone preferably with more flesh for a shark.
The solemnity shattered again when Spielberg's friend Whoopi Goldberg praised him for defending the "rights of illegal aliens to phone home," in E.T.
Goldberg, who won an academy award for her performance in Spielberg's The Color Purple, described him as "a bit of an alien."
"He knows what it feels like on the other side," she said.
Although Spielberg is most famous for his movies, he was also being honored for establishing The Shoah Foundation, an archive of 105,000 hours of testimony from survivors of the Holocaust, and personal histories from those who endured the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Midway through the ceremony, a pianist and a violinist from the Curtis Institute performed the searing theme song from Schindler's List. The ceremony closed with a performance of the traditional song "Motherless Child," by folksinger and guitarist Richie Havens.
Watching from a prime spot among the viewers seated in white chairs on the lawn was U.S. District Court Senior Judge Norma Shapiro. She listened carefully as Clinton described Spielberg as, "a man who has always been able to make a simple story . . . and remind us of the greatness in us all."
"Mr. Spielberg is a very worthy recipient," said Shapiro, who was accompanied by her 17-year-old grandson, Justin. Shapiro has attended numerous Liberty Medal awards. "These events are inspiring," she said. "And it's nice to be inspired."
Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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