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Sweet success for Spielberg

Hollywood’s eternal little boy finally drew a man’s respect Monday night.

Steven Spielberg, after years of disregard by Academy voters, was vindicated with seven Oscars for his Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List,” including the elusive and prized best director statuette.

The man who scared the bathing suits off most of America with “Jaws” in 1975 and left them weeping at “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” in 1982 turned serious with “Schindler’s List.” He showed Hollywood’s toughest critics he could tackle greater themes than flying saucers and superhero archeologists, that he had a cinematic vision deserving of consideration.

Beaming like the children who so often star in his films, the 46-year-old helmer basked in the glory of his win Monday night.

Spielberg laughed and joked giddily with the press corps after telling the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion audience that this was “the best drink of water after the longest drought of my life.”

Backstage, he claimed he had “reconciled himself” to losing, but also admitted he might have gone home crushed without the statuette.

“Anyone who has ever been nominated for an Oscar, who denies it ever being a goal at that time, is loopy,” he said.

For years, Spielberg quietly endured the gossip and taunts that his work could never be taken seriously because it made too much money. Never mind that his pictures were the biggest box office hits of his generation; great pieces of art couldn’t be commercial.

After earning best director nominations for such popular fare as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,””Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” he took on a heavier subject in 1985. Much of the film industry thought it was a mistake when he chose Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” as his next film.

The movie drew Spielberg an avalanche of critical praise and earned him the Directors Guild of America Award, normally a pretty good predictor for Oscar.

But the Academy voters shut him out again — not even granting him a nomination.

Spielberg said last night he never really minded being snubbed for “The Color Purple.”

“No resentment, never had any resentment,” he said. “I’ve come here hopeful and tonight I came here hopeful and it was a wonderful experience.”

Ironically, perhaps it was the child in the director that was frightened of taking on a subject as massive as the Holocaust.

He said that when MCA prexy Sidney Sheinberg introduced him to the project 10 years ago, he was “terrified” of the responsibility of filming one of history’s greatest tragedies.

“But I also felt it would be a tragedy to be intimidated by that fact,” he said.

Spielberg told reporters he never considered the “political” overtones of the movie.

“I hate the word ‘political’ because this is not a political film, and the message isn’t a political message,” he said. “It is about teaching tolerance and combating ignorance. The Holocaust is going to happen again and again and again until it is looked at in its entirety.”

And he grew downright indignant at people who deny the Holocaust ever happened. “I think that the time for denials is all over. It’s over. There is nothing to deny.”

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