Steven Spielberg gets emotional over Goldie Hawn tribute at Tribeca: 'Really moved'

NEW YORK − Steven Spielberg is going back to where it all began with a little help from Goldie Hawn.

The legendary director participated in a Tribeca Film Festival conversation Saturday following a 50th anniversary screening of "The Sugarland Express," his theatrical filmmaking debut. Though Hawn, the star of the 1974 movie, wasn't in attendance, she sent a heartfelt video message that seemed to take Spielberg by surprise.

In the clip, Hawn praised the 77-year-old filmmaker as an "amazing blessing" in her life, who saw something in her "that no one did." She added that her character in "Sugarland," Lou Jean Poplin, is her favorite that she has ever played.

Steven Spielberg speaks after a 50th anniversary screening of "The Sugarland Express" at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 15, 2024.
Steven Spielberg speaks after a 50th anniversary screening of "The Sugarland Express" at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 15, 2024.

"It was the most beautiful time," Hawn said. "We were like children, actually, making a movie, and we were − in our early 20s. I can't tell you what a blessing it is, not only to have worked with Steven on his first theatrical film, but to know him over all these years − admire him, love him. I'm amazed that this young man that I worked with so many years ago has made movies that will go on and on and on and live forever."

She closed, "I love you, Steven." Spielberg said he was "really moved" by Hawn's comments.

"We were all kids then, and there were a lot of laughs," the three-time Oscar winner agreed. "She's the greatest laugher I have ever met in my life, and her laugh is infectious. Goldie kept the whole thing bouncing along."

Hawn and William Atherton starred in "The Sugarland Express" as a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple who spark a massive police chase as they set out to get their son back from foster care. It was Spielberg's first movie and received a major theatrical release after he had previously directed episodes of television and made-for-TV films such as "Duel." He was 26 at the time.

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Lou Jean was a different sort of character for Hawn, coming off comedy work like "Laugh-In" and "Cactus Flower," and Spielberg noted she was his "first choice" for the role. The movie "wouldn't have gotten made without her," he said, given that the studio required him to cast a movie star. He felt the actress' "pure and honest heart" made her a perfect fit.

On the other hand, Spielberg was turned down by every actor the studio suggested for Atherton's part.

"I'm not going to mention the names because most of them are still around today, but they all said no," he said.

Watching the film today, one can't help but notice parallels between its central police pursuit and the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase that occurred 20 years later. Spielberg acknowledged he "did" think about this comparison during the latter 1994 event, joking that he declared at the time, "They're stealing my thunder!"

Steven Spielberg explains why 'nobody went to see' 'The Sugarland Express,' recalls fight over ending

In 1975, Spielberg changed movie history with "Jaws," which became the highest-grossing film ever made up until that point and created the modern summer blockbuster.

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But one year earlier, "The Sugarland Express" had a very different fate. It wasn't a box-office success, and Spielberg remembered learning about its weak performance while prepping "Jaws."

Five decades later, though, fans lined up to watch the film at Tribeca.

"Nobody went to see it," Spielberg told the crowd. "They pulled it from theaters I think after two weeks. So you're the first audience that's ever seen 'The Sugarland Express' in 50 years!"

Reflecting on the failure of the movie, Spielberg pointed to the bleak ending, in which Atherton's Clovis is ambushed by police and shot to death just as he arrives to see his son.

Steven Spielberg attends a screening of "The Sugarland Express" at Tribeca Film Festival on June 15.
Steven Spielberg attends a screening of "The Sugarland Express" at Tribeca Film Festival on June 15.

"The reason the film didn't make any money at the box office was people came to see the movie expecting a Goldie Hawn picture, and they wound up with an ending like that," Spielberg said.

Lou Jean survives the film, and just before the credits, text onscreen reveals she only served 15 months in prison before reuniting with her son.

But Spielberg disagreed with the addendum, which the studio forced him to include after being "upset" with the ending.

"The ending is what it is," Spielberg said. "And they said, 'We won't get anybody to see the movie unless we tell them that the baby's OK and the mom got the baby back. And I protested this as far as I possibly could. I couldn't go very far with that."

In the end, he pointed out, "It didn't work. People still didn't come out and see the movie!"

Spielberg, who at one point drew laughs by tossing his Apple Watch across the stage when it interrupted him, closed the discussion by revealing he bought the patrol car from the movie and used to drive it around Los Angeles — even though the vehicle was riddled with "55 bullet holes" from filming.

"It was insane," Spielberg said. "I was insane then."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Steven Spielberg explains why 'nobody went to see' his first movie