At the age of 26, Steven Soderbergh permanently altered the face of independent cinema when he became the youngest-ever winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival for sex, lies and videotape, his feature-film directorial debut. A simmering exploration of the nature of modern relationships and the links between sexuality and voyeurism, the film was an international sensation that established its director as one of the golden boys of world cinema.
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Born in Georgia on January 14, 1963, Soderbergh grew up in Baton Rouge, LA. While still in high school, Soderbergh enrolled in the university's film animation class and began making short 16 mm films with second-hand equipment. After he graduation, he went to Hollywood, where he worked as a freelance editor. Soderbergh's time in Hollywood was brief, and he soon returned home, where he continued making short films and writing scripts. One of his films, a documentary about the rock group Yes, earned him an assignment to direct a full-length concert film for the band. The finished product, 9012 Live, was nominated for a 1986 Grammy.
Following this achievement, Soderbergh filmed the short subject Winston, a study of sexual gamesmanship that he would expand into sex, lies and videotape. In the wake of the 1989 film's great success, Soderbergh made Kafka, a darkly comic fictional account of the author's life. The austere film turned out to be something of a disappointment, as did the modest King of the Hill, Soderbergh's 1993 portrait of a young boy's coming-of-age during the Depression. The Underneath, his 1995 film, was a post-noir crime drama that offered further existential meditation and an exploration of the destructive effects of sexuality: unfortunately, like Soderbergh's previous two efforts, it remained mired in relative obscurity. The same could be said of Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy (both 1996), the former a loopy, inventive look at the intricacies of communication that Soderbergh termed an "artistic wake-up call" to himself, the latter a filmed performance of one of Spalding Gray's monologues.
In 1998, Soderbergh made good on his "wake-up call" with Out of Sight, his most critically and commercially successful film since sex, lies and videotape. Adapted from the novel by Elmore Leonard, it was an irreverent, enjoyable affair that remained true to the book's spirit and featured believable chemistry between leads George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The following year, Soderbergh continued on his critical winning streak with The Limey, the generally well-received tale of an ex-con (Terence Stamp) bent on revenge for his daughter's mysterious death. He earned even greater plaudits in 2000 as the director of Erin Brockovich; starring Julia Roberts as its eponymous secretary-heroine who uncovers a major environmental scandal, the film was enthusiastically embraced by audiences and critics alike.
Later that same year, Soderbergh raised the bar on issue-oriented drama with Traffic, a multi-layered, multi-character look at the United States' "War on Drugs." The long-gestating project started life as a British miniseries in the early '90s; when Soderbergh realized director Ed Zwick was working on his own exposé on the same subject, the two joined forces, with Zwick producing. Originally developed at Fox with Harrison Ford in the lead, Traffic then switched hands to the major-indie studio USA Films when Ford dropped out, and Michael Douglas snapped up the part. Easily Soderbergh's most ambitious effort, the 50 million-dollar production boasted a seven-city shooting schedule with over 100 speaking parts; almost a third of which were spoken completely in Spanish. What's more, the director insisted on serving as cinematographer for the primarily hand-held, naturally lit film. (Soderbergh originally wanted his credit to read "photographed and directed by," but since WGA regulations prohibit a cinematographer to be credited over a screenwriter, he opted for a pseudonym, Peter Andrews -- his father's first and middle names.)
The gamble paid off, both critically and commercially. Soderbergh's touch with actors yielded best-yet performances from Catherine Zeta-Jones, Miguel Ferrer, and Benicio Del Toro, the latter of whom walked away with a slew of year-end critics awards, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar. The film itself shared a berth with Brockovich when the Academy Awards nominations were announced, and Soderbergh made it into the history books as the first person to be doubly nominated for Best Director for two films that were also both nominated for Best Picture. When the winners were finally announced, Traffic earned four Oscars including a Best Director statue for Soderbergh; his work on Brockovich helped snag a long-awaited Best Actress Oscar for Roberts.
Soderbergh then plunged headlong into two big-budget adaptations of classic films, both starring his Out of Sight muse George Clooney: 2001's Ocean's Eleven and 2002's Solaris. The former, a star-laden update of 1960's Rat Pack favorite, garnered favorable reviews and a box-office total of more than $180 million -- the director's biggest take yet. The latter marked Soderbergh's return to screenwriting: Encouraged by producer James Cameron to adapt Stanislaw Lem's philosophical sci-fi short story, Soderbergh also signed on to direct in the wake of his 2000 Oscar win. Rather than tamper with director Andrei Tarkovsky's acclaimed 1972 adaptation of Solaris, Soderbergh promised his version would be closer in spirit to the source material. Despite an economical editing job and generally encouraging reviews, audiences let the moody, psychological sci-fi film die a quick death. Between these high-profile projects, the director managed to sandwich in a $2 million ensemble piece, shot mostly on digital video in less than three weeks. 2002's Full Frontal reunited him for the third time with Julia Roberts, but Soderbergh's grungy, esoteric take on the discord between movie life and "real" life was generally reviled by critics and ignored at the box office. The director would retreat to safer waters in 2004 with the successful sequel Ocean's Twelve, a more self-reflexive, globe-trotting take on the first film.
A string of almost deliberately obscure work followed. On HBO, Soderbergh and Clooney satisfied their political leanings with K Street, a gritty soap that attempted to meld fiction with documentary as it charted the lives of two high-powered lobbyists (played by high-powered lobbyists James Carville and Mary Matalin). The drab Midwestern anti-thriller Bubble boasted a unique releasing scheme, in which it premiered on pay-per-view cable, in art-house theaters and on DVD at the same time in early 2006. Later that year, The Good German divided critics who found it either enthrallingly retro or needlessly opaque and austere; whatever their opinions, the film failed to catch on with audiences. Once again, Soderbergh licked his wounds by providing the company with another installment of its profitable Ocean's franchise in summer 2007. He followed this up with a slew of projects that continued to alternate between arthouse and commercial, including the wildly ambitious Che (2008) - a 4-hour+ biopic of revolutionary leader Che Guevara (starring Benicio del Toro; a cinematization of the television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a biopic of Liberace starring Michael Douglas.
Soderbergh's next "vanity project" was a semi-experimental arthouse film called The Girlfriend Experience, in which real-life porn star Sasha Grey played a prostitute who offers clients the short-term simulation of a real relationship. He next made the quirky comedy/drama The Informant!, starring Matt Damon as the real life blundering informant and white collar criminal Marc Whitacre, before oscillating back to less commerical fare, with The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg. Soon he was moving on to another big-budget picture: the 2011 epidemic thriller Contagion, which he soon followed up with the hotly anticipated action movie Haywire, starring real-life female mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano as the hard-hitting lead. In an August 2011 article in the New York Times, Soderbergh confirmed his intention to retire from filmmaking to pursue painting full-time, indicating that his 2012 comedy Magic Mike, which told the story of a male stripper who longs to get out of the business while training a handsome young protege, would be his cinematic swan song.
In addition to his directorial work, Soderbergh has also served as a producer and screenwriter for other directors' projects; he first made major headway into the world of producing when he and Clooney opened up an exclusive, first-look deal to develop projects under the shingle Section Eight in late 2001. Among Section Eight's first endeavors were pictures helmed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), and Christopher Nolan (Insomnia); though the shingle rarely produced runaway hits, through it, Soderbergh was able to show support for micro-budgeted debuts not unlike his own. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi