By John H. Foote
From writer Ira Wells comes the superb new biography of Canadian film director Norman Jewison who broke through in Hollywood in the mid-sixties to become one of the most beloved, reliable and talented directors in modern film. Jewison rode the tide of New Hollywood with his great film In the Heat of the Night (1967) which earned the Academy Award for Best Picture, awakening Hollywood to a major new talent with a film that explored the racial issues between black and white, tearing a headline from the news with his powerful film. Winning the Academy award for Best Picture in that particular year was a staggering achievement considering the other nominees that year. Alongside In the Heat of the Night were the groundbreaking films Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate which in any other year would have won Best Picture. Also nominated was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the fifth nominee was the ridiculous inclusion of Dr. Doolittle, one of the worst fantasies ever made, yet nominated by the old school factor of the Academy.
Jewison was nominated for best Best Director, the first of his three nominations in that category, but had little chance against Mike Nichols for The Graduate (1967). In hindsight, Bonnie and Clyde was the year’s Best Picture, but winning the Oscar set Jewison on fire at the time and he took full advantage of it.
He had started his career as a director at the CBC and the National Film Board in Canada, both long standing institutions still existing, but knew to grow as a director he needed to break loose in Hollywood.
And break loose he did.
Jewison quickly established himself as a responsible filmmaker, stayed within the budget, came in on time and for the most art played nice with the suits giving him money to make the film. Through the years, his smiling manner proved to be a facade for the tough, wily man he was underneath. Where many were eaten alive by the studios, Jewison soared.
In the years after In the Heat of the Night, he would direct such films as Fiddler on the Roof (1971) which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Director; his extraordinary musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) shot outdoors in the Holy Land; F.I.S.T. (1978), a thinly veiled study of Jimmy Hoffa with new star Sylvester Stallone as the labor leader Johnny Kovac; the popular Al Pacino legal comedy-drama And Justice for All (1979); the searing adaptation of the play A Soldier’s Story (1984); Agnes of God (1985), an electrifying adaptation of another modern play, his masterpiece Moonstruck (1987), which earned him another Oscar nod for Best Director and made Cher a superstar actress; and The Hurricane (1999), his remarkable biography of Reuben “Hurricane” Carter which brought Denzel Washington a nod for Best Actor.
Wells does not shy away from Jewison’s work with difficult stars such as insecure but arrogant Steve McQueen, who needed to know he was in charge, the number one alpha male on set; Sylvester Stallone, who too often mixed his characters up with Rocky, the character he played in his breakthrough boxing film of the same name. He needed to be kept in check by the director or he would have turned F.I.S.T. into a rousing champion the truckers’ fable. For the most part he got along well with his stars, giving them room to create which is what the best actors want. He had cast them to do a job and, like Clint Eastwood, expected them to show up and do their job. He disliked McQueen for the time he wasted on set, his silly demands and the manner in which he acted out petty insecurities.
Jewison was a fierce of advocate of Civil Rights and on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated he flew to march in the funeral procession because he felt he should. His friendship with Bobby Kennedy was just blooming really when the Presidential hopeful was cut down by a bullet. Jewison was present in the building when that happened.
Three of his finest films dealt with Civil Rights between blacks and whites. In the Heat of the Night was the finest of them, with A Soldier’s Story nipping on its heels and The Hurricane rounding out the trio.
I do not think Jewison ever got enough credit for his direction of women though he guided some sensational performances from ladies, best of all Cher in Moonstruck.
The book goes behind the scenes on all of his films giving us an up close and personal look at the Jewison and how he worked, but also goes behind the scenes in his long marriage to Daisy, his beloved wife.
A superb book, one of the year’s best film biographies.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.