Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Venice Magazine.
Norman Jewison was born July 21, 1926 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The son of a shopkeeper, Jewison got his BA at Victoria College, University of Toronto, and after moving to London, where he wrote scripts and acted for the BBC, he returned to Toronto and directed live TV shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation(1952-1958), then musicals and variety in New York (including much-heralded specials for Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland), before embarking on a film career.
Jewison’s initial offerings were harmless pieces of fluff like Forty Pounds of Trouble (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964) and The Art of Love (1965). Suddenly in late 1965, the 39 year-old director decided to get serious, replacing the legendary Sam Peckinpah on the dynamite Steve McQueen vehicle The Cincinnati Kid, the story of an itinerant poker player in New Orleans. Jewison’s work kept growing from there. He followed Kid with the political satire The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! in 1966, then made what some consider still to be his finest film.
In 1967 the United States was a very different place than it is today. No other film captured this quicksilver moment in time better than In the Heat of the Night, the story of a Philadelphia detective (Sidney Poitier) reluctantly recruited by a redneck southern sheriff (Rod Steiger, Oscar-winner) to aid him in a murder investigation. The film broke more racial and social taboos than can be listed here, and ushered in a new genre in American film, one where African-Americans took center stage, where black was beautiful. Although it helped give birth to the blaxploitation genre of the 70’s (which many critics revere), In the Heat of the Night’s influence can also be felt in the films of Spike Lee, and many other filmmakers who, over the past 30 years, have dealt with race, culture clash, and the socioeconomic realities which create an underclass in our society. It also spawned a highly-successful TV series, and won five Oscars, including Best Picture.
Jewison followed this landmark film with another classic, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), again starring McQueen, this time with Faye Dunaway as his love interest. Gaily, Gaily (1969) was writer Ben Hecht’s story of his apprenticeship on a Chicago newspaper. Jewison then brought two landmark Broadway musicals to the screen: Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), scoring big hits with both. These were followed by the science-fiction classic Rollerball (1975), starring James Caan, and the fictionalized Jimmy Hoffa biopic F.I.S.T. (1977), starring Sylvester Stallone and written by a first-time screenwriter named Joe Eszterhas. Jewison next helmed two scripts written by another young tyke named Barry Levinson (and his then-wife Valerie Curtin):…And Justice for All (1979) with Al Pacino, and Best Friends (1982) with Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn.
Jewison scored another breakthrough when he dealt with the race card once again, bringing Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play to the screen as A Soldier’s Story (1984). Starring Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (who also played the Poitier role in the TV series of In the Heat of the Night) as a black army officer investigating the murder of a sadistic sergeant at the tail end of WW II. It co-starred many new faces, including Robert Townsend, David Alan Grier, and this kid named Denzel Washington in a pivotal role. We’ll come back to him later…
Jewison brought another play to the screen brilliantly with Agnes of God in 1985, followed by another triumph with the romantic comedy Moonstruck in 1987, an Oscar winner for Best Actress (Cher), supporting actress (Olympia Dukakis) and screenplay (John Patrick Shanley). Next came In Country (1989), a post-Vietnam drama starring Bruce Willis and Emily Lloyd, another play adaptation in 1991 with Other People’s Money, starring Danny de Vito, the romantic comedy Only You (1994) with Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr., and the fantasy Bogus (1996) with Whoopi Goldberg and Gerard Depardieu.
1999 brings Jewison full circle, completing his film trilogy about race in America. The Hurricane stars that kid Washington we mentioned earlier, in the true story of former boxing champ Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted on a trumped-up murder charge, and served more than 30 years in prison. The Hurricane marks a welcome return to the cinema of social consciousness that Jewison helped give birth to 33 years ago. The story is so fantastic, it’s almost hard to believe that such a miscarriage of justice occurred not only in this country, but in this day and age. Denzel Washington delivers his finest performance to date as Rubin Carter.
Was there one film that really grabbed you as a kid, where you said “This is for me”?
Well, I started in the theater, as an actor, then got into live television with the BBC in London, so television was like a miracle to me. But when I was a kid, I used to go to the movies for 10 cents on Saturday, then I’d act out the whole movie for a penny! (laughs) I guess it was an obsession with storytelling. I remember Gunga Din as one of the great movies for me. And I also remember Rosemarie, with Nelson Eddy playing a Mountie! I thought that was so romantic and wonderful! I guess we’re all searching for those things that touch us. As you get older, you get a little more particular. I think directors are a little like orchestra conductors. We get better as we get older, as long as you still have all your marbles and are still committed. But I don’t know if they believe that in Hollywood. (laughs)