In the Heat of the Limelight

Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

For Norman Jewison, the combination of consummate craftsmanship and liberal humanism has never added up to winning him an Academy Award. Despite a distinguished and successful filmmaking career spanning four decades, he’s never won an Oscar.

But that’s about to change next Sunday when the 72-year-old producer and director from Canada receives the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 71st annual Academy Awards.

Then again, it’s probably the most fitting tribute--the Thalberg award honors filmmakers’ lifetime pursuit of excellence--considering Jewison’s career-long interest in creative freedom. He was an integral part of United Artists’ freewheeling style in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and he’s had final cut on each of his films beginning with “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” in 1966.


Whatever the genre or circumstance, there’s always someone struggling with rigid rules and their own nonconformity in a Jewison film:

* Alan Arkin breaks from his Soviet programming to save the life of an American child in “The Russians Are Coming!”

* Rod Steiger overcomes his Southern bigotry and comes to respect and aid Sidney Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night.”

* Steve McQueen gets a thrill out of beating the establishment as well as his breeding in “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

* Topol breaks from his roots and learns to have faith in the future in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

* Cher defies her family’s tradition to embrace unconventional love in “Moonstruck.”

“Timing is everything,” Jewison said recently, repeating advice once given to him by Robert Kennedy during a chance encounter before the making of “In the Heat of the Night.”

“I happened to meet him skiing in Sun Valley in 1967. Both our sons had broken their legs in the same race. We were sitting in the hospital and he asked me what I did. I told him about the movie, and that I didn’t think it was going to be very successful. But he said, ‘This could be a very important film, Norman.’ And he was right.” “In the Heat of the Night” also took home the Academy Award for best picture that year, beating out “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.”

Jewison’s work and his commitment to social justice continue. He’s just completed shooting “Lazarus and the Hurricane,” the true-life story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his extraordinary efforts to gain his freedom after serving 19 years in prison for three murders he didn’t commit. Denzel Washington plays the determined and eloquent fighter, having worked with Jewison on “A Soldier’s Story” 15 years ago.

“It’s a film I’ve wanted to make for 10 years,” Jewison said of “Hurricane.” “’It’s the ‘60s, the ‘70s and the ‘80s. . . . This is a man who educated himself in prison and remained in his cell to avoid institutionalization. It’s about injustice and how no one wants to admit they’re wrong, particularly in the judicial system.”


When he speaks, Jewison rambles in a structured way, starting slowly and sadly with the low point of his life: He moved his family to London in 1970 because he was depressed about the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

“I realized I was losing my sense of humor,” he recalled.

He sees no distinction between comedy, drama or musicals in his career and believes that humor and tragedy go hand in hand in life.

“There isn’t a day that I don’t laugh uproariously about something, and there isn’t a day when I don’t shed a tear,” he said. “So I think this is a life of laughter and tears.”

Jewison describes his films as milestones in his life, reliving and expressing the emotions embodied in each of them, while glancing at the movie posters and photographs adorning his Santa Monica office. The most prominent presence is Judy Garland, with whom he worked during his live television days in New York. There’s a blowup from “A Star Is Born” that a friend gave him, and a stunning color photograph of one of his specials taken by the late Roddy McDowall. It features Garland performing with Ethel Merman and a young sensation named Barbra Streisand.

In his films and in his life he remains a creature of causes, with a lingering fear of corporate control.

“I’ve made a lot of films about America, and being a Canadian, you know, that’s all we do is study America, because America is such a large country and we share the longest border,” he said.

“So I’ve always been fascinated with American politics and social structure. I hitchhiked all through the South when I was in the Canadian Navy and I saw this segregated apartheid society, and I couldn’t understand it because I hadn’t grown up in it. A lot of the images in ‘Heat of the Night’ are from that period.”

But Jewison wasn’t new to prejudice. He experienced anti-Semitism in his small rural town outside Toronto--even though he isn’t Jewish. But he hung out with Jewish kids and his classmates beat him up along with the others.

“All my life I’ve been seeking my own Jewishness,” he said about his search for his roots. “My family is originally from Yorkshire, which was a Jewish stronghold in England. I suspect we might have been assimilated from the 13th century.”

Which partially explains his fascination with both “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the two stage musicals he filmed back to back in the early ‘70s. “I found a freedom in ‘Fiddler’ and ‘Superstar’ that I didn’t have in my other films. I was in love with the rebellious aspect of ‘Superstar’ and the questioning.

“I think ‘Fiddler’ has turned out to be important because of the Orthodox approach to the opening number, ‘Tradition,’ and my casting of Tevye. I wanted an Israeli actor who didn’t speak English very well to play this first-generation Russian Jew. I didn’t think it would ring true with a New York Yiddish actor, which is why I turned down both Zero Mostel and my good friend Danny Kaye. It was the most agonizing casting decision of my career.” (The part was played by Topol).

Jewison said timing once again worked in his favor in his work with McQueen. “ ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ was the first film that I felt I really got a performance out of Steve,” the director explained.

“He was always looking for a father figure. And I said, ‘I’m too young to be your father, but I’ll be your older brother. And I’ll be the brother that went to college who’ll look out for you, OK?’ He said, You’re twisting my melon, man.’

“So he learned to trust me. And on ‘Thomas Crown,’ I knew he wasn’t that character, but he desperately had to play it, so he trusted me to guide him. He was absolutely believable. He never acted a day in his life; he just was. There was an honesty about him, and he knew where the camera was.”

The timing of the Montreal Expo in 1968 also played a crucial role in the making of “Thomas Crown.” During production of the cool caper, Jewison decided to check out the exposition with cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby. They discovered a short film that introduced multiple screen effects.

“We were blown away by that and immediately devised a new approach,” he said. “It was a radical triumph of style over substance, and the only immoral-amoral film I’ve ever done.”

These days, Jewison divides his time between filmmaking and farming, his ancestral occupation. He breeds cattle on his 200-acre farm outside Toronto.

At the moment, with the Thalberg award nearly in hand, he ponders a great irony of his filmmaking success. “The funny thing is, here I’ve been worried all my life about the multinationals taking everything away, and they’re the ones who’ve given me this creative freedom,” he said. “So out of this system, this terrible business, comes great freedom for the individual. Maybe that’s what I love about this country.” *


Films of a Freewheeler

Following are notable films in Norman Jewison’s career. Jewison directed all of the films and was a producer on the films starting with “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

“The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” (1966)

“In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968)

“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

“Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973)

“Rollerball” (1975)

“A Soldier’s Story” (1984)

“Agnes of God” (1985)

“Moonstruck” (1987)

“In Country” (1989)