Listening to Norman Jewison hold forth the other day from a tufted leather couch on the top floor of his downtown Toronto production office, the lyrics to an old Jesse Winchester song came to mind: “’Cuz by now you’ve seen it all/ Just relax now and recall/ All your stories, forever and ever.”
Not that “the most prominent Canadian filmmaker in history,” as one culture critic called him recently, appears all that keen on relaxing. To mark his 84th birthday this summer, he took his wife Lynn to Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival to see its hit production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The experience was “really weird,” he confessed, since he knows Superstar – “every word, every note of music” – as well as, or possibly even better than stage director Des McAnuff. After all, in 1972, the Toronto-born filmmaker spent considerable time in Israel committing the musical to celluloid. Thirty-nine years later, he praises McAnuff’s “brilliance” – but once a director always a director: As Jewison watched, “there were times,” he admitted, “where I’d be thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just make some notes to give backstage afterwards.’ ”
But that’s Jewison. Sweep your eyes across the memorabilia and bric-a-brac in his funky office/den and you wonder – is there any big project he hasn’t tried, any big player he hasn’t mixed it up with? There’s a photograph of him with Bill Clinton. Another with Wayne Gretzky. And isn’t that Mother Teresa?
With Jewison, we’re talking more than five decades behind the camera, in the editing suite, hustling the do-re-mi, schmoozing the Goldwyns and the brothers Warner, alternately charming and cajoling star upon star –Cher! Denzel! – to “give it up” in the service of more than two dozen features, several of them – In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! – bona fide classics . There have also been a passel of TV series and specials, from the Uncle Chichimus puppet show Jewison directed for the CBC in the early 1950s to Judy Garland’s famous comeback in 1961 and the 1999 Oscars broadcast.
This month, Canadians can marvel anew at the Jewison oeuvre as the Toronto International Film Festival screens a 13-film retrospective at its Bell Lightbox headquarters in Toronto. The series kicks off, spectacularly, on Thursday with the multiple-Academy-Award-nonimated 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck that earned Cher and Olympia Dukakis Oscars as, respectively, best actress and best supporting actress. Dukakis will attend the presentation, along with John Patrick Shanley, Moonstruck’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and Jewison himself (who lost as best director to Bernardo Bertolucci).
But the retrospective, a long-time ambition of TIFF’s, may or may not bring Jewison the cinéaste into sharper focus.
Perhaps more than any living filmmaker, variety has been the spice of Jewison’s artistic life. Be it science-fiction ( Rollerball), musicals ( Fiddler on the Roof), social-issue dramas, courtroom satires (. . . And Justice for All), westerns ( The Cincinnati Kid) or a heist pic ( The Thomas Crown Affair) – there doesn’t seem to be a genre he hasn’t tried. Admittedly, such eclecticism hasn’t won him the august reputation of an Alfred Hitchcock, an Orson Welles, an Ingmar Bergman or (yes) a Bertolucci. But Jewison argues auteur status is not an ambition to which he’s ever aspired.
“I’ve always gone on the assumption that each story itself requires a certain style to tell it properly,” he said said. “So therefore your style in making a film should somehow be controlled by and inspired by the kind of story you’re telling.”
And while Jewison is chuffed at the hometown tribute – it’s the second salute to him this year; Manhattan’s Film Society of Lincoln Center mounted a 15-film survey, titled “Relentless Renegade,” in May – he says he’d “hate to think of it as a swan song.”
True, it’s been eight years since the release of his last film, The Statement, seven since the publication of the memoir, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me. The hands shake, the voice rasps, the yarns – about Bobby Kennedy’s early support of In the Heat of the Night, his “pride” in being a “Hollywood liberal” among the likes of William Wyler, George Stevens and Frank Capra, the pleasure in watching André Previn tame the musicians of Deep Purple during the recording of the soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar – are dotted with digressions and long pauses.
But Jewison’s quick to laugh, especially at himself (the famous, much-admired split-screen narrative used in The Thomas Crown Affair he now remembers as “a nightmare, the most complicated editing process I’ve ever experienced. Oh, God, it just drove me crazy”). And the mind remains capacious and sharp. Which is why Jewison has two projects on the go in the office he’s occupied since returning to Canada in 1978 after lengthy stays in London, Los Angeles and New York.
One is an English-language version of the 2000 Italian hit Pane e tulipani ( Bread and Tulips) for which Shanley has written the screenplay and which Jewison is keen to direct. “I see it, y’know?” Jewison observed. “There are certain things you see in your mind’s eye.” The other, concocted by a couple of writers from the David Letterman show and tentatively titled High Alert, gives a post-9/11 twist to the themes of paranoia and prejudice that Jewison mined so successfully in 1966 with The Russians are Coming.
One project Jewison admits, regretfully, that will never see the light of day is his movie adaptation of William Styron’s controversial novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Based on a real-life slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 that claimed more than 100 lives, the book earned the Virginia-born Styron a Pultizer Prize. Jewison struck a deal in 1967 to bring the epic to the screen, figuring the “cred” won by In the Heat of the Night and his earlier direction of several Harry Belafonte TV specials would dampen whatever objections African-Americans might have.
But this was at the height of the Black Power movement and both Jewison and Styron, as whites, found themselves attacked for their alleged presumptuousness in tackling a talismanic black story. Eventually, Jewison withdrew. Today, he says, “I guess it was my biggest disappointment because I came so close to making it and I was a big Styron fan ... and I went through all those protests and public debates only to ... well, you know.” Forty-three years on, the story of Nat Turner and his failed rebellion remains unrealized for the big screen. Jewison suspects it never will make it there: “The image of armed revolt, the slaughter – a black rebellion against a white majority, well, it might be too hard to experience. For most people.”
It’s not so surprising this unmade film about unjust oppression and tragic violence still nags at him. Many feel it’s his films about tough issues of wrongs needing to be righted and questions of justice that are his greatest achievement, and maybe closest to his heart.
Jewison notes that one writer trying to pin down his style told him, “ ‘Every film you make is dealing with betrayal.’ And I realized that I do think a lot about betrayal.” He pauses. “To betray your ideals, to betray who you are, to betray another person – these are all powerful ideas, and I do find that is a theme running through my work, the ultimate betrayal being, of course, Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Whether Jewison’s vantage point as a Canadian, working in the U.S. and thus in some sense an outsider, helped sharpen those films remains something to be pondered.
Which, of course, leads to the larger, always present, question: Is there anything Canadian about his films? Sure, he shot Agnes of God in Quebec in the mid-80s, The Hurricane in Toronto 15 years later; moreover, The Statement was co-produced by Robert Lantos ( Fugitive Pieces, The Sweet Hereafter) and included William Hutt and John Neville in the cast. But does that add up to a Canadian influence?
Jesse Wente thinks so. Head of programming for the Bell Lightbox and one of the organizers of the Jewison retrospective, he says that, “Even in a film like In the Heat of the Night, which is about such an incredibly American subject and feels so American, its observations are of someone who’s not necessarily born to that country ... We often talk in Canada about how our distance from America has informed our comedy. But I think it also tends to inform our drama. I think Norman is a prime example in how he’s been able to use that distance.”
Wente’s observation certainly fits Jewison’s upcoming film about suspicion and fear in post-terrorism America. Then again, just try boxing Jewison in ... if you can get the octogenarian to slow down long enough.