Home Entertainment Norman Jewison, filmmaker with lens on social issues, dies at 97

Norman Jewison, filmmaker with lens on social issues, dies at 97

Norman Jewison, filmmaker with lens on social issues, dies at 97


Norman Jewison, who became one of Hollywood’s most eclectic directors, making all kinds of movies — epic and intimate, farcical and melodramatic — while drawing signature performances from actors including Sidney Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night” and Cher in “Moonstruck,” died Jan. 20 at 97.

His publicist, Jeff Sanderson, confirmed the death but did not provide further information.

The Canadian-born Mr. Jewison slipped in and out of genres during his four-decade career behind the camera, directing actors including Steve McQueen, Rod Steiger, Chaim Topol, Denzel Washington and Olympia Dukakis in hit movie musicals, romantic comedies and crime dramas that frequently examined social issues.

He was nominated three times for the Academy Award for best director, for the race and police drama “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), which won the Oscar for best picture; “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), adapted from a Broadway musical about Sholem Aleichem’s Jewish milkman Tevye; and “Moonstruck” (1987), a romantic comedy about Italian American Brooklynites that made $80 million at the box office.

Mr. Jewison became what film critic David Thomson called “a gadfly among directors,” making movies as diverse as the Cold War satire “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), the steamy heist film “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) and the post-Vietnam War drama “In Country” (1989). He also produced many of his own movies, receiving four Oscar nominations for best picture across three different decades.

Trim and bespectacled, with an omnipresent baseball cap, Mr. Jewison directed live television specials before coming to Hollywood in the early 1960s and learning from old masters such as William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock.

He lived through the director-driven New Hollywood of the 1970s, when he advised editor and filmmaker Hal Ashby that “the studio is the enemy of the artist”; lamented the “monotony” of genre movies and sequels in the 1980s; and worked long enough to see the rise of cable television networks and streaming services, which offered a new outlet for the thematically rich films he preferred to make.

Frustrated with the action-packed screenplays that often landed on his desk, he frequently turned to playwrights for material — as with “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Fuller about a Black military lawyer (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) investigating a Black officer’s murder at a segregated Army base during World War II.

He later made the theatrical adaptations “Agnes of God” (1985), about a psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) probing a newborn’s death at a convent, and “Other People’s Money” (1991), about a tactless corporate raider (Danny De Vito).

Nearly all his films examined issues of race, class and injustice, if sometimes obliquely. “I don’t make social statements in my pictures, though I do feel a film should be about something — that it have a raison d’être,” he told the New York Times in 1978. “It should not shy away from social problems.”

“Rollerball” (1975), featuring James Caan as the star of a hyperviolent sport sponsored by corporations, was inspired by his fears of a world governed by iron-fisted conglomerates. “F.I.S.T.” (1978), starring Sylvester Stallone as a union leader in the mold of Jimmy Hoffa, was informed by his sense that “the working man doesn’t have as much to say about his destiny as he should.” “And Justice For All” (1979), with Al Pacino as an idealistic lawyer, was a black comedy about corruption within the legal system.

Few of his movies were as successful as “Moonstruck,” which starred Cher as a widowed bookkeeper who falls for her fiance’s brother (Nicolas Cage). Written by playwright John Patrick Shanley, who won a screenwriting Oscar, the film was a humorous celebration of Italian American families, and earned acting Oscars for Cher and Dukakis, who played her mother.

“He really likes actors,” Shanley told the Times in 2011, “so what you see in his pictures is a kind of celebration of performance, as opposed to actors as paint, illustrating the vision of the director.”

Mr. Jewison never won a competitive Academy Award but received the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999 and the Directors Guild of America’s lifetime achievement award in 2010.

Among critics, he was perhaps best known for “In the Heat of the Night,” a civil rights era milestone that premiered in the wake of race riots during the long, hot summer of 1967.

The movie starred Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Black homicide detective from Philadelphia who is enlisted to help the White local police chief (Steiger) solve a killing in a small Mississippi town. A scene in which Poitier is slapped by a racist White landowner, then responds with a slap of his own, left audiences variously gasping and cheering.

Sidney Poitier, first Black man to win Oscar for best actor, dies at 94

Mr. Jewison explained in the Guardian that the scene was not improvised, as has been suggested: “I kept telling Poitier that Tibbs was a sophisticated detective, not used to being pushed around. I showed him how to do the slap. ‘Don’t hit him on the ear,’ I said. ‘I want you to really give him a crack on the fatty side of his cheek.’ I told him to practice on me. A Black man had never slapped a White man back in an American film. We broke that taboo.”

Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Mr. Jewison created “a film that has the look and sound of actuality and the pounding pulse of truth,” but some viewers were less impressed. Author James Baldwin, among other African American critics, excoriated what he regarded as the movie’s self-congratulatory vision of racial reconciliation and its “preposterous” depiction of a Black man in the South.

Mr. Jewison later called “In the Heat of the Night” the first installment of a personal trilogy about race. It also included “A Soldier’s Story” and “The Hurricane” (1999), which starred Washington as real-life boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder and inspired a Bob Dylan song used in the soundtrack.

In interviews, Mr. Jewison traced his interest in American race relations to his first visit to the United States, when he hitchhiked across the South in the 1940s and was shocked to discover an “apartheid” system of racial discrimination.

He had previously encountered prejudice as a boy in Toronto, where he was bullied by classmates who, on the basis of his surname, assumed that he was Jewish. In fact, his family was Methodist and Anglican, although United Artists executives were under the same mistaken impression, in his telling, when they offered him “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Norman Frederick Jewison was born in Toronto on July 21, 1926. His parents ran a general store and post office below their apartment. In a 2004 memoir, “This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me,” he recalled spending most boyhood Saturdays at the movies, where he paid a dime to watch two features and then reenacted the movies for friends.

Mr. Jewison served in the Canadian navy during World War II and, after graduating from the University of Toronto in 1949, entered the nascent field of TV production. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. before being hired by CBS in the late 1950s, moving to New York to direct the music program “Your Hit Parade” as well as Emmy-winning variety shows and musical specials featuring Judy Garland, Andy Williams, Jackie Gleason and Harry Belafonte.

He made his film debut with the Tony Curtis comedy “40 Pounds of Trouble” (1962) and directed a few Doris Day romances before his dramatic breakthrough with “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), taking over the set after director Sam Peckinpah was fired days into production.

“I was born, grew up and almost died doing” the movie, Mr. Jewison later said, recalling his efforts to win the trust of McQueen, its volatile leading man, who played a Depression-era poker player. Mr. Jewison assured the star he would film him in such a way as to retain the audience’s sympathy even as he loses the big game.

He also reversed an earlier decision to film in stark black-and-white: “It was all about cards, for God’s sake,” he told McQueen biographer Christopher Sandford.

“The Cincinnati Kid” was a modest hit, enabling Mr. Jewison to direct and produce “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” about a Soviet submarine that runs aground in New England. Starring Carl Reiner as a vacationing American who encounters the Russians, including a courtly Alan Arkin, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture.

Mr. Jewison leveraged its success to film his next movie, “In the Heat of the Night,” on location instead of on the studio lot — a practice that he later used for movies including “Fiddler,” which he filmed in Yugoslavia, and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), which he shot in the Israeli desert and also co-wrote.

He made both films during his nearly decade-long stint in Europe, where he lived after experiencing what he described as a loss of confidence in “the American Dream,” the result of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the reactionary sentiment that helped President Richard M. Nixon win election.

In 1978 Mr. Jewison settled on a farm near Toronto, where he harvested maple syrup and raised Hereford cattle when he wasn’t working on movies. He also founded what is now the Canadian Film Centre to promote the country’s film industry and, in 1992, was made a companion of the Order of Canada.

In 1953 he married Margaret Ann “Dixie” Dixon, who died in 2004. Mr. Jewison later married Lynne St. David. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Kevin Jewison, Michael Jewison and Jenny Snyder; and five grandchildren.

One of Mr. Jewison’s last films, the theatrical adaptation “Dinner With Friends” (2001), was released on HBO after he found little support for the project from studio executives. Movies like “In the Heat of the Night” and “A Soldier’s Story” just weren’t being made anymore, he said — at least not by the major Hollywood film companies.

“They’d say these films were too wordy, too cerebral, too much dialogue. They often want films with a minimum of dialogue and lots of action and limited adult themes to sell abroad,” Mr. Jewison told the Times in 2001. “So many aspects of our life have disappeared from movie screens. And they’re now appearing on cable.”


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