NORMAN JEWISON Born 1926, Toronto, Ont.
He’s one of many young, talented Canadians who wandered south to fulfill his dreams — but he never abandoned his Canadian identity, and when it came time to reinvest in his cultural heritage, Norman Jewison didn’t just give something back — he created a legacy in the form of the Canadian Film Centre (or The Norman Jewison Centre for Advanced Film Studies). Located in an old mansion on the outskirts of metro Toronto, the centre opened its doors in 1986 and has since pumped out some of the best screen talents the country has to offer.
Though he’s experienced great success on the American side of the border, Jewison has never been co-opted by the studio system. His films tend to follow certain studio conventions, but he makes movies that explore themes of social justice and tolerance, and sticks to his guns regardless of the potential backlash.
For instance, when Jewison’s most recent film The Hurricane (about the wrongful conviction and eventual release of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) was criticized for whitewashing facts and downplaying the contributions of the prize-fighter’s legal team in favour of glorifying a group of Canadian social activists, Jewison never buckled and eventually enlisted the support of none other than Jack Valenti.
The Toronto son is used to controversy. After ending his tour of duty with the Royal Canadian Navy at the close of the Second World War, Jewison toured the American South where he got on a bus, sat in the back, and was given an impromptu lesson on segregation by the fuming bus driver who pointed at the sign “Colored People in the Rear.” It struck a chord in Jewison’s Canadian psyche and set him on a mission.
“It was my first exposure to apartheid in America, and it made a tremendous impression on me that people could go and serve their country in war and give their lives to a society and to a government that didn’t allow them to have a cup of coffee in a department store or drink out of at public fountain. I found that inconceivable,” Jewison told then-Southam reporter Jamie Portman during the publicity rounds for The Hurricane in 2000.
When Jewison returned to Toronto — where actually attended the same high school as Glenn Gould — after a stint at the BBC in London (1950-1952), the University of Toronto grad began directing TV shows for the CBC. With network experience under his belt, he moved to the U.S. and began working for CBS, where he became a variety-show king — producing such efforts as the “legendary Judy Garland Show” in 1963 and ‘64.
Having gained a reputation for comedy, Jewison’s first film was the 1963 film, Forty Pounds of Trouble, which feaured Tony Curtis taking care of an abandoned six-year-old and climaxed with a chase through Disneyland. The film proved he could spin a comic tale, prompting a slew of other light, entertainments such as The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a Steve McQueen card-shark movie and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966), a spoof of Cold War paranoia that earned him the title of “Canadian pinko” in the trade magazine, The Hollywood Reporter.
The criticism seemed a little severe for a puff piece, but in 1967, Jewison really did step away from the cult of conformity with the release of In the Heat of the Night. Revered to this day as a pivotal moment in American film for its blunt portrayal of racism and hate, In the Heat of the Night won the best picture Oscar of the year, in addition to four other statuettes. Jewison himself, however, was shut out.
His next few projects highlighted entertainment over social justice — The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Gaily, Gaily (1969) — but after watching the race issue continue to fester, Jewison picked up sticks and headed back to Britain, where he could continue his film career without compromising his morality. While there, he adapted the famed stage play Fiddler on the Roof to much critical acclaim, and hooked up with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for the screen version of Jesus Christ Superstar. He hit a low point with the roller derby movie, Rollerball, in 1975 but he returned to the front line in the fight for social justice with a vengeance in 1979 with the courtroom drama, And Justice For All, and in 1984 with A Soldier’s Story — another murder mystery with a pointed race angle as it explores a black man’s place in a white man’s army.
The film introduced Denzel Washington to the masses and featured a standout supporting performance from diva Patti LaBelle. It was even nominated for an Academy Award, but once again, Jewison was not a winner. Even the universally lauded Moonstruck, which earned Oscars for Cher and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, failed to earn Jewison the stamp of peer approval. It was only in 1998 that Jewison earned the recognition of Tinseltown when he was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg memorial award for his outstanding contribution to the cinema. I still remember watching him accept the prize with the utmost humility, and reminding the blockbuster-manic audience that storytelling was the essence of film. His speech was so elegant and simple that it was hard to disagree with anything he said, let alone take offense. Like I said, the man may make a living in the U.S. — but his heart remains 100 per cent Canuck.
In a recent Life and Times documentary produced for CBC Television, which features Bruce McDonald interviewing Jewison on a train chugging across the Canadian landscape, Jewison talks a lot about his roots and how being Canadian shaped his world vision. He talks about the landscape and the quality of the light and the smell of the trees. He pushes the private sector to invest in Canadian talent and says “if you want to play, you have to step up to bat.”
We know he did. But whether or not Jewison becomes the founding father of a whole new tradition of financially and dramtically viable English Canadian film-makers — or just a proud, patriotic anomaly in the so-called “self-loathing” Canadian wilderness remains to be seen. – Katherine Monk
FILMOGRAPHY:Forty Pounds of Trouble (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964), The Art of Love (1965), 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), Gaily, Gaily (1969), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Rollerball (1975), F.I.S.T. (1978), …,And Justice For All (1979), Best Friends (1982), A Soldier’s Story (1984), Agnes of God (1985), Moonstruck (1987), In Country (1989), Other People’s Money (1991), Only You (1994), Bogus (1996), The Hurricane (1999), Dinner with Friends (2001, TV), The Statement (2003).