What Couldn’t Norman Jewison Do?

Rod Steiger and Norman Jewison on the set of In the Heat of the Night (1967)

When news broke on Monday that Norman Jewison had passed away over the weekend—he was ninety-seven—two of the great actresses he worked with, Lee Grant and Cher, posted tributes. “Norman Jewison is a giant and I am in his debt,” wrote Grant. In 1951, when she was just twenty-four, Grant spoke out against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and was blacklisted for twelve years. Jewison “gave me back a career,” writes Grant, when he cast her in In the Heat of the Night (1967) as a distraught woman whose husband has been murdered in a small Mississippi town.

Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Black detective passing through on his way home to Philadelphia when he’s arrested as a suspect. Tibbs proves himself to be smarter, classier, and just generally better off than the white cops working the case, but despite the racial tension electrifying the air, the police chief (Rod Steiger) persuades Tibbs to stick around and help him solve the murder.

“Alongside a movie it beat for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—another, more typical, Poitier message movie—In the Heat of the Night has gone down in history as something of a win for white liberalism,” wrote K. Austin Collins in 2019. “It’s indisputably true that there isn’t a radical bone in this film’s body. But it’s worthwhile to ponder how Jewison’s film attempts to, at the very least, revise the ways a film might satisfy the cultural codes of liberal Hollywood.” Revisiting the film, Collins found “a far more taxing, tangled-up drama of racial reconciliation than I’d tended to remember.”

In another special feature for our release, Grant looks back on the moment she realized that playing a character frustrated and infuriated by the “nest of racists and stupidity” at the police station gave her an opportunity to channel the rage she felt toward the McCarthyists and the industry that did their bidding. “Nothing I say here can do him justice,” she writes in her brief tribute to Jewison. “But I can say, ‘Thank you.’”

Cher’s social-media presence is more boisterous, studded with emojis, eclectic line breaks, and exuberant capitalization, all of which further endears her to her nearly four million followers. “Farewell, Sweet Prince,” she wrote on Monday. “Thank you for one of the greatest, happiest, most fun experiences of my life. Without you, I would not have my beautiful golden man”—a reference, of course, to the Oscar she won for playing Loretta Castorini in Moonstruck (1987).

In one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time, Cher’s Loretta falls hard for her fiancé’s brother, Ronny Cammareri, which proved to be a breakthrough role for Nicolas Cage. “Ronny possesses a raw, dangerous energy, and Jewison never tries to mute that in order to make him seem more lovable,” wrote Emily VanDerWerff in 2020. “What makes Ronny lovable is that danger.”

Moonstruck was written by John Patrick Shanley, who, as VanDerWerff noted, “came to the film from the stage, and his skill at playwriting shines through here. The scenes are generally long for a screen comedy of the eighties, taking their time to get where they’re going and leaving in all of the air a contemporary film might cut out.”

Talking to Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, Shanley recalls that Cher would complain about Jewison ruining takes with his laughter. “He was the best audience for the actors,” says Shanley. “I think he communicated his exuberance to them.” Cher also wanted to call the movie Moonglow, and both he and Jewison thought that was a terrible idea. Jewison told Shanley: “I’m putting it on all the scripts so that I can get along with her while I’m shooting the picture.”

Seitz also has a lovely remembrance of Jewison at Vulture. “You can watch hours of interviews with the man and never see him lose his Cheshire Cat smile, much less raise his voice,” he writes. “He was as legendary for his skill at corporate politics and ego management as for his achievements as a director and producer.” During the making of F.I.S.T. (1978), a labor-union drama written by Joe Eszterhas, Sylvester Stallone arrived on the set “demanding to be photographed from certain angles,” and Jewison “contrived to have the crew follow Stallone’s instructions but not roll film or record audio. When the time came to edit the picture, there was nothing for Stallone to demand that he put in.”

Jewison’s name led many to believe that he was Jewish, but he was born in Toronto to Methodist parents who ran a convenience store and post office. In his 2005 memoir, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, Jewison recalled taking pride in getting beat up in school alongside his Jewish friends. After serving in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, Jewison set out to explore the United States. Somewhere outside Memphis, he boarded a bus and sat in the back. The driver wouldn’t budge until Jewison moved away from the seats meant for Blacks. Jewison got off the bus.

“I think it was then, along the highways of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, that the desire to make films like In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story took root,” wrote Jewison in This Terrible Business. “Racism and injustice are two themes I have come back to, again and again, in my films.” Inspired by Melville’s Billy Budd and written by Charles Fuller, who was working from his Pulitzer Prize–winning A Soldier’s Play, A Soldier’s Story (1984) stars Howard E. Rollins Jr. as a Black captain investigating a murder during the Second World War. The supporting cast includes a young Denzel Washington and Robert Townsend.

“I felt like I was in a masterclass in directing when I worked with him,” writes Townsend in his tribute to Jewison on Instagram. “I nicknamed him ‘Santa Claus Eyes’ because he always had this spark in his eyes when he gave direction. He also gave me the leftover film from the movie that would help me make Hollywood Shuffle.

Denzel Washington took the lead in The Hurricane (1999), the third film in what many see as a trilogy tackling race head-on. Washington plays real-life boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted for a triple murder “and lost nineteen years of his life because of racism, corruption, and—perhaps most wounding—indifference,” as Roger Ebert put it. In one remarkable sequence, Carter begins to unravel in solitary confinement. His personality splits, and the fragments start going after each other. “This is one of Denzel Washington’s great performances,” wrote Ebert, and Jewison directs “with a sure storyteller’s art and instinct.”

Jewison’s career began in television, first in Canada, and then in the States, where he directed variety shows such as Your Hit Parade and one-off specials spotlighting Harry Belafonte, Jackie Gleason, Danny Kaye, and most crucially, a “comeback” special for Judy Garland that featured Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Visiting the set of that one, Tony Curtis was so impressed that he persuaded Jewison to make the leap to movies.

Curtis hired Jewison to direct his first feature, 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), a comedy starring Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. Two comedies with Doris Day followed, The Thrill of It All (1963) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). The Art of Love (1965), starring James Garner, Dick Van Dyke, Elke Sommer, and Angie Dickinson, “proved a romcom too far,” writes David Parkinson for the BFI. “When Sam Peckinpah was fired from The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Jewison put himself forward and not only demonstrated that he could handle a difficult star like Steve McQueen but also that he could bring visual flair to the gambling drama’s pivotal poker sequences.”

“If The Cincinnati Kid was the film that made me feel like a filmmaker,” wrote Jewison in This Terrible Business, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), the hit comedy about a Soviet sub stuck off the coast of New England and the movie that introduced the world to comedic brilliance of Alan Arkin, “was the film that gave me a strong anti-establishment reputation.” The box-office success also allowed Jewison to make demands for In the Heat of the Night, including shooting on location.

The sleek heist thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) “treated Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway as pure eye candy and ignited a decade-long craze for mosaic-style split-screen collages,” writes Seitz at Vulture. Jewison himself noted that “we’ll be accused of placing style ahead of content, but I say the hell with that. People who say that understand neither style nor content. In the movies, style is content.”

The lukewarm reception of Gaily, Gaily (1969), a loose adaptation of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht’s 1963 memoir, combined with Jewison’s souring on the political and social chaos in the States at the time, prompted Jewison to leave for Europe, where he began work on what would become the highest-grossing film of 1971. Fiddler on the Roof, based on the hit musical about a Jewish milkman and his daughters in the village of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia, “defied conventional wisdom about whose stories could be universal,” wrote Robert Abele at TheWrap in 2022.

Abele was reviewing Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, Daniel Raim’s “warm, engaging” documentary about the making of the film that “has maintained its reputation as a classic as few other movie versions of cherished musicals have.” Critic Ali Arikan recalls attending Ebertfest one year, when Roger Ebert “nudged me to ask Norman Jewison a question during a quiet Q&A. I couldn’t think of anything profound so I blurted, ‘Why follow Fiddler on the Roof with Jesus Christ Superstar [1973]?’ He went, ‘After one for the chosen people, I wanted one for the gentiles.’”

The oeuvre took another swerve with Rollerball (1975), a dystopian vision of televised sports as a blood-splashed mass spectacle. As Tim Robey points out in the Telegraph, this was “Jewison’s lone science fiction film, not to mention his bleakest social satire.” Rollerball is “no masterpiece, and not actually as bloody as you may remember, but [it’s] a zeitgeist classic in its queasy way.”

In 1979, Jewison directed Al Pacino as a lawyer perpetually on the verge of blowing his well-coifed top in . . . And Justice for All (1979). Jack Warden costars as a suicidal judge and John Forsythe plays a judge accused of brutally assaulting a young woman. Lee Strasberg, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Lahti, and Craig T. Nelson appear in supporting roles. “It’s a crowded cast,” writes Sean Burns at Crooked Marquee, “and even if you don’t always feel like Jewison is in complete control of the proceedings, that adds to the discombobulating rush of incident, and is probably why the plot’s shocking twists pack the punches that they do. A more focused, emotionally coherent version of this movie wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.”

Courtroom dramas, musicals, Doris Day comedies, heist thrillers, earnest pleas for social justice: “There are contortionists who can’t fold themselves into as many different shapes as Jewison did during his career,” writes Seitz. Parkinson observes that Jewison was “at his peak when the studio era was fading, and the critics feting the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls of New Hollywood didn’t always recognize the aesthetic acuity behind his intellectual integrity.” Let’s give the last word to Cher: “Norman Jewison lives on through his work.”

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