Films

TOASTING THE ‘GODFATHER’

B.D.J. November 23 1998
Films

TOASTING THE ‘GODFATHER’

B.D.J. November 23 1998

TOASTING THE ‘GODFATHER’

They came to pay tribute to the godfather of Canadian film. Margot Kidder, who made her screen debut 29 years ago under his direction in Gaily, Gaily, called

him “a wizard, a genius, a giver of dreams.” Rod Steiger, the Oscar-winning star of In

the Heat of the Night (1967), recalled how the director talked him into chewing gum for his role as the bigoted white sheriff. Alan Arkin reminisced about The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! And Denzel Washington laughed about how Norman Jewison almost fired him from A Soldier’s Story (1984) for being such a prima donna.

Then, Washington, who would begin shooting Lazarus and the Hurricane with Jewison early the next morning in New Jersey, said: “I’m the luckiest man in the world because tomorrow I get to start another film with Norman.”

The occasion was the Canadian Film Centre’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, a $500-a-plate din-

ner held in Toronto last week to celebrate the career of its founder, Norman Jewison. It was a long night of rhapsodic accolades, including video tributes from Goldie Hawn, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Martin Scorsese, Whoopi Goldberg and Cher. But among the speakers at the dinner, the most startling presence was the pushy Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti, president of the

Motion Picture Association of America. Calling Jewison “one of the towering figures of the international film community,” he said: “You, sir, are the godfather of it all.” Then, noting his own unpopularity in Canadian film circles, Valenti added: “I

want to praise you or denounce you—whatever would help you most.” Valenti’s joke sums up the paradox of Norman Jewison. When he is not in Manhattan or Malibu, the 72-year-old director lives with his wife, Dixie, on a farm in Caledon, Ont., where he makes maple syrup and breeds cattle. Jewison is a national treasure, a Canadian patriot who has ardently supported his

country's cinema. But he has made his own career almost exclusively as a Hollywood film-maker. After turning out some 300 TV shows for the CBC in the 1950s, he directed groundbreaking variety specials for CBS with Belafonte and Judy Garland. He then went on to direct 23 movies, from Fiddler on the Roof (1971) to Agnes of God (1985). But he made his most indelible impact with dramas of racial injustice, no-

tably In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story. “I’ve always had a deep interest in America and racism,” he told Maclean’s, “because it’s a country which expounds constantly on freedom but is based on slavery.”

Jewison has not had a hit since 1987’s Moonstruck. But now, with Lazarus and the Hurricane, he is back in the ring with another civil rights movie, a drama based on the true story of American boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who was falsely convicted of a triple murder (fully exonerated, he now lives in Toronto). The movie is Jewison’s first independent production, an epic that he is making under the duress of a tight budget. But this boyish

septuagenarian seems in no mood to retire. He recalls a conversation at the Malibu home of directing legend William Wyler. “I saw him looking out over the Pacific and I said, ‘Willie, when’s it all over?' He grunted and said, ‘It’s when you're legs give out, kid.’ Well, my legs haven’t given out yet.”

B.D.J.