Frontlines

Jewison shoots for the truth

George Horhota October 29 1979
Frontlines

Jewison shoots for the truth

George Horhota October 29 1979

Jewison shoots for the truth

Frontlines

George Horhota

"Are you a good lawyer, are you honest?” asks the white-haired and moustachioed actor. Playing a wise and principled grandfather in Norman Jewison’s latest film, . . . And Justice for All (see review, Maclean's, Oct.

22), Lee Strasberg gazes at his grandson and awaits a profound response. Al Pacino, as the young lawyer battling against a tainted and inefficient American judicial system, shrugs, smiles and replies sincerely: “Grandpa, being a good lawyer has nothing to do with being honest.”

Jewison was asked the same thing in a recent interview: “Are you a good director, are you honest?” He, however, cannot dismiss the challenge with a shrug, since he has devoted most of his working life to showing his own brand of truth on the screen. He looked up from his lunch and said, “I use honesty as a standard for everything.

Dishonest films sometimes make money, but making money is not the criterion for success.”

That is not to say that Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison has an aversion to directing films that generate huge box-office receipts. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, Rollerball, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof and at least a half-dozen others have proven to be commercial hits. But he has consistently looked beyond the studio balance sheet for the raison d’être of his work.

Although Jewison takes the position that a film should not be used as a vehicle for “social propaganda” —his term for movies in which the social message is overpowering to a fault—he is determined not to devote his average of two years to a project without airing some of his critical views on society. In the comedy-satire The Russians Are Coming, there is a warm flash of camaraderie when a Russian submarine crew and a New England village for an instant overcome their nationalistic enmity— Jewison’s reaction to the “absurd” Cold War. The ultra-violent Rollerball articulated the director’s gut distaste for anonymous, corporate control of much of society, as well as for violence in ice hockey, and Fiddler on the Roof (which has grossed $48 million) was a heartfelt look at the erosion of families and tradi-

tions. In retrospect, the films seem mild, even innocuous in their messages, but at the time of Russians' release, Jewison was labelled a Canadian “pinko,” and Jesus Chy'ist Superstar drew a barrage of criticism from the American Jewish Congress.

Jewison seems far from that world of disputation when he is trudging across the hilly terrain on his 98-acre farm near Caledon East, a town just northwest of Toronto. He returned to Canada in June of 1978, after 20 years spent in England and Malibu, California. Dressed in trendy painter-pants and a tank top, and sporting a gold chain and bracelet, he appears to be much more a creature of Malibu, haunt of his showbusiness companions, than of rural Ontario. But in this case the clothes do not limit the man, for he is as much at home here as the neighboring farmers, whom he knows by their first names. “All you have to do is put a little work into the land and it will reward you,” says the bearded agriculturalist between bites of a scabbed apple. “When you plant a field, do all the work and reap it, that’s satisfying my creative urge.”

Satisfying the creative hunger has been a lifelong quest for Toronto’s Queen Street East native who, by the age of 7, had not only recited the entire Shooting of Dan McGrevo onstage but

also played a barker at his father’s fall-fair pitching booth. During his years at Malvern Collegiate, Jewison wrote and acted in minstrel shows and performed scat songs for every audience he could find in Toronto’s Cabbagetown. A stint in the Canadian navy’s entertainment unit reinforced his desire to become an actor. But when he directed and co-wrote his first major stage production, at the University of Toronto— the 1949 All Varsity Revue— Jewison discovered that his forte was working with, and directing, performers.

If Jewison’s youthful brushes with the stage seeded his skills as a director, his misfortunes as a teenager likely implanted the sense of justice and fairness that has guided his thinking and development as a person and as a cinematographer. A Methodist by upbringing, Jewison the schoolboy found himself the target of antiSemitic taunts because of his “Jewish-sounding” name. He joined a synagogue to learn about Judaism, but was ostracized there because he was not Jewish.(This education in prejudice later served him well while he directed In the Heat of the Night, a picture about racial hatred in the American South, starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier.lAnd even as a well-known director, Jewison’s name retained its spurious stigma—his membership application was rejected by New York’s WASPish Scarsdale Country Club in the early 1970s.

Now Jewison, 53, sits back in his Caledon study, where a quarter-century of memorabilia—Oscar nominations (he has had 26), awards (his pictures have won nine Oscars, but Jewison himself has won none) and yellowing photographs—cover the walls, and selects a sleek, black cigar from a Plexiglas box. He glances at the 16 leather-bound scripts, representing all his feature film efforts, then carefully chooses his words: “I can honestly say that most of my pictures represent my fears and joys and that’s why I did them.”

The emotions are many and varied, but they have in common a general Dickensian concern for the underdog, whether that means a tough young Steve McQueen poker-player in The Cincinnati Kid, or a struggling labor leader played by Sylvester Stallone in

the unprofitable F.I.S.T. Jewison’s hitch-hiking travels through the Deep South after his discharge from the navy in 1946, before the extinction of lynch mobs, gave him the idea for In the Heat of the Night. He saw Robert Kennedy as a champion of the oppressed, and before the presidential candidate’s assassination the two became friends. A portrait of Kennedy, bordered by excerpts from his speeches, is prominently displayed on an easel in Jewison’s living room.

The director’s apprehension and loathing of anonymous corporate control over personal initiative in modern society led to his filming of Rollerball. It is a fantasy in which the world is carved up by multinational corporations that promote a deadly version of roller derby in order to satisfy their workers’ passion for violence. The same theme of the individual versus the group is presented more baldly in . . . And Justice for All. The film lampoons the U.S. justice system—with the exception of a single lawyer—as being self-serving and even corrupt. “For a long time I have suspected that justice is not meted out equally to people,” says Jewison. “Lawyers are forever saying, ‘Look, I’ll do the talking, you shut up.’ I’m suspicious of people who want to speak for you.”

Jewison may aim at the same sacred

cows as Fellini or even Billy Wilder, but his popular mode of presentation attracts a wider cross section of society. The musical format of Fiddler on the Roof (to be re-released in a shortened version next month) and Jesus Christ Superstar, and the comedy style of The Russians Are Coming and Justice entice many moviegoers who would normally not see a “message” film.

Hal Ashby, who had his director’s debut on The Landlord, produced by Jewison, explains his mentor’s style: “Nor-

man feels very strongly about having the social things in his pictures but not wanting to fail because he gets on a soap-box about it.” But many critics think that Jewison does in fact get on a soapbox, and they refute his assertion that, “I hope I am making a social statement, but you see I must never tell anybody or they won’t go to see my films.”

Jewison earned the opportunity to create his own type of celluloid justice through an unlikely avenue for advancing to top feature films. After spending two years acting with the BBC, he was called back to Toronto as an assistant director at the CBC in 1952 (the year CBC TV went on the air). The boyish-faced Jewison quickly mastered the new medium, acquiring a variety of skills from writing the puppet Uncle Chichimus Show to directing Wayne and Shuster specials.

His abilities included a fierce tenacity ana sense of humor. One evening during a rehearsal,a well-known actor complained to Jewison that the television crew was not according him his due respect. The young director grabbed a studio microphone and boomed, “Let’s have a little respect for what’s-hisname.”

After screening some of his programs in 1958, CBS executives offered him a five-year contract on the spot. Within two years he was North America’s highest paid TV director. But Jewison soon became disillusioned, since “Madison Avenue regarded television as an extension of the advertising industry. They were only interested in how much money it would generate.”

And so he moved on to movies, making his directing debut with the popular but innocuous comedy Forty Pounds of Trouble (1962), starring Tony Curtis. That success won him a three-picture contract at Universal Studios, but Jewi-

son became disenchanted again when he was given little freedom in directing subsequent Doris Day comedies. When the contract expired Jewison formed his own production company and has worked for himself ever since.

Much of Jewison’s success can be attributed to his relaxed approach to work. “The one glaring characteristic of Norman Jewison is that no matter what is going on he keeps everything at a level, he never shows tension. He was born to be a director,” observes Leonard Starmer, an executive producer at the CBC, and Jewison’s former television boss.

While his methods may be straightforward, one aspect of Jewison’s career has remained an enigma. Although he has often advocated the development of a strong Canadian film industry, he has yet to shoot a single scene in Canada. Jewison explains: “Film is an international art form, and I am more interested in my films reaching out to the world audience than I am in being successful in Winnipeg or Edmonton or Toronto or Montreal. Let’s face it, there are more people there. If I have the opportunity to make a film in Canada I would appreciate that.”

Jewison’s ambition to reach as large an audience as possible dates back to his television days. He justifies any potential artistic compromise with the conviction that “the pure artist does not care whether anybody sees what he does because he is doing it for the sake of creating an artistic piece. I’m too much of a realist to spend two years creating an artful piece and be satisfied if nobody sees it.”

Working outside Canada has not weakened Jewison’s unusually strong sense of nationalism, however. He flaunted his nationality often, especially while living in the United States

(he once waved a Canadian flag while attending a hockey game in New York with motion-picture executives). “There are some Canadians who are more nationalistic than others; it has something to do with passion,” says Jewison.

Roots and heritage are paramount to the director’s peace of mind. He recounts with pride the story of neighboring farmers from miles around gathering to see his farm’s firstborn foal—an old custom in the area. Jewison was deeply touched by the gesture, for it helped him establish new roots at Putney Heath (the estate’s name, taken from his former home district in London). The move to rural Ontario was an indication of his growing desire to slow down and get away from Hollywood’s glitter. And with the slower pace there comes reflection: “When I was a young man I wanted to change the world. I now know that there’s very little possibility of me being able to deflect it one millimetre from its course. But if I ever stop trying, or if I ever stop believing that it’s worth trying, then I will cease to make films that have any value.”

Jewison’s face softens as he recalls his maiden aunt, a teacher who cultivated his respect for integrity. She would tell the story of his great-grandfather, a farmer from Bailieboro, Ont., who took his harvest of wheat to the Port Hope granary every fall. “When he pulled up after a two-day journey,” recalls Jewison, “the mill owner would ask how much grain was in the wagon. Great-grandfather would tell him there were so many tons there and the miller always said, ‘Okay, dump it in because it’s Joseph Jewison and we don’t have to weigh his wheat.’ ” That honesty is a family heirloom; Norman Jewison displays it proudly.^