THE MOVIE MAGICIAN
As the limousine left Manhattan on its way to the airport, Norman Jewison watched the city skyline slide by the window and recalled his first meeting with Cher at her house in Beverly Hills. “She had just got out of the shower,” said the Canadian director. “She had no makeup on and she was in bare feet. She was wearing black pants and a black sweater and she was sitting on a beautiful white couch in a white living room. I thought that was kind of striking—I liked the unpretentiousness of absolutely no makeup.” At the time, Cher expressed reservations about starring in Moonstruck.
But Jewison persisted, convincing her to accept a dressed-down role as a dowdy New York City Italian bookkeeper in a movie that appeared to lack commercial potential. It turned out to be an inspired piece of casting: Moonstruck became a box-office hit.
And it is nominated for six Oscars at the Academy Awards on April 11.
“It’s very nice to be patted on the head by your peers, I guess,” said Jewison, as the limousine wheeled into La Guardia Airport. Then, he boarded a flight to Toronto, where he received the Special Achievement Award at last week’s Genie Awards—confirming his status as the dean of Canadian film-makers.
Triumph: At 61, Jewison is the most successful Canadian director in the history of the movies. And he is having an exceptionally good year. With Moonstruck, he is enjoying his greatest triumph since his 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof. Moonstruck, a romantic comedy that casts new light on oldfashioned family values, has grossed more than $74 million since its release last December. And of all the movies nominated for Oscars this year, it is emblematic of a new trend in Hollywood—a shift away from adolescent action pictures to movies with smart scripts aimed at adults (page 38). “After so many films with endless reels of
mindless action,” he said, “the pendulum seems to be swinging back to films where people actually talk to each other.”
Tension: A Canadian who has spent much of his career using the screen to interpret America for the world, Jewison has often defied Hollywood’s rearview vision with groundbreaking films. His satirical Cold War comedy, The Russians Are Coming!, The Russians Are Coming!, found fans in both the White House and the Kremlin. And 1967’s In the Heat of the Night—his Oscar-winning movie about racial tension between a black detective and a white
sheriff in a sweltering southern town—became a favorite of Jewison’s friend, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was due to meet him for dinner the night he was assassinated in 1968. Over the course of his career, Jewison has made 22 films, winning nine Oscars and 45 nominations. His movies include dramas, comedies, musicals and thrillers. Nearly all have been profitable, and now the kind of movie that Jewison likes to make has become fashionable again. Jewison’s films, as actor Donald Sutherland noted at last week’s award ceremonies, aim to “capture the elemental truths of the human condition.”
A few years ago, when Hollywood studio executives were still imitating the science-fiction formulas concocted by director Steven Spielberg, Jewi-
son said, “I can’t direct spaceships.” But he can direct people. In an interview with Maclean's last week, Cher said:
“He’s very much an actor’s director. He figures out what everyone needs and what they need him to be. He’s so sharp. You think that things are off-the-cuff, but he’s very devious. I don’t think there’s one moment when he isn’t planning what’s going on.” On the set of Moonstruck, which was filmed in New York and Toronto, Jewison could be crusty, charming, mean, funny or fatherly, depending on the situation, Cher said. “Norman’s a showman,” she added. “He’s an actor himself. He likes telling stories and loves being the centre of attention—you know, he’s showbiz.” Moral: But unlike some of his Hollywood colleagues, Jewison has a respect for dramatic literacy that owes as much to the stage as to the screen. A number of Jewison’s recent movies, including Agnes of God and A Soldier's Story, are adaptations of plays. And Moonstruck was scripted by New York playwright John Patrick Shanley (page 40). “Norman is almost a totally subtextual creature,” said Shanley. “He plays at being straightforward, enthusiastic and not terribly imaginative. But underneath that, he has an extremely sensitive mind. He’s manipulative in the good sense of the word— he’s not interested in making people love him, but in making them comfortable so he can get the job done.” Although Jewison makes mainstream movies with Hollywood stars and eight-figure budgets, he is not typically Hollywood. He finishes his pictures on time and on budget. Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman recalls that Jewison originally planned to direct last year’s The Princess Bride but considered the budget too small. “Others advised Norman to take the money and go over by $1 million,” said Goldman. “Norman would not take it; he is very moral.” Money: Another aspect of Jewison’s conscience is loyalty to his Canadian roots. He owns a beach house in Malibu, Calif., and rents an apartment in the heart of Manhattan but considers his true home a 280-acre farm in Cale-
don East, in Ontario, where he raises Herefords and makes maple syrup. A spirited supporter of the Canadian film industry, Jewison is also the founder of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies, which opened its doors in February (page 41). When he talks about the importance of raising money for the centre and laments the stinginess of Canada’s corporate donors, he becomes a passionate salesman. “Feature films are the literature of our generation,” he declared. “They express the social conscience of a country: films are forever.”
Filming: That slogan is one of Jewison’s pet phrases. Another is “Money has no personality,” which he throws at Canadians who ask him why he works for the big, bad Hollywood studios. Fielding such a question from a young reporter at the Genies last week, Jewison lost his patience. At issue was January Man, which he is coproducing for MGM and which is scheduled to begin seven weeks of filming in a Toronto studio this week. The story could only take place in Manhattan,
and when the reporter asked if it “was going to be one of those films where Toronto is made to look like somewhere else,” Jewison snapped: “Film is always pretending to be somewhere else. A stage is a stage.”
Killer: The previous week Jewison was on location in New York City with a crew that was shooting a scene of January Man, a black comedy about a serial killer, directed by Patrick O’Connor and written by Shanley. In the damp chill of the Manhattan night, a crowd of extras milled about a group of squad cars in the middle of a SoHo street. A voice called “Action!” and extras dressed as constables with rifles watched an unkempt character in a dark overcoat stagger down the front steps of an apartment building with a rolled-up rug over his shoulder. The character, portrayed by Kevin Kline, slumped on the 5 sidewalk, and the rug 5 unrolled to reveal the killer sought by police. Beyond the set, the refrain of police sirens wailing in the night lent an eerie realism to the scene.
Jewison stayed on the set well past midnight but was already preoccupied with a new film he was planning to direct in June, In Country, based on the poignant 1985 post-Vietnam novel by Bobbi Ann Mason. The next afternoon an attractive 17-year-old blonde wearing a Hard Rock Cafe jacket arrived for an audition at his Manhattan apartment—a 14th-floor suite above the Museum of Modern Art. Jewison— a bearded, gnome-like figure with a permanent twinkle in his eye—gleefully pointed out: “It’s the only apartment in New York with a signed Picasso in the lobby.”
After the actress left, Jewison said that he had still not decided whether she was right to play In Country's main character, a teenage Kentucky girl whose father was killed in Vietnam. He said he also had another actress in mind who was “very sensual, tall and lanky with blond hair and green eyes —physically, she’s perfect. But I’m not sure if she’s too knowing.” Until now, Jewison has never cast a teenage girl in a leading role and he seemed a little baffled by the process: finding the right balance of experience and innocence was not easy. Also, he has never before made a film about the Vietnam War because, he explained, “it was too painful.”
Family: Sipping a scotch, Jewison pointed proudly to a pair of Canadian landscape paintings in a living room tastefully decorated in airy pastels. On the wall is a replica of his Order of Canada medal. Asked if he will ever make an identifiably Canadian movie, Jewison said he would if the banks gave him the money. But he said that he feels no obligation to make movies glorifying great Canadians. “The world is not interested in hearing about your heroes,” he stressed. “They want you to entertain them, move them.” Then, the director of Moonstruck added with a smile: “Perhaps the Great Canadian Movie will be a film about people— about a family.”
In his childhood, Jewison learned to distrust superficial notions of national identity. He said that while he was growing up in Toronto’s Beaches area, where his father ran a general store, he became the target of anti-Semitic taunts because of what some considered to be his Jewish-sounding name— he is not Jewish. Although he was raised a Methodist, Jewison joined a synagogue briefly to learn about Judaism. Performing plays and musical sketches from an early age, he studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Malvern Collegiate Institute. After serving in the Royal Canadian Navy’s entertainment unit in 1944 and 1945, he obtained an arts degree in 1949 from the University of Toronto. With the dawn of television,
Jewison found his vocation behind the camera.
Chains: Learning his craft as a director at the BBC in London and the CBC in Toronto, he went on to direct live TV specials for U.S. networks with such singers as Judy Garland, Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra. His Belafonte special in 1959 was the first major black show on American television and it opened with white chains dangling from the stage. Station managers in some of the southern states were not amused, said Jewison. “Halfway through the show, somebody came into the control room and said, ‘We’ve just lost 27 stations.’ ”
Jewison, who marched in civil rights protests beside his friends Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, combined his passion for social issues with
a talent for making musicals and romantic comedy. In 1953 he married Dixie, a Toronto model, and also directed his first movie, 1+0 Pounds of Trouble. It was followed by two featherweight Doris Day confections, The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers. In the late 1960s Jewison decided to direct only movies that he could con-
trol as a coproducer—he is still one of the few Hollywood directors allowed to make the final cut of their own work. Taking command of his own career, he cast Steve McQueen as a poker player in The Cincinnati Kid, then as a gangster in The Thomas Crown Affair, a stylish thriller. But the film-maker made his greatest impact with The Russians are Coming! and In the Heat of the Night, which dramatized the race war.
Award: Twenty years ago this April, in a ceremony postponed for two days because of Martin Luther King’s assassination, In the Heat of the Night won five Oscars. Rod Steiger, who took the award for best actor, told Maclean's recently: “It was the first film I can think of in which the black man hit the white man. Sidney Poitier and I used to sneak into theatres just to watch the audience’s reaction.” Earlier, Jewison had discussed the script with Kennedy. “Bobby was telling me it’s an important film. He said, ‘Norman, the timing’s right,’ ” recalled Jewison, fondly mimicking the Kennedy accent.
But the times were wrong. Disillusioned by the assassinations of Kennedy and King, Jewison sent back his green card to the U.S. immigration officials and moved with his wife and three children to Europe, where they remained for eight years. “I had lost my faith in the American dream,” he said, “and it was the only protest I could make.” Jewison filmed two musicals—Fiddler on the Roof (1971) in Yugoslavia and Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) in Israel-then shot Rollerball (1975), a futuristic parable about corporate violence, in Munich. Anxious to return to his roots, he moved back to North America in 1978, while making F.I.S.T., a story of labor corruption loosely based on the career of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. Its star,
Sylvester Stallone, objected to his character dying at the end of the movie. Recalled Jewison:
“He said, ‘It’s like you killed Rocky.’ ” The director’s reply: “Maybe
you’ve got Rocky confused with yourself.”
Jewison can hold his own with Hollywood stars and studio executives. But his Los Angeles-based agent, Larry Auerbach, says that he is not an easy client. “We have terrible fights,” he told Toronto Globe and Mail critic Jay Scott, who is writing a biography of Jewison. Added Auerbach: “He wants to
do movies nobody wants to finance. Then there’s the politics. I wish Norman would shut up about American politics—he’s known as a Canadian here, an outsider. He’s getting better, but all the anti-American statements he made in the 1960s really hurt him in this town.”
Although Jewison maintains that he never stoops to outright propaganda, his movies can carry strong messages. Jewison followed F.I.S.T with . . . And Justice for All, starring AÍ Pacino, a satire on the American legal system that the critics panned. But in 1984 he won acclaim for A Soldier's Story, a rivetting adaptation of a racial drama by Charles Fuller set on a Louisiana army base in 1944. Like In the Heat of the Night, it centred on a murder investigation. A rare example of a major Hollywood movie with a predominantly black cast, it offered an eye-opening view of segregation, a subject that still inflames Jewison. “Black soldiers were being asked to go and die for their country,” he said, “and they couldn’t eat and drink at the same God damned table as their comrades.”
Murder: Defying industry skeptics, Jewison has managed to get mainstream audiences to sit still for movies about subjects without obvious commercial appeal. After A Soldier's Story Jewison’s camera shifted from army barracks to nuns’ cloisters with 1985’s Agnes of God. Starring Jane Fonda as a psychiatrist investigating the murder of a baby by a novitiate nun, it won three Oscar nominations. And although its main characters
were all played by Americans, Jewison called it his first Canadian movie: he changed the script’s setting from Boston to Quebec and filmed it in Ontario with a largely Canadian crew. The story pushed an intense conflict
between faith and reason to a supernatural conclusion—and now, with Moonstruck, critics express relief that Jewison has finally begun to lighten up.
Shark: Diverting the mainstream to his own passions, Jewison is a creature of both Hollywood and Canada but a prisoner of neither. Director, producer, gentleman farmer, veteran of a 35-year marriage and father of three children, who now work with him on films—Kevin, 31, Michael, 29, and Jennifer, 27—he seems to enjoy the best of all worlds. “He is an independent person in the nicest sense,” said Steiger, now working for Jewison again in Janua'i'y Man. “Norman is not a shark.” No, but he is a self-described “political animal” who has had to be a shrewd operator to bring his dreams to market. While audiences were lapping up the whimsy of Moonstruck, Jewison was already plotting the logistics of his next production: In Country.
Leaning back in his seat on the plane to Toronto last week, Jewison talked about how he would have to build a model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, because his cameras are not allowed close to the real one in Washington. Film-making is full of political details, he explained as the plane touched down. Later, clutching his special award at the Genies, the director became salesman as he made a pitch for his film school on national television. “That was shameless,” he said afterward. “I felt like a shmuck.”
But the twinkle in the eye gave him away. Jewison knew, once again, that he had done the smart thing.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON