An observer who is anything but silent
Through his wide-ranging films, director Norman Jewison has offered pointed opinions about politics and society.
By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published April 20, 2007
Forty years ago, director Norman Jewison stunned U.S. moviegoers with a smart African-American detective standing his ground -- and proving his worth -- amid Southern racism. A year earlier, Jewison had needled America's Cold War paranoia; a few years later he predicted the violently corrupt future that is now.
In the Heat of the Night, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, Rollerball and hindsight suggest that this Canadian understood us better than we knew ourselves.
Jewison, in a career that spanned decades, has taught us not only about cultural and political conflict but also lessons in love Moonstruck, poker (The Cincinnati Kid) and what not to do in a courtroom (... And Justice for All).
The creator of such a diverse, heroically entertaining body of work deserves the acclaim he will receive this weekend at the ninth annual Sarasota Film Festival.
Jewison, 80, will be presented with a career achievement award Saturday night, culminating a retrospective of several of his finest films including Jesus Christ Superstar, A Soldier's Story and Fiddler on the Roof.
His reaction to the Sarasota honor during a telephone conversation was typical of the Jewison I know from a previous interview, a too-modest autobiography and all those grand hours in theaters.
"I'm old enough now that they probably want to give me an award for that," he said with cackling laughter. "They look around and say: 'Here's an old dude who's made a lot of movies. We'd better give him an award before he pops off.'"
A film crusader
Beneath the jocular, honorary uncle vibe Jewison tosses off is someone dead serious about social issues, especially race. It began when he was a Canadian sailor hitchhiking through the United States in 1946, observing what he later called "apartheid."
Jewison's commitment to equality focused in 1957 when 26 Southern television stations pulled the plug on a live variety special he directed for Harry Belafonte.
Half a century later, race issues still rankle the gentle crusader.
"Whether we like it or not, America is based on racism. It is something that should always be discussed," he said. "I'll make a movie about it at the drop of a hat because you have to continually remind everybody where we stand."
Racism was a hot topic the day we spoke; Don Imus was beginning to feel the heat over racially insensitive remarks that led to his firing from radio and TV.
"You have to remember this guy on the radio is an old dude," Jewison said. "He still carries the inculcation of racism somewhere in the back of his mind. If he's not careful, he'll make a remark like that, and then be astounded that he said it.
"He's going through all kinds of remorse now, but somewhere he was inculcated with that, from his parents or society."
Jewison maintains the optimistic outsider's viewpoint that has marked his films about the American experience.
"If you said to me in 1967 when we released In the Heat of the Night that someday the second-most important man to the president would be a black general, or tell me that a black senator is going to run for president in my lifetime, I would've said it was impossible.
"I look at young people in America today and see the integration of their society; it's pretty damn good."
The state of cinema
Jewison hasn't made a film in several years, in part because of his wife's death in 2004 and in part because of trends in Hollywood he finds distasteful.
Remakes of Rollerball and his 1968 hit The Thomas Crown Affair still ruffle his feathers.
He tried talking MGM out of making 2002's version of Rollerball, which lacked the political allegory of the original.
"I pleaded with them not to make it," he said. "I said, 'No, no, you can't do that. You're trying to make a video game out of it.' Films have become less involving emotionally, more spectacle like 300. The violence doesn't even mean anything because it's so over the top and computer-generated."
Jewison was more indifferent about 1999's reworking of The Thomas Crown Affair, his second collaboration with the late movie legend Steve McQueen.
"Well, I don't know whether you'll believe this, but I didn't see it," Jewison said. "The week it came out, I walked up the street and stood outside the theater. I looked at the (poster) and was going to buy a ticket and I couldn't. I went back to my office and I've never seen it. There was too much of me in the original."
Much of Jewison's loyalty stems from his relationship with the tempestuous McQueen, with whom he bonded while filming 1965's The Cincinnati Kid. Jewison called his star Spanky, like the bad boy leader of the Little Rascals, sensing a troubled guy who needed guidance.
"Steve was looking for a father," he said. "We sat down on a curb somewhere in New Orleans and had a long chat. I said, 'Look, I'm not old enough to be your father but I can be your older brother and I'll look out for you, I promise that.'
"Steve liked that, and he believed me. ... I did protect him and I understood him, even when it was a full moon and he'd get on his motorcycle and disappear."
Jewison's fondness for McQueen in spite of his escapades is one reason Jewison's memoir is titled This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me.
"Terrible because it's full of disappointments and sometimes lack of trust," he said. "It has always been a tough business, but, like life, I guess it has its upside, too, like people like Steve. You have to have a pretty thick skin, frankly."
Jewison is still in the game, rounding up financing for a political satire called High Alert.
He offered a typically low-key pitch to investors: "Think: The Arabs Are Coming! The Arabs Are Coming! Hey, it could work. If you have some money, let me know."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.