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On the cusp of 95, Norman Jewison is still a filmmaker for all reasons

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Filmmaker Norman Jewison has been a vital cultural force in Canada and Hollywood for so many years, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see him referred to in the past tense in a new biography.

“Norman Jewison lived an improbably fascinating life,” author Ira Wells writes in the preface to “Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life,” a scholarly book about Canada’s most celebrated filmmaker that’s also a great read.

Toronto-born Jewison turns 95 on July 21, and even a man as buoyant and positive as he is wouldn’t deny he’s closer to his final fade to black than his opening credits. It’s a reality the bearded and bespectacled raconteur is undoubtedly approaching with a great cigar and also good humour — a ham actor as a kid, he loved faking theatrical death scenes.

“A Director’s Life” makes for sometimes dizzying reading. Author Wells, an assistant professor of literature at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, packs in details about Jewison’s 24 motion pictures, which earned 46 Academy Award nominations (and 12 wins). These include such popular (and sometimes controversial) attractions as “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) and “Moonstruck” (1987).

The book also explores Jewison’s exploits as a TV pioneer (he helped launch CBC TV), philanthropist (he founded Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre for young talent), Victoria College chancellor, gentleman farmer, passionate gardener, father of three and husband of 54 years (to the late Margaret Ann “Dixie” Jewison; he married second wife Lynne in 2010).

Jewison told much of his life story in his own autobiography, 2004’s breezy “This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me,” in which he admitted that, as the socially conscious son of a blue-collar family from Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood, he always felt like an outsider in soulless and money-mad Hollywood. Jewison declared he’s always “on the side of the working stiff and against the owners of the company store.”

His idealism and rebelliousness often got him into trouble. But he also earned much respect from his industry colleagues, receiving three Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards and, in 1999, an honorary Oscar for career achievement, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

Wells provides valuable context to Jewison’s life story, illustrating why Jewison feels his films all require a raison d’être, a reason for being that is different from being a mere message movie (Jewison hates that term).

This can be seen in the sensitivity and truthfulness of the groundbreaking “In the Heat of the Night,” the 1967 Best Picture winner in which Sidney Poitier is a Black detective investigating a Deep South murder, a racially provocative story and movie that earned accolades from Bobby Kennedy and other civil rights warriors.

“A Director’s Life” is loaded with tales of Jewison’s boundless energy, charming such temperamental talent as Steve McQueen, Cher and Al Pacino into doing his bidding and earning the nickname “the Sunshine Kid” from an early producer.

It also reveals a ruthless side, as when Jewison ignored his friend, the actor Theodore Bikel, who’d played tradition-loving Jewish milkman Tevye in the Vegas stage version of “Fiddler on the Roof” and desperately wanted this leading screen role. Jewison instead gave the Tevye part to lesser-known Chaim Topol from the London stage production, without even bothering to check out Bikel’s performance.

Yet Jewison was kind enough to set aside funds for years of continuing care and feeding for Tevye’s elderly horse, the one that appeared in the movie, which otherwise would have been sent to the glue factory. An improbable favouring of horse over human by one so empathetic, perhaps, but all part of a fascinating life story told with verve and authority by Ira Wells. 🌓

(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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