Can you name any of his films? Well, if not, you have certainly seen a number of them and heard of even more. Four of his films have been nominated for Oscar's best picture, one has won. He has been nominated for best director three times. He has worked with quite a number of big name stars, 12 of whom have been nominated for Oscars in his films and three who have won.
Jewison was born in 1926 in Toronto to a couple who ran a convenience store and the local post office. Throughout his childhood he longed to be in show business in some capacity... writing, directing, acting, all of which he would eventually accomplish. Attending Toronto's Victoria College, he directed and wrote a number of the college's theatrical productions. After college he moved to England to work in all those capacities he dreamed of as a youngster. In 1952 he returned to Toronto and began directing for the CBC. His work there eventually attracted the attention of biggies in New York who hired him to direct television's The Judy Garland Show. It only lasted a season even though it was magnificently presented on all levels. He became a great admirer of Garland.
It didn't take too long for Hollywood to take notice and before long he was making mindless comedies with Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Rock Hudson and James Garner in the form of 40 Pounds of Trouble, The Thrill of It All, Send Me No Flowers and The Art of Love. He'd probably prefer to forget them. I know I would.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965) came to Jewison after maverick director Sam Peckinpah was fired. It's likely the movie's title star, Steve McQueen, had something to do with Peckinpah's exit. Even Jewison, who would work with McQueen a second time, said he was the most difficult actor he'd ever worked with.
It is the story of a high-stakes poker game and a brash young man who aims to take down a master player. The talk has always been that the makers wanted The Cincinnati Kid to do for gambling what The Hustler did for pool. Most I suppose would say it fell short of that but I found it much to my liking. It was dark, clever, frequently mean-spirited and had one of the best casts in Edward G. Robinson, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn and the always magnetic McQueen.
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) was a critical and popular success and a damned cute movie which was Oscar-nominated as best picture. The plot concerned a Russian submarine that runs aground on a small New England island and the ensuing chaos that results with the residents of the already oddball town. It was actually filmed in Mendocino, California. The cavorting of Jonathan Winters is the highlight but that is not to slight Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith or John Phillip Law. Certainly not John Phillip Law.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) is likely considered the director's best. It was voted best picture by the Oscar folks, Jewison was nominated for best director and Rod Steiger won best actor. (I did not think he was better than Sidney Poitier in the same film, only louder.) Jewison felt very close to the story of a black cop from the north who goes south to help in a murder investigation at his own peril. Years earlier, Jewison had ventured south and was very alarmed by the racial tension he witnessed.
I watched In the Heat of the Night recently and I say what I have always said... I'm surprised it won best picture, although it was a damned good film. But better than Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate? I don't think so.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) with a dressed-up Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway at her most alluring was a fascinating and oh-so-delicious cat and mouse game about a multi-million-dollar heist and its unexpected aftermath. The film had a captivating multi-screen look at the action, the sexiest chess game ever played and a mega-popular song, The Windmills of Your Mind.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) were his two forays into movie musicals and musical-dramas at that, rather than the more standard musical-comedies. I never saw the former, never wanted to. I was also not interest in the latter but did manage to get through it once on the tube. It was mildly ok. Both seemed to me to be one-song wonders. I'm sure Jewison put his all into both. Both the film and Jewison would receive Oscar nominations for Fiddler.
Rollerball (1975) I never saw because neither sci-fi nor James Caan alone will ever get me out to a theater. I do acknowledge that around the time of its release I was given a lot of guff about not going and in the face of great reviews and public adulation.
And Justice for All (1979) centered around an ethical defense attorney, sick of all the corruption around him, who is asked to defend a judge he despises on a rape charge. I love courtroom scenes... always sucked into them and with Al Pacino leading the way, I couldn't resist. I loved the young Al Pacino. Guess I've never told you that, but tuck it away for now. And Jack Warden as the judge... oh my, was he hot in this.
A Soldier's Story (1984), based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was another film that was dear to Jewison because he was so drawn to its theme. Although it was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and similar in theme to In the Heat of the Night, for my money this was the better picture. I had only recently discovered its star, Howard Rollins Jr. in Ragtime, and couldn't wait to see him again. A black army officer is sent to Louisiana to investigate the murder of a black sergeant in a regiment with white officers and bitter resentment and racism follows. There were wonderful performances from Rollins, Adolf Caesar, David Alan Grier, Denzel Washington, Patti LaBelle, Larry Riley and a great musical score by Herbie Hancock.
Moonstruck (1987) may be my favorite romantic-comedy of alltime and is my favorite Jewison film. He certainly drew lightning performances from his entire cast. It contains my favorite Nicolas Cage performance (that's saying a lot since I'm not crazy about his work) and I fell in love with Olympia Dukakis in this film. Cher was a revelation to me. Jewison said she had natural comic timing. Both ladies won Oscars. Both the film and Jewison would also be nominated.
In 1992 he was signed to direct Malcolm X and it would have been a good fit for Jewison, but he bowed out due to public pressure for wanting a black director. Of course, Spike Lee took over the project and turned it into a compelling film.
Jewison would still get to work with Malcolm X's star Denzel Washington again when both signed up for The Hurricane (1999), which I had hoped wasn't a remake of Dorothy Lamour's 1937 South Seas disaster flick. Denzel Washington in a grass skirt? No, this is a serious drama about a real incident in which former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is accused of a triple murder. It was an engrossing film from start to finish and contains a terrific performance from Washington, one of his best. But the film has taken a lot of hits over its many inaccuracies. (I dunno... I'm just the messenger.)
In 1999 the Oscar folks honored Jewison with the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg award which is periodically given to producers whose work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production.
The Statement (2003) kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish and I will never understand why it wasn't more popular. Forty years after he ordered the execution of seven Jews during WWII, a retaliation for other killings, a French Nazi collaborator has found various ways to hide from those trying to bring him to justice. Now they've stepped up the search. The engaging thriller stars Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Northam, Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates.
The Statement, thus far, has been Norman Jewison's last film... 11 years ago as of this writing. Has he retired? Well it seems he has but I haven't heard that it's official. At age 88, he's entitled to call it a day and rest on his laurels.