The Director Who Was Never as Famous as His Movies – The Atlantic

In the Heat of the Night. Moonstruck. Fiddler on the Roof. The late Norman Jewison’s films were wildly divergent—and unforgettable.
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Despite money, critical hosannas, honorary degrees, Oscar nominations, and the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, Norman Jewison was never as famous as his movies. Whereas some name-brand Hollywood directors cultivated their public personas, Jewison, who died last week at 97, contented himself with creating some of the most captivating movies of the 20th century. If there is a single scene to remember from his filmography, it’s one from In the Heat of the Night, in which Sidney Poitier, likely playing Hollywood’s first Black detective, is slapped by a malevolent plantation owner—and slaps back. As the critic Wesley Morris said in an appreciation of Poitier: “I have people in my family who talk about this slap like it was an earthquake that they were present for.”
Jewison’s career defied easy categorization. He always struck critics as something more than a talented craftsman but other than an “auteur”—per the theory that posits film directors as the sole “authors” of their works and prizes stylistic or thematic continuity among their films. Jewison was famous for his collaborations (notably with Hal Ashby, whose career he helped launch) and for making wildly divergent movies. (Rollerball and Moonstruck both developed cult followings, but their followings barely overlapped.) A 2011 Lincoln Center retrospective on Jewison’s work called him a “Relentless Renegade.” Yet while this title reflected the socially conscious half of the director’s oeuvre, it didn’t capture his more anodyne Hollywood fare, such as Only You and Other People’s Money. If Jewison was rebelling against anything, it was the idea that his films were accountable to anything beyond their own raison d’être.
Jewison hailed from a theatrical tradition in which directors were servants to their material. Like Sidney Lumet, Arthur Hiller, and John Frankenheimer, Jewison came up through television. He was working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1952 when the studio’s first televised image—an upside-down CBC logo—was beamed into Canadian living rooms. Jewison then cut his teeth on live variety shows, which he described as pure chaos: Backstage were “25 people tied together by headphones, trying not to bump into each other … Writers are cutting things, last minute … Actors are throwing up.” For Jewison, live TV became a frenetic training ground on which he sharpened his sense of sound and image.
Soon he was directing groundbreaking musical specials featuring Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland. His Hollywood debut, the third remake of a 1934 Shirley Temple comedy, was inauspicious, but new assignments—frothy Universal comedies starring Doris Day, James Garner, and Rock Hudson—came as quickly as he could dispatch the last. He yearned for more creative freedom and eventually found it at the Mirisch Corporation, where he produced The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming; The Thomas Crown Affair; and In the Heat of the Night, which beat out an momentous slate of nominees including The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to win the 1968 Academy Award for Best Picture. By this time, the trade papers were calling him “Hollywood’s Hottest Director.” A-list stars, including Steve McQueen, clamored for roles in his films. By the end of the 1960s, Jewison appeared to have earned a place among a pantheon of elite director-producers.
In truth, Jewison often felt out of step with the industry. He passed on the blood-soaked auteur aesthetic of 1970s American cinema, relocating to the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios and adapting Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rollerball. He returned to Hollywood in the late ’70s, inhabiting a new niche as a director of dialogue-driven films. Anne Bancroft and Sylvester Stallone were among the actors who trusted Jewison when they wanted to expand their range.
Despite his sterling reputation among stars—“He’s all love” was Faye Dunaway’s description—Jewison could summon little interest for the blockbuster fare he knew the studio heads wanted him to make. His name was occasionally bandied about for the James Bond or Star Trek franchises, but, as he put it, “I’m not interested in films about galaxies. I’m interested in films about people.” He was dumbfounded by the appeal of what he called “comic-strip pictures,” already big business in the 1980s. He turned down The Princess Bride over worries that he would go slightly over budget. (Friends were baffled by this choice.) His sensibility was not an art-house one by any stretch: “Andy Warhol’s films just bore the hell out of me,” he once said. But he consistently insisted that a film without a reason for being wasn’t worth making.
Three of his strongest pictures—In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story, and The Hurricane—were fueled by Jewison’s profound outrage toward racial injustice. Few Hollywood directors of Jewison’s generation were more committed to bringing Black stories to the screen, although two unproduced films—a late-’60s adaptation of The Confessions of Nat Turner, about the 19th-century slave rebellion, and an early-’90s biopic of Malcolm X—brought him into conflict with members of the very community with which he felt allied. He turned Malcolm X over to Spike Lee, but not before clinging to the project for perhaps one beat too long.
Jewison never had the power to greenlight his own projects, and had to fight for A Soldier’s Story (the majority-Black cast “was just an absolute turnoff” for executives, he said) and Agnes of God: “Who wants to make a film about a nun?” he remembered one suit asking. “I mean, c’mon, Norman!” Both films got made, partly because he took a steep pay cut. But his luck ran out with a planned remake of The Man Who Could Work Miracles, the 1937 British production that had sparked his lifelong love of movies. He invested a year into developing the screenplay and secured Richard Pryor to star, but a change of leadership at Columbia Pictures led to the film’s sudden cancellation. “Sometimes people don’t get over things like that,” Jewison said at the time. Yet his next picture, Moonstruck, became his biggest hit in years.
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Jewison had grown up on vaudevillian variety shows, and his filmography was, in a sense, the variety show of a lifetime. He directed hard-hitting social dramas, slapstick comedies, musicals, science fiction, and a children’s film (the underrated, Fellini-esque Bogus); he was fluent in every film genre except horror. He directed 24 films and not one sequel. Was there, at bottom, a sensibility holding it all together? Poitier, in the mid-’80s, argued that Jewison’s filmography shared a “value frame” that reflected the director’s artistic integrity. “He runs to the things that stand as challenges,” Poitier said. “He can no more make a simple film about unimportant things.” If you wanted Jewison to direct The Nerds Strike Back, Poitier said, “you would have to whip him, tie him to a stake, and bury him in an ant hill—and he would choose to die there.”
The film critic Pauline Kael was less sure of any continuity among Jewison’s movies. Like many of her peers, Kael went hot and cold on the director. In her judgment, Fiddler on the Roof was “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” while some of his other titles were “abysmal.” Asked in an unpublished interview how the world would remember Norman Jewison, Kael said: “as a man who made some lively movies.” In an entertainment landscape dominated by franchises, Jewison’s stubbornly varied filmography will continue to evoke moral outrage as much as delirious laughter—testaments to what one film-struck imagination was able to achieve.







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