In a profession that often descends into banality, Norman Jewison lusts after serious accomplishment and the respect that goes with it. Through most of his years directing movies, he's felt an urgent desire to transcend commercial cinema and maybe even say something about the human condition. This comes through directly in several of his films, such as In the Heat of the Night, about a black cop in the racist American South. It emerges less explicitly in others, like Moonstruck, where he persuaded Nicolas Cage and Cher to give performances of such sweet foolishness that they lifted their characters onto the higher slopes of comedy.
Jewison's cultural yearning makes his awkwardly titled memoirs, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me (Key Porter), more than ordinarily interesting. Where did it come from, all this serious-minded upward striving? We never quite learn but we often see it in action.
He was born in the Beach district of Toronto, the son of a strict Calvinist father, who ran a dry-goods store, and a less strict Anglican mother. He acted and directed in university and eventually joined the CBC's brand-new television service, where he directed 300 live shows. By 1957 he was in New York, directing Your Hit Parade, specials starring people like Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte, and eventually Judy Garland's show, one of the best of its time (it still looks good in reruns).
His Hollywood career began when Tony Curtis, scheduled to star in a film called Forty Pounds of Trouble, recruited Jewison to direct. That was the first of four comedies he made under contract to Universal. In the process he learned the director's craft but found only modest satisfaction -- and not even that when he directed Dick Van Dyke in a failure called The Art of Love in 1964. "Here I was, I told myself, not just directing light studio comedies but directing a light studio comedy that nobody laughed at."
When The Cincinnati Kid came along Jewison grabbed it gratefully, made his first widely admired movie, and set off on the course that took him to Fiddler on the Roof, A Soldier's Story (his superb version of a play developed at the Negro Ensemble Company in New York) and many more triumphs and defeats.
When everything works, Jewison's films can be terrific, but they can just as easily be painful to sit through -- like Best Friends (with Burt Reynolds), Other People's Money or The Statement. One thing we learn from This Terrible Business is that (apart from The Art of Love) Jewison apparently can't tell his good films from his bad ones, even in retrospect.
When a film fails he explains that the timing was wrong or the audience wasn't ready for it. Acknowledging that his version of Brian Moore's The Statement sold few tickets, he says that American audiences just weren't interested in Vichy hypocrisy and Roman Catholic collusion with Nazis. That could be true, but those who saw the film probably also noticed that it was boring and ill-conceived. He had a lot of English actors running around France, pretending to be Frenchmen and convincing nobody.
His memoirs reveal that he's as sentimental as his movies (at his daughter's wedding he sang Sunrise, Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof) and that he's a thoughtful supervisor of actors. He tells us, for instance, that Steve McQueen brought a special problem to a movie set. He wouldn't look at the other actor in a scene until he'd finished delivering his own lines; when the other actor started talking, McQueen would look away. "It was simply the way he worked. He was a selfish actor and it was rough on fellow actors." Jewison was relieved when Edward G. Robinson, who played opposite McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid, said he didn't much care.
Jewison tells his story well for the first dozen or so chapters, but toward the end he seems to tire. He loses the energy or the inclination to tell us how this or that movie worked. Soon he slides into lazy generalizations about politics, Canada's inferiority complex, etc.
In politics, Jewison fits into the familiar category of rich socialist. In 1940s Toronto he flirted with communism but settled for the status of moderate lefty. "One thing I've always been sure of is that I'm on the side of the working stiff and against the owners of the company store," he declares. The very phrase "working stiff" ties him to a long-gone era, but that seems to have been his last political idea.
He oozes what the late S.J. Perelman called "the noble piety of the Hollywood folk," who sit in vast houses and drive expensive cars while worrying about migratory workers. Jewison cheerfully admits to being "a propertied, leftish seeker of social justice."
He's also an essentially American liberal who just happens to have been born in Toronto. It's American causes, such as racial segregation in the South, that touch him. One of the great tragedies of his life was the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Jewison was helping him seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968: "He was a shy man ... but I believed he was about to change the world. He promised hope." A Canadian patriot, Jewison founded the Canadian Film Centre to help Canada find a place on the movie screens of the world, but apparently public events in Canada do not deeply stir him.
Having it both ways, Jewison insists that despite his obvious success he was always a critical outsider in Hollywood. This self-image matters to him, but he reduces its credibility with his embarrassing remarks about the Academy Awards. While he disdains Hollywood mindlessness, he sounds like a standard L.A. egomaniac when he discusses the Academy Award for directing that he's never received. After more than three decades he's still particularly angry that he was "denied," as he puts it, the director's award for Fiddler on the Roof. That year, William Friedkin won it for The French Connection.
Here Jewison loses his cool. "I knew in my heart," he says, "that Fiddler would become a classic and remain on the screens of the world and in people's minds long after The French Connection had faded away." He needed an editor to tell him that's the kind of thing you let other people say.