May 12, 2021

Book Review--McQueen, Poitier and the Thrill of Filmmaking in Norman Jewison: A Director's Life

Norman Jewison: A Director's Life
Ira Wells
Sutherland House, 2021 

“I’ve met very few people who have his kind of passion, where it’s just in every aspect of his life.” -Harry Belafonte about Norman Jewison 

His films are a familiar part of popular culture: Moonstruck (1987), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) among them. He won awards, audiences, and critics over the course of a long, remarkably successful career, but Norman Jewison doesn’t have the name recognition of a lot of his peers. In an invigorating new biography of the director, Ira Wells digs into why and explores the life of a man who knew how to live to the fullest. 

Jewison went against the Hollywood norm in many ways: he was happily married for fifty-four years to wife Dixie, until her death (though the bio skips past a scant reference to his infidelities), he raised three well-adjusted, happy kids, and he never settled in Los Angeles, preferring the UK and his farm in Canada to life in a company town. He was also remarkably devoted to finding meaning and growth in his work, from his early days film television specials with Judy Garland and Harry Belefonte to his final film.

In a climate where the toxic behavior of so many directors and stars is being revealed, it was refreshing to learn how well Jewison treated his cast in crew. In his approach to making movies, he focused on creating a family rather than asserting control, the result ironically being that he had a great deal of control over his sets and only rarely felt compelled to bow to an especially powerful star. 

It was liberating to be able to simply enjoy learning about Jewison’s creative process and collaborations, especially his fruitful working relationship with editor/director Hal Ashby. Instead of reading about red-faced fury on the set, there’s stories of Jewison giving bear hugs to his stars for a good scene, gently coaxing actors into creating performances from their own instincts, and the environment he created that allowed inventive technical elements like the way cinematographer Haskell Wexler circled Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway on a skateboard to get that famous swirling shot of them kissing in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Though it was often frustrating and there were still plenty of personal conflicts, filming was a thrilling pursuit in Jewison’s world. 

While Jewison wanted to make profitable movies, his vision always came first, for better or for worse. As a result he pushed against studios to tackle unpopular topics, and make films dominated by Black (A Soldier’s Story [1984]) or female (Agnes of God [1985]) stars. It is interesting to note that these films were generally profitable and critically acclaimed. 

One of Jewison’s biggest faults was an occasional obliviousness about the feelings of others; an odd trait in a person with so much empathy that seemed rooted in his passionate interest in social justice and a sense of entitlement of being able to film what he wished. He was particularly insensitive to the idea that his desire to tell Black stories was not always welcomed by the Black community. When he wanted to make a biopic of Nat Turner and the violent slave uprising he led, many in the Black community begged him not to go forward with the project. He dug his heels in for far too long, though he did finally relent. He also gave in with reluctance when Spike Lee lobbied hard to take over directing duties from him for the Malcolm X biopic. 

Wells concludes that Jewison never made it to the top rank of directors because he wouldn’t play the Hollywood game. He never settled into the culture of the town and would only pour on the charm when he wanted to get a project made. Perhaps that is so, but when I think about Jewison’s joyful dance across the stage as he went to accept his Irving G. Thalberg from Nicolas Cage at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, he might have wanted more plaudits, and he deserves them, but what he had was more precious and rare. 

Many thanks to Sutherland House for providing a copy of the book for review.

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