...And Jewison for all

Heat of the Night and Hurricane director needs a balance

Norman Jewison's filmography is almost unfathomable, as though it's an amalgam of several directors' résumés. On the surface, it doesn't add up; it's two plus two equaling pi. How does one reconcile a body of work that includes Doris Day-Rock Hudson films (Send Me No Flowers); slick fashion ads dolled up like motion pictures (the original, 1967 version of The Thomas Crown Affair); slapstick Cold War criticism (The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!); garish musicals about tradition, tradition! (Fiddler on the Roof) and a carpenter-turned-son-of-God (Jesus Christ Superstar); and a caustic, intimate film about racism (In the Heat of the Night)? How does one deal with an oeuvre that includes Rollerball and A Soldier's Story and Moonstruck? The mind reels. Then consider that the man who directed Al Pacino to hysterical fits in ...And Justice for All also softened up and opened up Bruce Willis for In Country. He has worked with Steve McQueen (Thomas Crown and The Cincinnati Kid), Sylvester Stallone (F.I.S.T.), Jane Fonda (Agnes of God), Whoopi Goldberg (Bogus) and, most recently, Denzel Washington (The Hurricane). And before all of that, he directed Judy Garland and Harry Belafonte on live television. A long, long time ago.

The 73-year-old Jewison -- the sort of director one might consider "legendary," if only because his films run so often on American Movie Classics and TNT that we have all but memorized them -- finds no contradictions running through his résumé. As far as he's concerned, his films are all alike, their themes and emotions and ideals consistent from start to finish. They are all, as he likes to say, movies about people who suffer with a smile, who laugh in times of tragedy. They're films in which the only special effects are close-ups of actors whose faces fill the widest of screens. They're films in which stories are told and resolutions are neither neat nor tidy. They have unhappy endings, even when the hero triumphs.

"I've never felt there's a lot of difference between comedy and drama," Jewison says when discussing his varied filmography. "I approach both as though they're believable. If they're not believable, that's when people get the popcorn and say, 'What am I doing here?' That's why comedy sometimes has to be taken very seriously. It's a fragile thing. It's more difficult to make people laugh than it is to make them cry. Billy Wilder told me that, and he was right. He could move from comedy to drama. William Wyler moved from comedy to drama to musicals to...well, he could do anything. So that's why I never considered myself a genre filmmaker. A lot of my dramas have humor in them, and a lot of my comedies have tears in them, because that's what life is about. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't shed a tear for something, and not a day goes by when I don't laugh uproariously at something. We need a balance."

Norman Jewison's career spans from live television to today.
Norman Jewison's career spans from live television to today.
Speaks at a screening of In the Heat of the Night

April 28,
7 p.m.

USA Film Festival AMC Glen Lakes
9450 N. Central Expressway

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Like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, all of whom also worked in live television in New York in the '50s before heading toward the Western sunset, Jewison makes intimate films. You don't watch them; you live with them. His are the most ordinary of heroes, mundane men and women who triumph over the catastrophic day-to-day. They're nuns who believe themselves to be the Lamb of God; they're card players trying to lay down the biggest bet; they're small-town sheriffs and love-struck bakers and Vietnam vets trying to find their small places in a world looking to swallow them whole.

"I come from that period before the kind of anti-intellectual filmmaking that began with Star Wars," Jewison says, "where effects became more important than people, where action sequences -- endless, mindless reels of action -- -became more important than storytelling. That's when film changed rapidly, and I think it was all because filmmakers and studios were trying to appeal to a more juvenile audience. Someone once said of The Thomas Crown Affair and In the Heat of the Night, 'That's sophisticated filmmaking, and I kept saying, 'I don't make films for 14-year-olds. I am more interested in ideas. It's the idea behind the story that makes it important. That's what we should be talking about.' But it's like [screenwriter] Bill Goldman says: Nobody knows anything about anything, and you never know if the audience is going to be interested. You have to be a step ahead...and you have to be lucky."

Robert Wilonsky

 
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