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In Appreciation: Norman Jewison

Artists of every stripe like to say that the work is what matters to them. But in the case of Norman Jewison, who died Monday at 97, it was really true. If you watch a clip reel of great moments from the first century of cinema, you’ll see Jewison’s work referenced again and again, and be surprised to realize how many great films he made, and in how many modes.

The swooningly romantic scene in 1987’s Moonstruck where Nicolas Cage tells Cher that we are here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people and die and that the storybooks are bullshit, then implores her to come upstairs and get into his bed? Norman Jewison directed that. The scene in the racially explosive 1967 Southern gothic mystery In the Heat of the Night where Sidney Poitier’s police detective Mr. Tibbs gets slapped by a rich white man and slaps him right back? Norman Jewison. The formally daring sequence in The Hurricane where the protagonist Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, wrongly imprisoned for murder, cracks during solitary confinement, and different sides of his personality argue with each other, and it’s shot and edited as if there are multiple Denzel Washingtons in the cell making eye contact with each other? Same guy.

Even some film buffs don’t realize what range he had. Stumbling across a clip of a movie they haven’t watched, they’ll wonder who directed it, learn it was Jewison, and think, Really? Jewison did The Cincinnati Kid, a drama about a high-stakes poker player that treats card games the way boxing movies treat fights. And the dystopian sci-fi thriller Rollerball, so steeped in greed, spectacle and nihilism that you can almost smell the moral rot. And the death-of-decency legal drama … And Justice for All, so infuriating and depressing that after you see it you want to crawl into bed and stay there. And the sexy heist thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, which treated Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway as pure eye candy and ignited a decade-long craze for mosaic-style split-screen collages. Jewison also did two of the most invigorating musicals of the ’70s: Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar. He joked that he made the first one for the Jews and the second one for “the goyim,” adding, “Everybody, of course, thought I was Jewish, which is why they offered me Fiddler. Then to their horror, they found out I was a Methodist.”

Flexibility was the Toronto-born filmmaker’s M.O. Jewison flexed himself across as many genres as any of the film-school-educated “movie brats” who followed him a generation later (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, et al.), but although he had the never-break-a-sweat professionalism that Boomer filmmakers worshiped in old studio workhorse directors like George Stevens (Swing Time, Gunga Din, Giant, Shane), he didn’t publicly call attention to the magic act, much less analyze it at length. He did solid-to-impeccable work (and an occasional dud; nobody’s perfect), then moved to the next thing — which might have been completely different from whatever he’d just completed. There are contortionists who can’t fold themselves into as many different shapes as Jewison did during his career.

He was as legendary for his skill at corporate politics and ego management as for his achievements as a director and producer. He started out in Canadian TV shooting musical performances, and that might explain his versatility as much as anything. Capturing a singer or instrumentalist is not an exercise in transformation. The goal is to showcase who they already are as imaginatively as possible, but without upstaging the performance or the material. He was an assistant director and then director on variety shows in his home country in the ’50s (The Barris Beat, Showtime, The Big Revue), then got hired by NBC to direct variety shows in New York and Los Angeles. He worked on Your Hit Parade and The Andy Williams Show and stand-alone specials for Danny Kaye, Jackie Gleason, Harry Belafonte, and Judy Garland. Jewison’s career as a motion-picture director was born in 1961 during rehearsals for the Garland show, a live broadcast that became known as her “comeback” special. Tony Curtis visited the set and was so impressed that he told Jewison he should be directing features. He then hired him to make 40 Pounds of Trouble, one of several remakes of the 1934 comedy Little Miss Marker, starring Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette, and developed by Curtis for the production company he ran with his wife Janet Leigh.

If Jewison connected with material, he’d dive into it, and tended to do a better job of adapting to suit the project than some other directors of the late 20th century, who had an almost meta-awareness of their careers and their place in the pantheon. Martin Scorsese’s musical New York, New York and Sidney Lumet’s musical The Wiz are impressively ambitious, filled with remarkable sequences, and are intriguing in relation to their other work, but that’s a nice way of saying that big-budget musicals aren’t their métier. They feel more like notions for movies than completely satisfying works. That’s not the case with Jewison’s Fiddler and Superstar, which have some of the prismatic energy of Bob Fosse’s film musicals. Another example: the funky looseness of Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, about the panic that ensues when a Soviet sub is grounded on a small New England island. Compare that to Spielberg’s first and so far only attempt at outright farce, the narratively similar 1941, an immense, immaculate contraption that feels more suffocating than liberating.

Jewison made movies within the system but managed to make them political often enough to constitute another surprising aspect of his filmography. The Russians was a sendup of Cold War brinkmanship in the vein of Dr. Strangelove and The Mouse that Roared. Rollerball was promoted by United Artists as a trippy futuristic sports movie and tanked at the box office, but with a few decades’ distance, it seems clear that it was misrepresented. It has more in common with bleak visionary sci-fi like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blade Runner, and Gattaca: films about what makes us human, and inhuman. “It wasn’t as much about a game as it was about corporate control of society,” Jewison said.

His films about the effect of systemic racial oppression on justice — In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story, and The Hurricane — form a searing triptych of social criticism in genre garb, as impressive as the best of Lumet’s ground-level New York dramas about institutional corruption and indifference. In a Vulture appreciation published after Sidney Poitier’s death, Boston Globe film critic Odie Henderson credited the slap from In the Heat of the Night with reinventing Poitier’s image, moving him away from respectability politics and setting the stage for his raucous 1970s features. “Black audiences went batshit, and rightfully so,” Henderson wrote. “Tibbs wasn’t just slapping some white guy; he was going upside the head of an entire institution.”

Jewison’s pleasant demeanor and grasp of power dynamics kept him at the top of the profession for nearly half a century. You can watch hours of interviews with the man and never see him lose his Cheshire Cat smile, much less raise his voice. He was as legendary for his skill at corporate politics and ego management as for his achievements as a director and producer. When Sylvester Stallone arrived on the set of Jewison’s 1978 labor drama F.I.S.T., puffed up after winning multiple Oscars for Rocky, loudly questioning the director’s choices and demanding to be photographed from certain angles, Jewison contrived to have the crew follow Stallone’s instructions but not roll film or record audio. When the time came to edit the picture, there was nothing for Stallone to demand that he put in.

According to John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck, Cher didn’t like the title of the movie and wanted it changed to Moonglow. “Norman related that to me. And I said, ‘No, I dislike that title very much,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m putting it on all the scripts so that I can get along with her while I’m shooting the picture.’”

Actors and crews loved Jewison because he was such an exuberant, appreciative collaborator — Shanley said the director blew a lot of takes during Moonstruck because he kept cracking up at the actors’ line readings — and because, even when he discussed his creative intentions with interviewers, he tried to avoid describing movies in a proprietary way. Self-deprecation was his default. His memoir was titled This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me.