Jewison was a versatile director


On Jan. 20, the film industry lost a giant with the passing of Canadian-born director Norman Jewison at the age of 97. Over a four-decade period, Jewison directed 24 films that received 41 Academy Award nominations (including five Best Picture nominations) and won 12 Oscars. He is best known for his Best Picture winner “In The Heat of The Night” (1967), featuring Rod Steiger as a small-town Mississippi police chief forced to partner with a black Philadelphia homicide detective, portrayed by Sidney Poitier, to solve the death of a northern businessman about to invest millions in the community. Steiger’s performance won a Best Actor Oscar. The racial drama was groundbreaking and controversial at the time of its release, including a scene of Poitier slapping the town’s white patriarch, a scene excised in prints shown in southern states.

Jewison’s versatility as a director was a major reason he was so popular in Hollywood. He directed comedies such as “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1967), nominated for Best Picture; musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), also nominated for Best Picture; and futuristic sci-fi film: “Rollerball” (1975). But his most endearing film was the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” (1987), which featured a scintillating Cher as Loretta Castorini, a 37-year-old widow, who falls in love with her fiance’s contemptuous estranged brother, played by Nicholas Cage. Cher won the Oscar for Best Actress while Olympia Dukakis won the Best Supporting Actress trophy as Loretta’s long-suffering mother.

We offer our thoughts on a few of Norman Jewison’s lesser-known films.

Take One

The year is 1968, and Jewison loosens the reins of the hyper-plotted and gritty “In the Heat of the Night” to bring about a defining film of 1960s counterculture: “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in sultry mirrored performances, the film has little direction or narrative—one could ostensibly say it’s an elaborate bank heist gone wrong … or is it all just a game? McQueen plays the titular character, oozing the same medium cool that he does in “Bullitt,” also from 1968, though his character’s mysteries carry long after the end credits. Highlights include the film’s sensuous style and visual flair, with complex psychedelic edits and camera movements, along with Michael Legrand’s dreamlike theme song, “The Windmills of Your Mind,” which won an Oscar.

Nearly two decades after “In the Heat of the Night,” Jewison helmed another picture about racial injustice, one that has largely been forgotten but holds equal power to his earlier film. This one is “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), and it’s based on Charles Fuller’s 1981Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film’s plot is similar to “In the Heat of the Night,” a black JAG officer comes to the Jim Crow South to investigate the murder of a black sergeant on a segregated army base. Howard E. Rollins Jr. plays the part of the investigating officer, Captain Davenport, with meticulous rigidity that conveys the depths of the suffering of that era, and Adolph Caesar, repeating his off-Broadway performance, plays the victim in flashback. In contrast to “In the Heat of the Night,” here the dialogue is crisp and caustic. Watch for Denzel Washington in an early supporting role.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a film, not directed but produced by Jewison, called “The Landlord” (1970). Hal Ashby helmed the picture, but Jewison’s characteristic affinity for the power dynamics of racism and class permeates the entire film. Years ahead of its time, I’ll write about this film in another column, but it’s one of the very best pictures of New York City in the 70s, and feels even more prescient today.

Take Two

After directing two Doris Day comedies in the early 60s, Jewison was offered the opportunity to direct a drama. The result was “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), starring yet-to-become megastar Steve McQueen as Eric “The Kid” Stoner, a professional poker player and card shark during the Depression Era. His nemesis is Lancy “The Man” Howard, played by Edward G. Robinson of 1930s gangster fame. Jewison got to work with an all-star cast including Karl Malden, Ann-Margaret, Tuesday Weld, and Joan Blondell. Many critics (and I agree) believe this is the best “gambling” film ever made, with the McQueen and Ann-Margaret performances leaping off the screen.

Jewison’s penultimate film was “The Hurricane” (1999), starring Denzel Washington as boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight title contender wrongly convicted of a triple homicide in Paterson, New Jersey. Carter and an associate were framed by corrupt police officials assisted by compliant prosecutors and a blind legal system. Carter served over 20 years in the notorious Rahway prison before he was granted a hearing in federal court. The courtroom climax will have you on the edge of your seat. Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin is portrayed by Rod Steiger in one of his last roles.

All films available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.

(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)

No posts to display