A Study of Betrayal : Norman Jewison’s socially conscious oeuvre honored

January 25, 2008 7:50 AM

Norman Jewison’s thoughts on the film industry can be summed up in the title of his autobiography, released in 2005: “This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me.”
That is has, with five Oscar nominations for best director and a resume of blockbuster and Oscar-winning hits including “Moonstruck,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Rollerball,” and the movie that first raised his profile in Hollywood, “In the Heat of the Night.”
Yet the studio system that once gave Mr. Jewison his daring breaks has been replaced by corporate entities that, he says, are really only concerned with comic book sequels.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors Mr. Jewison by naming him Guest Director for 2008 and plans to screen three of his best-known films.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Mr. Jewison continues to cultivate young filmmakers through the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto, which he founded. In an interview, he is lively, down to earth, and ready to let rip on the state of the business, although never with the taste of sour grapes.

News-Press: The prep for this interview included watching “The Thomas Crown Affair”. . .
Norman Jewison: Ah! Thank you. It has that wonderful score by Michel Legrand, one of the best scores of any of my films. I love the chess scene (between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway). It’s a great piece of photography by Haskell Wexler, and a great piece of editing by Hal Ashby.
NP: It’s striking that, in a film billed as a romance-thriller, Faye Dunaway’s character only meets Thomas Crown once we’re halfway through the movie.
NJ: In those days you could take your time with films. “The Thomas Crown Affair” moves gracefully. It’s not choppy. So many films these days have that MTV editing. It’s sad. I think you need time to tell a story. But now, Hollywood and the studios have been taken over by multinational corporations, and marketing forces are in control. Once that happened, American films lost their originality. Everything interesting has moved to independent films. These are films we talk about at the end of the year.
NP: You’ve said that betrayal is one of your favorite themes. Why is that?
NJ: When I was very young, about 4 or 5 years old, everybody called me “Jew-boy” or “Jew-y” because of my name. “Jewison”: why, that means “son of a Jew.” But at 6 or 7 years old, my mom took me aside and told me ‘You’re not Jewish! You’re a Methodist!’ And for some reason, I felt betrayed by it. . .I think that’s why that may be a major theme. We’ve all been betrayed in our lives, by a girlfriend, by our family, by our jobs, or by our country. It pervades all my films.
NP: Your films have often had socially aware themes. Where does that come from?
NJ: When I started I was a Canadian, coming to New York at end of the ’50s to work. My first opportunity to deal with issues like racism and immigration was on the CBS television special with Harry Belafonte. I became very involved in the battle for equality in ’60s. A lot of us were. After the success of “In the Heat of the Night,” I knew that racism was a subject I wanted to revisit. And I did with “A Soldier’s Story” (1983) and “The Hurricane” (1999). But if you said 20 years ago that a black senator was going to be a viable candidate for president, I would have said you’re crazy. We’ve watched America change, and three of (those films) have something to say about this transition. It’s a remarkable time right now.
NP: Still, “The Hurricane” managed to anger a lot of people. (The film, which starred Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder, drew complaints and lawsuits that Jewison and his writer had ignored certain facts and taken liberties with others).
NJ: Yes! It’s like they wanted to try him all over again. I couldn’t believe the hate mail that the film generated, and so much of it from Newark, NJ. But “Hurricane” is a cold case of justice denied. That lingering racism is why it’s remarkable that we can even make films like that. Denzel’s performance is one of the best in any of my films.
NP: Do you cultivate up-and-coming directors?
NJ: Yes. I do spend a lot of time with new directors, producers and writers. I’m very proud of Sarah Polley, who directed “Away From Her.” She spent time at our Canadian Film Center, which is like Canada’s (American Film Institute). There’s a point in a career when you can pass on all the information you know. I like that. When I met with Roger Durling, that’s what he explained I would be doing at the fest.
NP: Who were your mentors?
NJ: It was a combination of people. William Wyler let me come to his sets before I even made a picture. Freddy Zinnemann was also very supportive. I showed him the first cut of “Fiddler on the Roof” to ask him what I should take out. There were many others. They would give you the whisper in the ear you needed, they would take you out to lunch. It’s important, because filmmaking is such a difficult thing to teach.

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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