In Memoriam: Norman Jewison

David B Morris
10 min readApr 14, 2024

His Films Were Legendary. His Reputation as a Director, Less So

In 1966 the world of cinema was shocked to its core with the release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the adaptation of Edward Albee’s masterpiece with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor playing the most famous married couple in theater. Many had doubted when the movie was handed to a former comedian turned Broadway director named Mike Nichols for what would be his first film.

The gamble paid off as the film became a box office sensation and received eleven Oscar nominations, including Nichols for Best Director. It went head to head with another filmed version of a Broadway hit: A Man for All Seasons which ended up taking Best Picture and Best Director. Those two films were the only ones to have a Best Picture and Best Directo nomination correspond and the remaining nominations for Director went to Claude Lelouch and Michelangelo Antonioni for A Man and A Woman and Blow-Up both iconic films. Lost under the radar was one of the nominees for Best Picture, the Cold War satire The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. It was the first of five films that would be directed by Norman Jewison that would be nominated for Best Picture.

The following year Nichols and Jewison would again have films competing against each other for Best Picture. Both movies are classics in film history. For Nichols, it was The Graduate. For Jewison, it was In the Heat of the Night. Both movies dealt with the 1960s in a different way. Nichols chose to tell the story of the youth of America’s dismay with the future. Jewison told the story of Jim Crow South through a murder investigation involving a racist sheriff (Rod Steiger) and an African-American detective. Both films have their share of iconic lines; the most famous in Heat comes when Sidney Poitier responds to Steigers: “Got a name boy” with a coldly furious: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”

The 1967 Academy Awards are considered a sea change in how Hollywood went forward, with the former two movies and Arthur Penn’s classic Bonnie & Clyde shattering how the studio system had worked by dominating the Academy Award nominations and the awards. Nichols took Best Director but most of the other major awards including Best Picture went to In The Heat of The Night.

When Jewison passed away last month at the ripe old age of 97, it has taken a lot of work to figure out how to honor him. One piece I saw called him a director less famous then the films he made. That’s both true and unfair. Jewison made some of the greatest films in cinema history but unlike the directors that would be the most famous of the 1970s — including men such as Penn and Antonioni and more famously Coppola and Scorsese — he never fit the model of auteur. In that sense the comparison between him and Nichols strikes me as accurate. Nichols was just as great a director as Jewison was, but we don’t consider him an auteur either. Both men made a lot of movies but neither worked with the same kind of mark on films that you consider their contemporaries were.

Perhaps it was because the two men both had their starts in other mediums: Nichols famously started in comedy and then moved to Broadway and Jewison spent much of his early years directing television. Neither man ever lacked for work, but in the 1970s when their colleagues were putting their marks on films, neither seemed more inclined to go to darker territory. Nichols did some work early on in this theme, most notably in Carnal Knowledge but after that much of his work was an equal measure of comedy and drama. Similarly Jewison spent much of the 1970s making some of the few successful musical movies that were made when the genre was not producing them well. It should be mentioned he did so far better than his contemporaries: his adaptations of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar are masterpieces, while Francis Ford Coppola’s attempts such as Finian’s Rainbow were disasters and while Sidney Lumet made many great films in the 1970s, The Wiz isn’t one of them.

But there are common themes between Jewison’s great films and he had many of them. One key theme is that of the family unit. This comes across very clear both in Fiddler and in what was his greatest film Moonstruck. Few would argue that this is one of the greatest comedies as well as among the most entertaining films in history. Roger Ebert listed it among one of the masterpieces of all time and in hindsight the decision to give The Last Emperor Best Picture over Moonstruck is one of the Oscars greatest blunders. It’s not entirely a shock; the Oscars has never liked giving Best Picture to comedies.

The larger theme that dominates Jewison’s work is social justice. This is found not only in his greatest movies — Heat and Fiddler but also many of his other films as well as some that are not considered classics. This is particularly true of his work in the 1980s.

A Soldier’s Story is one of the quietest great films I’ve ever seen. The movie tells the story of the investigation of a commanding officer of a colored unit in New Orleans during World War II. The movie opens with Sergeant Waters, marching clearly wounded through the streets and finally collapsing dead. Captain Davenport (Howard Rollins) is called in to investigate this racially charged situation.

Waters is played by Adolph Caesar in one of the most riveting performances of the 1980s: he deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for it. Waters is considered an Uncle Tom by all of his inferiors and is considered a martinet to everyone else, holding a soldier who he considers ‘demeaning to the race’ in particular contempt. Most of the story is told in flashback and in a riveting monologue near the end of the movie Waters reveals a secret that has been tormenting him for a quarter of a century: an incident that unfolded when a different colored unit was stationed in Paris during World War I. “You know the damage one ignorant Negro can do?” he says and then tells an incident so horrifying that we can see how much it has colored his thinking ever since.

The movie features several actors who would become iconic in the next forty years: David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend both due stunning dramatic work and Denzel Washington gives a riveting performance in one of the roles that helped him breakout into becoming the greatest African-American actor of all time.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards but even though Jewison had been nominated for Best Director by the Directors Guild, he was ignored by the Academy in favor of Woody Allen, who even he considered his nomination for Broadway Danny Rose ‘a typo’ when he heard.

Jewison followed that with an adaptation of another Broadway play Agnes of God, the movie in which a naïve novice nun is discovered with a dead newborn in her convent. This movie is female centric with Meg Tilly taking on the title role which would earn her Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and an Oscar nomination. Anne Bancroft received what would be her final nomination for Best Actress. And Jane Fonda is riveting as she plays a psychiatrist trying to learn how this baby was born and why it died despite the fact that no one seems to want it solved. Tilly, whose career never realized it’s potential after this movie, said working with Jewison was the highpoint of her career on film.

Even Jewison’s ‘lesser’ films could pack a punch. I’ve written favorably about how impressed I was by Other People’s Money and how much it resonates with me about just how little so many progressives refuse to acknowledge the importance of money and how it does serve a purpose. This is made clear in the climactic battle for control of the company at the end of the film. Gregory Peck’s character gives the kind of rousing speech about the importance of family and loyalty. It’s the kind of speech which would in another movie be enough to carry the day for the good guys. DeVito then stands up and gives a speech defending capitalism and greed. His argument not only carries the day but more and more I think it’s the kind we should argue for about the truth of capitalism.

But Jewison was also known for the films he didn’t make. In 1991 he was attached to direct a biography of Malcolm X. Considering his history as a director, it would have a good match. Spike Lee made a fuss, arguing that this was the kind of movie ‘only a black director should make’. Jewison could have fought for it, but he was the bigger man and chose to step aside. Lee made one of the greatest movies of his career — Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1992 and it is a masterpiece — but one still wonders what kind of movie it might have been.

In 1999, Jewison received the Thalberg Award from the Oscars, meant to stand for the lifetime achievement award. At the end of his speech he told the crowd: “I hope to see you all next year.” Under normal circumstances he should have but a series of controversies undercut what could have been his crowning achievement.

Jewison collaborated with Denzel Washington in The Hurricane, the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the famous boxer, who was wrongly imprisoned for murder and became a cause célèbres, even being sung about by Bob Dylan before he was finally released in 1985. The film tells his story from the perspective of Canadian mentors who read his book and convinced of his innocence help fight for his exoneration.

The early reviews were superb. Washington began receiving Oscar talk even before the film was released and both he and Jewison were listed as favorites for Oscars in 1999. It looked like Jewison’s career was about to be revived.

And then a story in the New York Times went into detail pointing out the discrepancies between the movie and real events. To this day, I’ve never been able to understand why this seemed to be such a big deal. Two other major docudramas of 1999, Boys Don’t Cry and The Insider, also featured heavy levels of fictionalizing but no one ever seemed that outraged. Many critics including Roger Ebert, thought this was a tempest in a teapot but many more thought it was enough to cause them to reconsider whether the film was any good. One critic actually removed it from his top ten list even though he thought it was still great artistically but because of the controversy.

It took a while for the consequences to be felt. The film was nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Picture, Director and Actor. Washington won the latter prize and it seemed to cement him winning Best Actor. When the movie went into wide release, it opened number one at the box office. But from then on, it was downhill. The questions became a firestorm of badgering and The Hurricane only received one Oscar nomination: Washington. The lack of supporting nominations and the bad buzz killed any chance Washington had to win the Oscar that year and it ended up going to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty.

It’s hard to know if the controversy hurt any chance for Jewison to get another film made or the experience scarred him. Whatever the reason he would only work on two more projects for the rest of his life: the TV Movie Dinner With Friends and The Statement, the tale of a former Nazi executioner played by Michael Caine who is tried for crimes in 1992. The movie was considered a mess and Jewison never made another film for the last twenty years of his life.

Perhaps that is only fitting. Almost all of Jewison’s movies involve an argument for unity and equality as well as finding common ground: ideas that may have expired with the 20th century. I can imagine today’s audience looking at In the Heat of The Night trying to figure out what the fuss was all about.

And yet for the same reason we needed Jewison’s films more than ever during the last twenty years. He may not have been the craftsman the way his contemporaries or like so many later filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan would be but he had the touch for being able not only to inform but to entertain while he was doing something that so many of today’s filmmaker’s lack. Like Stanley Kramer and Sidney Lumet, his films were message pictures but he made sure not to hit you over the head with it.

Perhaps Jewison’s place in film history is in common with so many filmmakers from the era he left behind than the one he was a part of — men such as William Wyler, Elia Kazan or Fred Zinneman, who directed A Man for All Seasons. None of these directors had touches that were those of auteurs; all they did was make masterpieces over and over. Zinneman is a good example: he’d already directed High Noon and From Here to Eternity, two of the greatest films of all time and went on to receive two more Oscar nominations for directing The Nun’s Story and The Sundowners before he won his second Oscar for Seasons. Before he retired in 1977, he would direct Julia which earned Oscars for Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards. He was nominated for Best Director six times and won twice. Like Jewison, he is a director whose films are more famous then him. And Jewison always cared more about the work than who got credit for it. That’s a good reputation t



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.