Jewison retrospective kicks off at Lightbox
The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, August 9, 2011 2:41PM EDT
TORONTO - In a brick-lined post-and-beam office packed with memorabilia, veteran Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison strides across the room to display one of his best-loved treasures: a director's chair.
Its caramel-hued leather seat worn soft over the decades, the showpiece has travelled with the 84-year-old to nearly every movie set in his four-decade career.
He notes it was a gift to him from the crew of his second film, 1963's "The Thrill of it All," starring Doris Day and James Garner.
"I guess they figured I was going to be around for a while so they wanted to make sure I could sit down," Jewison quips, offering up the first of several chuckles as he recounts a varied career that established him as one of Hollywood's most acclaimed storytellers.
Of course, Jewison would go on to helm a diverse slate of movies that include the civil rights landmark "In The Heat of the Night," the satirical comedy "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!," and the romantic classic, "Moonstruck."
A retrospective of Jewison's work -- which has racked up a total of 46 Academy Award nominations and 12 wins -- kicks off Thursday in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox, hosted by the Toronto International Film Festival and TV Ontario.
The self-effacing director is modest in the lead-up to this latest tribute, which follows a star-packed salute from New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center in May and a coveted lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of America in January 2010.
"I think we're always flattered when people pat you on the head and tell you you've done a good job or you've done a lousy job or whatever," said Jewison, whose only actual Academy Award trophy came in the form of Oscar's prestigious Irving Thalberg Award in 1999, which he keeps on his desk.
"Some of the films have been very popular and some less popular and that's the way it is. You never know when you make a film, you make a motion picture you never know how the audience is going to receive it but some of them have worked very well."
Very well, indeed. Few Canadians can match Jewison's impact in Hollywood.
Jewison's earliest gigs included driving a cab in Toronto and occasional radio work for the CBC. After a two-year work/study program with the BBC in London, he returned to Canada and to write, direct and produce comedy-variety shows with the CBC.
Jewison crossed the border in 1958, when CBS invited him to New York to direct "Your Hit Parade," kicking off an Emmy Award-winning TV career before jumping to the big screen in 1962.
The upper shelves of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in Jewison's office are lined with copies of his films, from the 1962 comedy "40 Pounds of Trouble," with Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette, to the 2003 sociopolitical thriller "The Statement," with Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton.
The catalogue also includes the poker drama "The Cincinnati Kid," the stylish "The Thomas Crown Affair," the big-screen version of Broadway's "Fiddler on the Roof," the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," the critically acclaimed "A Soldier's Story" and the audience favourite "Moonstruck."
"Moonstruck" co-star Olympia Dukakis, who will attend a special screening of the 1987 romantic classic Thursday with screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, says she recalls being impressed by Jewison's directing choices and watched him closely on set.
"I just felt he was like a teacher all the time," Dukakis says in a recent telephone interview from New York. "You just had to open your eyes and listen and watch and you could learn from him, constantly."
Dukakis -- whose role as the steely matriarch Rose Castorini featured choice lines including "Your life's going down the toilet!" and "Do you love him Loretta?" -- notes she shot to widespread fame after the film hit theatres.
"That movie, of course, changed my life. Totally changed my life and I have Norman to thank for that," says Dukakis, who more recently has worked with Canadian directors Thom Fitzgerald and Sarah Polley.
"I got nominated and got an Oscar and because of that I was able to wake up and not worry about money. I could pay my bills, our daughter was going to college on credit cards at the time."
Strong personalities from stars including Cher and Nicolas Cage made for a colourful shoot, she adds, noting that a tense standoff between Jewison and his romantic leads when filming the climactic scene erupted in expletives and a thrown chair.
Things got so heated that Feodor Chaliapin Jr., who played the grandfather, tried to intervene with pleas of "Shout, don't hit!," she recalls.
"He thought we were going to start hitting each other, I guess," Dukakis says chuckling.
"At that point, Jewison said, 'OK let's do the scene' because of course everybody's energy was up and everybody was like hot under the collar and then he did it."
Jewison is gracious in his account of the same confrontation.
"We had a lot of fun on 'Moonstruck,' " he says diplomatically, acknowledging "it wasn't smooth sailing."
"But a director has to have a lot of confidence in themselves and a lot of confidence in this film that they see in their head," he says. "Sometimes it's difficult to get that across to people because they have other ideas. Think about it -- there's 30 or 40 directors on the set, every actor thinks he can direct and he should be telling the story."
"Everybody wants to be a director, including Mother Teresa. When I met Mother Teresa I told her how important she was and her work in India and how she was revered and how people listen to her and she said, 'They don't listen to me as much as they would if I was a film director. If I could be a film director, then they would listen to me!' Because she believed that directors were very powerful people. And I was trying to explain to her that it's not easy. It's not easy."
Jewison is not one to shy away from a challenge, says Dukakis, noting that many of his films delve into the very the fabric of U.S. identity.
Jewison says he is drawn to some of the most volatile social issues of the day.
"America has always had a fascination for me because of its differences," says Jewison, who earned the nickname "Canadian Pinko" from John Wayne.
"I've made a lot of films about those elements, I think, in American society that I as a Canadian can sit back and observe. We're pretty smug up here, we're always explaining America to itself, we're always telling them what we think they should be doing because we know better, of course."
Still, Jewison says he's always considered himself a Canadian filmmaker and notes that several of his movies were shot in his homeland -- including "Agnes of God" and "The Hurricane."
He also speaks proudly of the Canadian Film Centre, which he established in 1986 to offer emerging talent the chance to hone their skills.
"A lot of (my films) them are about America because that's where I was making my films and that's where I found my inspiration," said Jewison, whose accolades include a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Governor General's Performing Arts Award in 2004.
"The Americans are great at supporting talent, they've always imported their talent."
"And Justice for All: The Films of Norman Jewison" includes screenings of "In the Heat of the Night," introduced by Canadian director Clement Virgo, and "Rollerball," introduced by "Hard Core Logo" director Bruce McDonald.
A special "In Conversation With Norman Jewison," followed by a screening of "Gaily, Gaily" takes place Aug. 29.
The retrospective series kicks off Thursday and runs until Aug. 31.