Book Review: “Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life” by Ira Wells
Who knows if that will turn out to be true, but author Quentin Tarantino’s publicly announced plan is to retire from cinema after his tenth film. It counts both Kill the bills as a single movie, which means Once upon a time in hollywood was his ninth.
Tarantino’s intention to retire on his own terms came to my mind while reading the very interesting new book by Professor Ira Wells of Victoria College (Toronto), Norman Jewison: The Life of a Director. Quick: Name some of the movies that Jewison has directed. TIC Tac. TIC Tac. Which is kind of the point.
A look at the films Jewison directed (In the heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown affair, Violin on the roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Dreamer, etc.) reveals him not only as one of the best directors in the history of cinema, but also as one of the most bankable. While Tarantino would be noticed as Quentin Tarantino apparently anywhere in the world, Jewison wasn’t even a celebrity when he was a bona fide celebrity.
It’s strange. He has made 24 films that won 46 Oscar nominations, and he won the 1998 Irving G. Thalberg Academy Memorial Award for his impressive work that spanned more than 40 years; from the “studio system” period to the “author” phase recounted in the spectacular Easy riders, raging bulls, and that Jewison’s work arguably predates the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Tarantino came to mind mainly because it is so rare that you can choose to retire by choice in the Film Industry. Usually the “money guys” take you out.
Some of those who opened this review were probably wondering why Jewison? Well why not? Although less well known than many directors, his work was very remarkable. So few had his endurance, and so few had done so precisely because so few had made such a bankable quality over such a long time. Back at Tarantino, it’s not just that he’ll be making No.10, it’s that his job is going to make another swing possible. Jewison has seen many fluctuations, which is why her career values a biography of the kind that Wells wrote. Cinephiles will not be disappointed. Jewison’s career evaluates a biography. Wells did a great job.
In my case, I devour Hollywood biographies, stories and memoirs because I find the industry and its people fascinating. While the progress is beautiful in every way, I feel bad for the filmmakers that streaming is increasingly replacing the big screen. There is something so humiliating about it, which is why the books about what Hollywood was like are so interesting. Jewison soared in the film industry when she was BIG. That says a lot about him. People may still wonder why Jewison, but the bigger question is which directors of the moment will assess the treatment of the biography in twenty or thirty years? Really, who are the stars and writers now that the movies are streaming? Jewison is part of a period in Hollywood history that I don’t want to leave.
Having said that, I read Industry books because I am passionate about it, but my criticisms are always economic in nature. The movie business always tells greater economic truths. This was certainly the case with “Jewison”, which might bother him given his political leanings. He and I probably wouldn’t agree on much in the sense of economic policy, but Jewison’s career is full of stories and anecdotes that support my political views. So let’s go.
The movie industry is always and everywhere a complete rejection of the stupid view promoted by academic economists and their media enablers about the Fed’s “impression” of “easy money”. Oh my God, there really is no such thing. Jewison’s story is a monument to this truth. In his own words, “It’s called doing your dance.” Jewison was clear that in order to make films, “you have to have a salesperson mentality.” No less than Burt Reynolds described Jewison as “the most beautiful director, perhaps, in Hollywood history”, but Reynolds knew. He knew there had to be something more to the Canadian born and raised director, that “he has to be able to screw people up at meetings.”
This is the case because making movies is so difficult. Especially when Jewison was making films, they were incredibly expensive to make. No less than Brian Grazer pointed out in his 2015 book A curious mind that Hollywood, even with its record, was the “land of no”. In Jewison’s case, despite all sorts of success and critical acclaim, he would always “fight for the money” throughout his career. In Wells’ words, “the struggle for the resources to achieve his vision has remained constant throughout his career.” The notion of easy money, especially because it is promoted so recklessly by right-wingers who should know better, is an insult to the basic economy; one that Jewison’s awesome story regularly blows up.
Jewison’s story reminds us that unlike a bug in the free country system, inequality is a positive feature. At the very beginning, Jewison worked for the BBC in London, and by Wells got a “taste of real poverty” which included “shoplifting a turnip”. Fast forward to 1966, and once ‘starving in Bayswater’ BBC the official was showing his critical and box office success The Russians are coming to 40 deputies. A decade later, Jewison had a huge farm outside of Toronto, an apartment in Toronto, as well as a beach house in Malibu that up-and-coming writer Joe Eszterhas stayed in while they planned to write FIST. . in between, Jewison deliberately left a letter on the kitchen table one night that was “personal and confidential.” He figured Eszterhas would read it while Jewison and his wife Dixie went out for the evening, and of course he did. It was a letter from his accountant to the “hippie capitalist” stating the enormous amount of money he had earned the previous year. Jewison’s message was that if Eszter would listen to her, someday he could be the recipient of a similar type of letter.
Jewison’s life is a reminder that just as luxury is historic, so too is economic status. Once extraordinarily poor, Jewison turned her situation around. And he didn’t do it by seeking his fortune away from the rich. In Jewison’s case, he made his fortune in New York, Los Angeles and London. Where the rich work and produce, this is where the opportunities lie. Find? The world’s poorest have long come to the world’s most unequal country in the United States in order to to fix their poverty. They didn’t go to Aliquippa, East St. Louis and Flint. No, they went to where the rich are. The rich do not cause poverty; on the contrary, their unspent wealth is the capital which enables the poor to improve their situation. Jewison’s story is undoubtedly an extreme version of this truth, undoubtedly Jewison has struggled with costumes his entire career, but without the money from the people whose funds made movies possible, he there is no biography of Norman Jewison. His quarrels with people over money are a reminder that the battle between creatives and finance is as old as creativity. It’s a no-brainer, but it’s almost like both parties have a secret crush on each other. Yes, they fight left and right. They disagree. But they need each other. Desperately.
Plus, Jewison’s left-hander has made enough movies in enough places to know that politicians weren’t exactly patrons of art. When deploying The Russians are coming Jewison expressed frustration that the art of political governance hampers his idealistic argument for better relations between the Americans and the Soviets. He lamented “It’s a shame that politicians and international relations have to screw up the arts. As for the public funding of films, Jewison was a left winger more realistic than emotional. He noted that “state control can be as bad as bank control.”
Which brings us to the 1975 Jewison film, Roller. The story was in many ways tailor-made for the lefties of Jewison. Every once in a while Hollywood gets into these “man” control stuff or something. The view here is that They shoot horses, don’t they? was the forerunner of Roller, and that The hunger Games was an imitation of both. Jewison clearly liked the idea of Roller because it matched his left-wing narrative of “a world ruled by six gigantic corporations – ENERGY, TRANSPORTATION, FOOD, HOUSING, SERVICES AND LUXURY”. Of course, such a point of view is nonsense. The so-called corporate power is absurd simply because corporate success attracts the very investment that leads companies to be defeated by old strangers. In other words, the unspent wealth of the rich ensures that the dominant activity of today is unlikely to be that of tomorrow. Looked at in terms of 1975, Google the best companies of that time. Or from 1985, 1995 or even 2005. There is simply no world run by “gigantic corporations”. In other words, Jewison’s political vehemence was overblown. Only governments have immense power. Never companies. Jewison should be a libertarian, but doesn’t know it.
Oddly, on the score above, Wells reports that Roger Ailes sent Jewison a fan letter about the Best Picture winner. In the heat of the Night. Brilliant! Although it must annoy Jewison endlessly that the creator of Fox News was a fan of his film denouncing racism in the south, that’s perfect. Also, if Jewison thought the Americans could make peace with the Soviets, why not leave the right?
Better yet, Ailes might have finally figured out Jewison. At the end of the day, we all seek a bit of freedom with our own wealth. Jewison’s career took him and his family to New York, then Los Angeles (Brentwood), then London when Jewison worried about raising his three children in the unreal birthplace of cinema. Wells makes it clear that he liked living in England. But not that much. The author writes that “in 1974 the new Labor government increased its [Jewison’s] 83 percent tax bracket. He and his family soon left. Staying, according to his agent, would have been “financially ‘disastrous”. Yes, taxes matter.
This excellent book too. Hopefully, it reaches a large readership just because Jewison’s story notes high-profile treatment. Indeed, to read Norman Jewison: The Life of a Director, is to wonder why this most consistent director was not better known. Many thanks to Ira Wells for handling the biography of a great Hollywood designer who, strangely, never became a legend.