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Norman Jewison: A Director's Life

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Happy to include this title in the spring edition of Lives Lived, my column of notable memoir and biography in Zoomer magazine’s Zed Books section.
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I highly recommend this book!  I love biographies and this ranks as one of the best I have read.  Ira Wells meticulously researched Norman Jewison's life through interviews and other sources that help provide context as well as insight into the inner thoughts of both Norman and others who worked with him.  We also get the perspective of his daughter on what he was like with his family.  What emerges is a well-rounded view of him as a filmmaker, friend, father, husband and farmer (yes - farmer!).  I feel like I really got a great sense of who he is as a person not just as a great artist (he recently turned 95!) 

The experience I had reading this book was frequently "Wow, he directed that film?  I did not know that!  I love that film!"  From "In The Heat of the Night" to "Fiddler on the Roof" to "Rollerball" to "A Soldier's Story" etc.  Some of my favorite parts of this biography was how he treated stars and writers -- they each describe how he was able to build great rapport and relationships., including letters he wrote to them that were really thoughtful and kind.  I also loved the descriptions of his collaborations with  Hal Ashby, Haskell Wexler, among others.  He also shares challenges Norman faced battling with the studios to bring his artistic vision to life.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys movies or biographies.  I found the book difficult to put down because it was interesting and entertaining.
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As a longtime film journalist and lover of films, there's no denying that I'm certainly among the target reader for "Norman Jewison: A Director's Life," the debut book by well known storyteller Ira Wells that paints a rewarding picture of a filmmaker who seldom, if ever, got the acclaim he so richly deserved.

Among my favorite filmmakers, I must say that I most admire those whose filmography is diverse. I prefer filmmakers who cross genres and styles and subjects. Jewison, now 94-years-old, is very much such a filmmaker.

Over his years as a filmmaker, Jewison's films have amassed 41 Academy Award nominations and 12 wins. He was nominated for Best Director for "In the Heat of the Night," "Fiddler on the Roof," and "Moonstruck," and in 1999 received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

While one of Hollywood's true greats, Jewison long resisted the Hollywood rat race and preferred living in both England and Canada. Long before Hollywood approached Black stories or stories centered around women, Jewison pushed the envelope with films like "A Soldier's Story" and "Agnes of God." "Norman Jewison: A Director's Life" also realistically portrays the period when Hollywood's Black and female voices started telling their own stories and how Jewison had to adapt to this changing landscape. An example of this being Jewison's removing himself from filming "Malcolm X" in favor of Spike Lee.

The first half of "Norman Jewison: A Director's Life" is easily my favorite, a balanced portrait of Jewison weaving together family tales and personal tales alongside vivid and detailed accounts of Jewison's early filmmaking efforts. In the latter half of the book, Wells focuses far more exclusively on Jewison's filmography and while the stories remain enchanting it feels like a little less of Jewison is being brought to the table.

For example, Jewison's 54-year marriage to Dixie is oft-portrayed early in the film yet only sporadically mentioned in the film's latter half. She's still there, but her presence is less integral to the story. Jewison's infidelities are given incredibly brief mention...acknowledged yet largely swept aside. There are only occasional mentions of his three children.

On the flip side, "Norman Jewison" vividly brings to life the myriad of relationships adding up to Jewison's lengthy filmmaking career that largely ended with 2003's "The Statement."

For lovers of film and filmmaking, "Norman Jewison: A Director's Life" is practically a must-read. Stories about films like "Jesus Christ Superstar," "In the Heat of the Night," "Fiddler on the Roof," "A Soldier's Story," "Moonstruck," are captivating in their detail and remarkable reflection of Jewison's strengths as a filmmaker and a human being. Other films, perhaps less critically acclaimed but no less beloved, are also vividly brought to life such as "Agnes of God," the original "The Thomas Crown Affair," ""The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," "Rollerball," "...And Justice For All," "The Hurricane," and "The Cincinnati Kid" among others.

At nearly 600 pages, "Norman Jewison: A Director's Life" is remarkable in its detail and storytelling. Wells has relentlessly researched and documented Jewison's life and even my still being edited ARC is practically a "can't put this down" kind of book. Jewison, who retired after "The Statement," was installed as Chancellor of Victoria University in the University of Toronto and would serve in that role until 2010. In 2010, he married his second wife Lynne.

A remarkably bold, compassionate voice and a filmmaker with fierce artistic integrity, Norman Jewison is captured beautifully by Ira Wells in "Norman Jewison: A Director's Life" and the book is due for release by Sutherland House on May 28, 2021.
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My thanks to NetGalley and Sutherland House for an advance copy of this book on film history.

Even for a film buff it is hard to believe that the same director of the science fiction blood battle movie Rollerball, was also responsible for the movies Moonstruck and In the Heat of the Night. Ira Wells in his new biography Norman Jewison: A Director's Life tells the tale of this famous director, and Mr. Wells tells it so well I can't wait for the film version.

This book is one of the best film biographies I've read. What does help is the Jewison seems to be a great guy, a great family man, and a man with a great eye for talent, and how to work with it. A true collaborator, he had the ability to get even the hardest of actors, Steve McQueen,  to reach for something different. To try something new. The sheer variety of his filmography shows this. Musicals, slapstick, drama, message movies, science fiction. He directed them all, and mostly the way he wanted to.

The stories are great, the behind the scenes stuff is not dishy, but honest. Mr. Jewison comes across as a complicated man, always striving to do more with his films, and fighting for what he thought was right and fair. Just a look at his oeuvre proves that he did.
For fans of film, creativity, history and fans of just just good writing. A great book I hope won't get lost, but become the reference that it deserves to be.
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“I’ve met very few people who have his kind of passion, where it’s just in every aspect of his life.” -Harry Belafonte about Norman Jewison 

His films are a familiar part of popular culture: Moonstruck (1987), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) among them. He won awards, audiences, and critics over the course of a long, remarkably successful career, but Norman Jewison doesn’t have the name recognition of a lot of his peers. In an invigorating new biography of the director, Ira Wells digs into why and explores the life of a man who knew how to live to the fullest. 

Jewison went against the Hollywood norm in many ways: he was happily married for fifty-four years to wife Dixie, until her death (though the bio skips past a scant reference to his infidelities), he raised three well-adjusted, happy kids, and he never settled in Los Angeles, preferring the UK and his farm in Canada to life in a company town. He was also remarkably devoted to finding meaning and growth in his work, from his early days film television specials with Judy Garland and Harry Belefonte to his final film.

In a climate where the toxic behavior of so many directors and stars is being revealed, it was refreshing to learn how well Jewison treated his cast in crew. In his approach to making movies, he focused on creating a family rather than asserting control, the result ironically being that he had a great deal of control over his sets and only rarely felt compelled to bow to an especially powerful star. 

It was liberating to be able to simply enjoy learning about Jewison’s creative process and collaborations, especially his fruitful working relationship with editor/director Hal Ashby. Instead of reading about red-faced fury on the set, there’s stories of Jewison giving bear hugs to his stars for a good scene, gently coaxing actors into creating performances from their own instincts, and the environment he created that allowed inventive technical elements like the way cinematographer Haskell Wexler circled Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway on a skateboard to get that famous swirling shot of them kissing in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Though it was often frustrating and there were still plenty of personal conflicts, filming was a thrilling pursuit in Jewison’s world. 

While Jewison wanted to make profitable movies, his vision always came first, for better or for worse. As a result he pushed against studios to tackle unpopular topics, and make films dominated by Black (A Soldier’s Story [1984]) or female (Agnes of God [1985]) stars. It is interesting to note that these films were generally profitable and critically acclaimed. 

One of Jewison’s biggest faults was an occasional obliviousness about the feelings of others; an odd trait in a person with so much empathy that seemed rooted in his passionate interest in social justice and a sense of entitlement of being able to film what he wished. He was particularly insensitive to the idea that his desire to tell Black stories was not always welcomed by the Black community. When he wanted to make a biopic of Nat Turner and the violent slave uprising he led, many in the Black community begged him not to go forward with the project. He dug his heels in for far too long, though he did finally relent. He also gave in with reluctance when Spike Lee lobbied hard to take over directing duties from him for the Malcolm X biopic. 

Wells concludes that Jewison never made it to the top rank of directors because he wouldn’t play the Hollywood game. He never settled into the culture of the town and would only pour on the charm when he wanted to get a project made. Perhaps that is so, but when I think about Jewison’s joyful dance across the stage as he went to accept his Irving G. Thalberg from Nicolas Cage at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, he might have wanted more plaudits, and he deserves them, but what he had was more precious and rare.
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Norman Jewison is one of my absolute favorite film directors, so I jumped at the chance to read it.  Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this biography.

Here are just a few of the films directed by Norman Jewison:
In the Heat of the Night - 1967 - Winner of the Best Picture Oscar and the BAFTA
Moonstruck - 1987 - Best Actress Oscar (Cher)
Jesus Christ Superstar - 1971 Golden Globe Nominations for Neeley, Anderson, Elliman (Jesus, Judas, Mary)
The Russians are Coming - 1967 - Golden Globe for Best Picture
The Hurricane - 1999 - Best Actor Nomination for Denzel Washington; Golden Globe winner for Best Actor
And Justice for All - 1979 - Best Actor Nomination for Al Pacino
Fiddler on the Roof - 1971 - Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, Golden Globe for Best Actor (Chaim Topol)
Cincinnati Kid - 1965 - Best Supporting Actor Nomination (Edward G. Robinson); Best Supporting Actress Nomination (Joan Blondell)

As you can see by the list, he is a very eclectic and talented director.  His films include musicals, satire, drama, and comedy.  He was masterful in dealing with writers and actors; for example, in filming the Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen, Norman intuited that McQueen was insecure.  Norman befriended him as if he were McQueen's older brother, which alleviated most of McQueen's insecurities, and a great film was made.  Norman was described as "'a constant-talking always-moving bundle of atomic energy.'  The actors found his vitality infectious."

Jewison would never direct a film for commercial reasons.  He eschewed directing a super hero film and never did.  He never directed a commercial either.  There always needed to be art in his films, and frequently they were anti-establishment.  I once saw him on "Inside the Actors' Studio" hosted by James Lipton and was so impressed with him.  It was an pleasure reading this well-crafted biography by Ira Wells.
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This book took me a long time to read because I kept stopping either to watch Norman Jewison's movies or to look up videos of his movies or TV shows he directed. There are a lot of them and most of them are classics! I confess I only had heard of Jewison through his movie Moonstruck, the classic film of Italian love with Cher and Nicolas Cage. But wow, he has actually directed a ton of movies I'd heard of but didn't know he was involved with: The Thomas Crowne Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, In the Heat of the Night. He directed classic TV specials with Judy Garland, Harry Belafonte, etc. I mean, this man has done it all so as a cineaste I'm a tad embarrassed I didn't know he was connected to so many of these classics, not just connected, but responsible for them, as he was often in the position of fighting tooth and nail with the studios to get his vision the way he wanted it. He also had a long-term partnership with his editor, Hal Ashby, who ended up directing Coming Home, Harold & Maude, and other classics.

Much of the book is taken up with Jewison's frustrating struggles with the studios, who did what studios normally do - interfere, rein in spending, and make idiotic demands and suggestions. I always find it fascinating when a creative has so many hair-pulling struggles because I think there is a tendency to believe that successful creations just blissfully and easily HAPPEN. But because the book focuses so much on Jewison's irritations and struggles, it was difficult to picture him as everyone says he was - incredibly warm, enthusiastic, and energetic. I could only picture a man railing at studio executives. But for me, that part is more interesting anyway.

Well, I plan to keep watching Jewison's movies. His name should be as known as Steven Spielberg or Billy Wilder.
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Norman Jewison's raison d'etre... A review of a book on this director's life (so far) showing a man with many hats both on and off-screen.

Think of the Oscar Best Director nominated films The Heat of the Night (1967), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) or Moonstruck (1987). All these films were directed by the same man, the Canadian director Norman Jewison. Jewison had also had cast lists as diverse as those with Doris Day and Haley Joel Osment.

In 1999, Jewison received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his services to the film industry. For this honour, he followed in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kramer. So just seeing the photograph of actor Steve McQueen with this director on the cover of Ira Wells biography, Norman Jewison: A Director's Life, I knew this book would be an interesting read. It certainly was as I hoped, as I learnt about the life (so far) of this famous director who worked with Steve McQueen on both The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

This book's preface tells how Jewison started his on-screen career literally on the first day of the Canadian English language television in 1952 as a floor director. His last feature film as director was made just over 50 years later. His final film before he retired was The Statement (2003) and starred Michael Caine, Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates.

Wells tells Jewison's life story from his childhood to the present day with this book ending on a personal note. In Wells' personal story - as a much-published professor teaching English at the University of Toronto - he tells of his interview with the director in 2019. This last chapter was admittedly my favourite part of Wells book to read. I felt quite emotional as I read Wells recreation of his short time with Jewison and you can feel his admiration, pride and love for Jewison in every sentence and word of this chapter.

In nearly 500 pages, Wells tells you not only of this director's life but also of the making of his films, their plots and the then pertinent history of that time and place. Wells makes this book a compelling read with his writing supported by his use of transcripted interviews, newspaper articles and international critics' reviews. 

There are also more personal stories about this director added. These are evidenced through excerpts from Jewison's personal letters and interviews and the remembrances of his family. In the combination of these Wells has created a rounded and more authentic picture of Norman Jewison and you feel you know him a little better because of these.

The preface of this book not only sums up this directors career, but Wells also tells more about Jewison' personality. In reading Wells book, you feel that this director is much loved and respected. Wells adds quotes and anecdotes from others supporting this, who were both in front of and behind the scenes with him throughout his career. This summed up by actor Burt Reynolds who called Jewison "the nicest director maybe in the history of Hollywood."

It was of interest to learn that this director didn't just direct his cast as a whole, but that his cast saw his role more personal. I found it heartening to learn, that Jewison approached their needs in an individual way that he knew they would respond to him as a director.

His insightful approaches to a multitude of Hollywood and British acting talents are discussed throughout the book. Wells tells of the three different roles that he performed with the three actresses when making Agnes of God (1985). His big brotherly intuition when working with Steve McQueen in their joint movies is also commented on.

It also tells that as a director, with every film or television show he made that Jewison had a vision of how this film would be made. This is again supported within this book as we learn of his search for appropriate film locations, his quest for specific cast members and his assistance and constant battle off-screen to create his on-screen dream.

Wells recounts Jewison's life story (so far) in more detail, from 1926 when this director was born in Canada to Protestant parents. Jewison's mother was originally from England and his father was a Canadian. As a child, Jewison had talents as a Christmas tree salesman and it seems he was clearly a born entertainer.

Wells tells how Jewison's sister tells how he performed a wide variety of death performances at home. She saw him as a compelling storyteller from their childhood. The book tells how young enterprising Jewison put on "re-creations of films" for his friends (and charging them 10 cents or a jar of food to see these).

During this time, Jewison's early experiences such as those of segregation, anti-Jewish feelings in Canada - many believed he was Jewish due to his surname - and in women's rights made a strong impact on him. These then relevant themes were reflected on in his early career and then recreated in his films, such as The Thrill of It All  (1963) and In the Heat of the Night respectively. 

He wrote, directed and starred in musicals whilst he was a university student and in the Canadian Navy. His experience in creating musicals later seen as he directed Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and The Fiddler on the Roof later in his career.

This director first learnt the ropes in London at the BBC and then he attended a trainee course for Canadian television. His first job was working on a live TV for a variety show on Canadian television. This experience brought him an offer of television work in New York after someone saw his work as a director on their client's showreel.

His work on live American television was praised with regards to his "lighting skills" and his easy rapport with those deemed as "difficult" stars. In New York, Jewison won Emmys for his work on a show with Harry Belafonte, and he was then headhunted by actor, Tony Curtis while they worked on a Judy Garland special. 

This experience must have helped later on in his career he produced the 53rd Annual Academy Awards (1981) for television.  Thanks to Tony Curtis insistence on having him as his director, Jewison directed his first Hollywood film, the comedy Forty Pounds of Trouble (1962). He also wrote the slapstick chase scene for the climax of this movie. 

More Hollywood films were then offered to him, and this young director then worked in the final years of the studio system. Two of his three Golden Hollywood films were Doris Day films, these were The Thrill of it All and Send Me No Flowers (1964). These romantic comedies were a surprising inclusion in his career which then led to a filmography that was full of delightful contrasts. 

Wells also shares that after this Jewison, was involved working in a Broadway production. However, he was dismissed in the final stages of creating this. This event, however fortunately led to his big Hollywood break, as he replaced the director, Sam Peckinpah on The Cincinnati Kid.

Wells book explores Jewison's more controversial - and influential - films, such as the highly successful In The Heat of the Night () and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966). Wells describes the difficulties Jewison experienced making these films and his other controversial films. Wells reports how Jewison solved those then off-screen complications creating then radical and influential movies.

This book also has a mine of information for every film fan, with fun facts provided in every movie description. These include how the game of Rollerball was invented specifically for this film (of the same name), which of Jewison's films was suggested as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize (others believed it was Soviet Propaganda), more about Jewison's unmade biopics and how he made a young child cry for a scene by telling her that her dog died. One of my favourite stories is more delightfully tells how the ending of Agnes of God came about, only by chance.

It's fascinating to read of his hopeful leading cast members such as Jack Lemmon in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Sean Connery in The Thomas Crown Affair. Sadly Connery turned his role down, and Steve McQueen put himself forward for the part, but only if Jewison met a huge list of demands.

The book also touched on Jewison's off-screen, mutually supportive friendships with actors such as Sean Connery and Roger Moore. And also his friendships with the editor, Hal Ashby, casting director Alice Lee Boatwright ("Boaty") and the politicians Robert Kennedy and Golda Meir.

Jewison's off screen Hollywood life is told as the author tells of his successful first marriage to Margaret Ann "Dixie" Dixon which lasted from 1953 to her death in 2004. It tells about their Canadian and American life, their three "well-adjusted kids" and his happiness away from the Hollywood high life. His life to date is remembered affectionately by his family and Wells adds these more personal stories to this biography.

After the Manson murders and his close friend, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Wells tells how these events prompted Jewison to leave Hollywood because of the increasing violence in Los Angeles. He and his family then lived in London, and Jewison made films in Europe including The Fiddler on the Roof. 

He later was to return to live in his native Canada in 1978, making films there including Best Friends and Agnes of God. His last film was made in 2003, he then contributed to the film industry by founding the Canadian Film Centre. 

This well thought out and researched book never wavered in its appreciation of this award-winning director. It is felt in every moment of the book, as Wells balances those negative critics with positive ones. It tells how actors and actresses, screenwriters and editors all responded positively to their experiences with him.

Jewison's wonderful stories on film have compelled every generation from the 1950s. .Each film showing his versatility as a director in every genre from rom-coms to drama and to historical biopics and musicals. Jewison's need for not going with the flow always seen in the themes and the execution of these movies. The nature of these films themselves and his casting choices always showing his strong ability to entertain. 

Finally, to go back to Wells introduction, Wells tells how Jewison did a "dance" where he promoted and sold his film ideas to those who controlled the money. In this review, I hope have done a dance for you in encouraging you to read this book on Jewison's life and  - as Wells so beautifully writes - to learn that Jewison's "filmography itself was a lifelong variety show".



A personal thank you to NetGalley and Sutherland House for giving me an Advance Reader Copy of Norman Jewison: A Director's Life by Ira Wells. This book review will be published on its publishing date of 28th May 2021.
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A captivating, well rounded and very detailed biography of the life and works of one of the most influential filmmakers since the 60s. From "In the heat of the night" to "Agnes of God", Norman Jewison has relentlessly strived not only to entertain us but  also to stir and encourage us, his audience, to question and challenge the World by helping us to reject the straightjacket of social conventions. Ira Wells has written a magnificent portrait of a brilliant director who helped overturn many of the established norms in the movie industry. A must read for all film buffs and a worthy addition to all motion picture research libraries.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Sutherland House for giving me the opportunity to read this wonderful biography prior to its release date
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