There’s something to be said for an award that’s given only when the people who give it decide someone is worth it. That’s the case with the Directors Guild of America and its Lifetime Achievement Award, which is being awarded this year for only the 33rd time in the DGA’s 74-year history, to Norman Jewison.
Your first response is, “What took them so long?” The answer must be that Jewison has been at the top of the heap for so long — seven Oscar nominations, along with Emmy, Golden Globe and other international film awards, plus the Irving Thalberg Award in 1999 — that it must have been an oversight.
Or, perhaps it was because Jewison’s variety makes him hard to pin down. After all, where does “The Cincinnati Kid” connect to “Moonstruck,” or “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Jesus Christ Superstar”? And what do they share with his racially sensitive trilogy, “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Soldier’s Story,” and “The Hurricane”? “Rollerball,” a futuristic film that blends the impulse of NASCAR and the NFL into a thoroughly commercialized culture of violence, is still ahead of its time.
“There are a lot of good directors out there, but most work in genres,” DGA president Taylor Hackford says, “Hitchcock does Hitchcock, and so on. Very few, like Norman, work across the entire spectrum, from thrillers, comedies and musicals to drama. He’s a classy individual as well, affable and generous with young filmmakers. He’s long overdue for this award.”
Affable is a good word to describe him, as well as patient. When, before making “Moonstruck,” Cher reportedly warned him that she could be difficult to work with, he replied, “I’ve worked with some difficult people. Are you more difficult than Judy Garland?”
Directing movies was the lifetime goal of the Canadian-born-and-educated Jewison (BA, U. of Toronto, studied piano and music theory and composition). “I sat at the feet of William Wyler,” he says.
He got what he wished for, along with some things he didn’t, such as ardently hoping for Gerard Depardieu to play the lead in “Bogus” and winding up with Whoopi Goldberg (who did a creditable job), and other bizarre twists mentioned in his aptly titled autobiography, “This Terrible Business Has Been Good to me.”
The yin and the yang have retained a dynamic tension, not just throughout his career, but his life. The great joke all along has been that Jewison is not Jewish (the name dates back to 13th-century Yorkshire in England).
“I wish I had been born Jewish,” he says, even while growing up in an anti-Semitic section of Toronto. “I just let the anti-Semitism wash over me.”
This caused some discomfort when he premiered “Fiddler” in Jerusalem, leading him to feel, as he says, “traif, unclean,” though Golda Meir, who was at the screening, didn’t seem to mind.
Jewison worries about the corporatization of the movie industry and its alienating effect on both artist and the audience’s humanity. But at 83, he remains hopeful, his trim figured unbowed. He’s in preproduction for a movie called “High Alert,” which is a remake of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”
“As Billy Wilder said, ‘They have the power, but we have the glory.'”