Norman Jewison 1926-2024 — Jewish Renaissance

The award-winning Canadian filmmaker has died aged 97

Norman Jewison, the Canadian movie director who died last week aged 97, was not Jewish. But he did film the musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on a story by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. And with that surname…. How could we not celebrate his life and work?  

In school, Jewison was mistaken for a Jew and bullied; consequently, he always identified with the outsider and his liberal views are evident in many of his films. In 1945, aged 18, while hitchhiking through the racially segregated Southern states of America, he passed Sikeston, Missouri, where the last lynching had taken place three years earlier. Jewison was proudly informed that the truck he was riding in, had been used to drag Cleo Wright through the black neighbourhood, his body finally set alight. This experience informed Jewison’s stance on social justice and his trilogy of civil rights films.

The first of these, In The Heat of the Night (1967), was mostly shot in midwest America, because the South was too dangerous for black actor Sidney Poitier. A brief stint filming at a Tennessee cotton plantation was cut short by racist threats to Poitier’s life. Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow and the danger was real; civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee just eight months after the film’s release. The movie made history with a riveting scene where a racist plantation owner is questioned about a murder. He slaps detective Poitier’s face – and is slapped right back. The retaliation was inserted on Poitier’s insistence and it is to Jewison’s credit that he agreed. Each witness to the incident responds differently and what immediately follows is a minute study in character complexity, typical of Jewison’s films. The movie made Poitier’s career and Rod Steiger excelled as the bigoted police officer forming a tentative respect for Poitier’s northern outsider. Jewison brought out the best in his actors and Poitier recalled frequent laughter during the breaks.

Jewison supported Robert (Bobby) Kennedy’s Democratic presidential campaign. After Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and deploring the violence in American culture, Jewison moved his family to London, where they lived for seven years. During this time, mistaking Jewison’s background, United Artists hired him to direct Fiddler on the Roof; the title was inspired by a Chagall painting. Striving for authenticity, Jewison was determined to make a European movie, not an American one.

It was filmed at Shepperton studios and on location (always Jewison’s preference) in Yugoslavia, because Romania proved too expensive. Chaim Topol had played the role of Tevye on the London stage since 1967; his parents were from Eastern Europe and Jewison cast him, rather than Zero Mostel, who had taken the lead on Broadway. Topol was only 36, so to make him look older, white hairs plucked from Jewison’s beard were stuck on to the actor’s eyebrows.

The movie opens with the ‘Violin Cadenza’ from John Williams’ score, the solo played by Isaac Stern. Jewison always used first-class music and the most gifted musicians. Unlike the stage production, Topol’s Tevye the milkman has a cart drawn by a real horse, saved from the glue factory. The beast acquired the name of Shmuel and after filming, his upkeep on a farm was paid for by Jewison. The song ‘Tradition’ takes you through life in the shtetl, the routine interspersed with images of Jewish artifacts. The film was specific yet universal; its values still speak to people from different cultures and it became a favourite movie in Japan. Jewison can be heard (uncredited), dubbed as the rabbi singing “Mazel tov, mazel tov” in Tevye’s crazy dream sequence. 

In 1988, Jewison set up the Canadian Film Centre to provide training, support and opportunities for professionals in all aspects of the industry. He worked with many celebrities and stars, directing 44 films for television and the big screen. His work is wide-ranging but always accessible; engaging the audience through the art of storytelling. Rest in power, Norman Jewison. May his memory be for a blessing.

By Irene Wise

Source link

Related Articles

Back to top button