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Norman Jewison died Jan. 20 aged 97. The acclaimed Canadian director worked on films such as Moonstruck, In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, and received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1999. In an interview with National Post originally published in 2009, he looked back on his films, measured his life and admitted the pairing of Whoopi Goldberg and Gérard Depardieu in Bogus just didn’t work.
I’m a Depression kid. I grew up during the ’30s when it was 10¢ to go to the movies. Things were so tough that at the Beach Cinema, if you brought a can of food, you could go to the movies. The manager was trying to get food for his employees.
When I was very young, I’d act out the movies. I’d get a penny from everyone, and then play all the parts. I loved having an audience. My mother used to take me around to different organizations where I would recite Robert Service, The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. They thought it was cute that a little kid would say, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/by the men who moil for gold …”
My drive to do films with a social conscience came when I was 17 and hitchhiked all down through the states. A segregated society? I’d never seen one in Canada. We had very few black people and I hadn’t experienced that kind of discrimination. Sure, I’d experienced antisemitism. Ever since I was five, everybody called me “Jew boy” and “Jewy.” I got beat up with all the other kids. I could’ve corrected them, but my name is Jewison, son of a Jew. I never tell people I’m a goy. I know when someone’s being antisemitic, f–k them.
My first job with a camera was for a Canadian star named Bernie Braden, the first late-night star of British television. I just went to London and saw him, did my pitch — I’m a Canadian kid and I want to learn — and he was very kind to me. I did that until 1952, when CBC television first went on the air. The cameras they had, great big bloody things, but you start playing around …I fell in love with the idea of television. That it was going to change the world. Anything this powerful, where you could see both the Atlantic and the Pacific with the push of a button, it was like a miracle. We had no television in Canada until 1952.I went to New York and started working. Wayne and Shuster, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra. I worked on the first black special on American television with Harry Belafonte, and we lost 26 stations while we were on the air. They were offended by the fact that a black entertainer was on their station in Montgomery, Ala., or Mississippi. America was so filled with racial hatred. I was excited about what I was doing, but frustrated by the idea that it was all over after “roll credits, bring up the music, bring up the applause, fade to black.” Film was different. Film is forever. Like books. Like art. Like sculpture.
I was doing a Judy Garland show in Los Angeles and Tony Curtis sat down beside me. “Hey kid, ever think about doing a movie?” It wasn’t like he was going out and hiring William Wyler or Billy Wilder. I was young, untried and cheap. 40 Pounds of Trouble, that’s how I got into the film business. Later, as I started to make films, I was able to choose what stories I wanted to tell. I worked in America until I got disillusioned with U.S. politics: First the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and then Martin Luther King.I marched at Martin Luther King’s funeral. I got on a plane with Marlon Brando and Hal Ashby and flew to Atlanta. Of course, I couldn’t come home to Canada — there were no Canadian movies. I went to England and worked there for the next eight years. Actually, one of the reasons I came back was Mordecai Richler. He was married to an English girl and living abroad, and told me he was going back home. “I don’t want to die in a suburb of London,” he said. I thought about that. And I came back home.Agnes of God was my next picture, with Jane Fonda and Annie Bancroft and then I did Soldier’s Story, Justice For All, Dogs of War, Iceman. I made Moonstruck in 1987. I was hot. Probably my most personal film is Bogus and nobody came. Everybody has disappointments. The chemistry between Whoopi Goldberg and Gérard Depardieu just didn’t work. But it’s about a boy and his imaginary friend, about trust and love. It’s about me when I was four years old.
I never thought that I had it and I still don’t today. Every picture I do, I’m afraid that no one is going to go see it. I’m afraid I’m telling a story that no one’s interested in. There’s moments of triumph and disappointment, my films — it’s a life’s work.
When I think of my pictures I see flashes of time. Places. I measure my life by my films. Each one is different. Each has its own reason for being. There’s no difference between comedy and drama, it’s only about believability — if you believe what’s happening on the screen, you’ve got them. Make something special, people will carry it around in their heart for the rest of their life.
Of course, nobody is interested in the director. They say, I love Cher or I love Nicolas Cage. Directors are basically hidden, but that never bothered me. The rejection that an actor receives every day is unbearable. But the director, on the other hand, he hires. He’s the employer. He gets everything he wants. There isn’t anything better to be than a movie director.
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