Director Made Moonstruck, In the Heat of the Night

Norman Jewison mixed comedies with films about racism, injustice
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 22, 2024 5:36 PM CST
Norman Jewison Mixed Comedies, Topical Films
Lynne St. David and Norman Jewison arrive at an event in Los Angeles in 2014.   (Photo by Richard Shotwell Invision/AP, File)

Norman Jewison, the acclaimed and versatile Canadian-born director whose Hollywood films included Doris Day comedies, Moonstruck, and social dramas such as the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, has died at age 97. His publicist said Jewison, a three-time Oscar nominee who in 1999 received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, died peacefully Saturday but provided no other details. Throughout his career, Jewison combined light entertainment with topical films that appealed to him on a personal level. As Jewison was ending his military service in the Canadian navy during World War II, he hitchhiked through the American South and had a close-up view of Jim Crow segregation. In his autobiography This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, he noted that racism and injustice became his most common themes.

"Every time a film deals with racism, many Americans feel uncomfortable," he wrote. "Yet it has to be confronted. We have to deal with prejudice and injustice or we will never understand what is good and evil, right and wrong; we need to feel how 'the other' feels." He drew upon his experiences for 1967's In the Heat of the Night, starring Rod Steiger as a white, racist small-town sheriff and Sidney Poitier as a Black detective from Philadelphia trying to help solve a murder; the two eventually form a working relationship. James Baldwin condemned the film's "appalling distance from reality," and thought the director trapped in a fantasy of racial harmony that would only heighten "Black rage and despair." But critics including the New York Times' Bosley Crowther found the movie powerful and inspiring.

He also received Oscar nominations for Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck, the romantic comedy for which Cher won an Academy Award for best actress. He worked on the Cold War spoof The Russian Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, the Steve McQueen thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, and a pair of movies featuring Denzel Washington: the racial drama A Soldier's Story and The Hurricane, starring Washington as wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Five Jewison films received best Oscar nominations, per the AP. When he wasn't working, he lived on a 200-acre farm in Ontario, where he raised horses and cattle and produced maple syrup. He founded the Canadian Film Centre in 1988 and for years hosted barbecues during the Toronto Film Festival.

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The Toronto-born Jewison began acting at age 6 before Masonic lodge gatherings. After graduating from Victoria College, he went to work for the BBC in London, then returned to Canada and directed programs for the CBC. His work brought offers from Hollywood, and he quickly earned a reputation as a director of TV musicals. Jewison shifted to feature films in 1963. The director's light touch prompted Universal to assign him to a series of comedies. Wearying of such scripts, Jewison used a loophole in his contract to move to MGM for The Cincinnati Kid. "I never really became as much a part of the establishment as I wanted to be," he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2011, adding, "I never felt totally accepted—but maybe that's good."

(More obituary stories.)

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