Who knows if it will turn out to be true, but auteur Quentin Tarantino’s publicly-stated plan is to retire from filmmaking after his tenth movie. He counts the two Kill Bills as one film, which means Once Upon a Time In Hollywood was his ninth.
Tarantino’s intention to retire on his own terms came to mind while reading Victoria College (Toronto) professor Ira Wells’s very interesting new book, Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life. Quick: name some of the films Jewison directed. Tick tock. Tick tock. Which is kind of the point.
A look at the films Jewison helmed (In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler On the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Moonstruck, etc.) reveals him as not just one of the best directors in the history of film, but also one of the most bankable. While Tarantino would be noticed as Quentin Tarantino seemingly anywhere in the world, Jewison wasn’t even a celebrity when he was a bona fide celebrity.
It’s odd. He directed 24 movies that garnered 46 Oscar nominations, plus he was the 1998 winner of the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his impressive body of work that spanned over 40 years; from the “studio system” period to the “auteur” phase chronicled in Peter Biskind’s spectacular Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and that Jewison’s work arguably predated, right on through the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Tarantino came to mind mainly because it’s so rare to be able to retire in the film industry by choice. Usually the “money guys” retire you.
Some who opened this review were no doubt wondering why Jewison? Well, why not? Though less known than a lot of directors, his work was highly notable. So few had his staying power, and so few did precisely because so few made such bankable quality over such a long period. Back to Tarantino, it’s not just that he’ll make No. 10, it’s that his work will enable another swing. Jewison had numerous swings, which is why his career rates a biography of the kind that Wells wrote. Movie fans will not be disappointed. Wells has done a great job.
In my case, I devour Hollywood biographies, histories and memoirs because I find the industry and its people fascinating. While progress is beautiful in all ways, I find myself hurting for filmmakers that streaming is increasingly replacing the big screen. There’s something so demeaning about it, which is why books about what Hollywood used to be are so interesting. Jewison soared in the film industry when it was BIG. It says so much about him. People again may wonder why Jewison, but the bigger question is which directors of the moment will rate biography treatment twenty or thirty years from now? Really, who are the stars and auteurs anymore now that movies are streamed? Jewison is part of a period of Hollywood history that I don’t want to let go of.
All that said, I read books about the Industry because it fascinates me, but my reviews are always economic in nature. The business of movies always tells bigger economic truths. This was certainly the case with “Jewison,” which might bother him given his political leanings. He and I likely wouldn’t agree on much in an economic policy sense, but Jewison’s career is full of stories and anecdotes that support my policy views. So here we go.
The movie industry is always and everywhere a thorough rejection of the dopey view promoted by academic economists and their media enablers about the Fed “printing” so called “easy money.” Oh dear, there’s really no such thing. Jewison’s story is a monument to this truth. In his own words, “It’s called doing your dance.” Jewison was clear that in order to get films made, “you have to have a saleman’s mentality.” No less than Burt Reynolds described Jewison as “the nicest director, maybe, in the history of Hollywood,” but Reynolds knew. He knew there had to be something more to the Canadian-born and raised director, that “He must be able to kick the shit out of people in meetings.”
That’s the case because moviemaking is so hard. Particularly when Jewison was making movies, they were incredibly expensive to make. No less than Brian Grazer pointed out in his 2015 book A Curious Mind that Hollywood, even with his track record, was the “land of no.” In Jewison’s case, despite all manner of hits and critical acclaim, he would always be “fighting for money” throughout his career. In Wells’s words, “the struggle for resources to execute his vision remained constant throughout his career.” The notion of easy money, particularly because it’s so insouciantly promoted by members of the right who should know better, is an insult to basic economics; one that Jewison’s impressive story routinely explodes.
Jewison’s history is a reminder that as opposed to a bug in the system of free countries, inequality is a positive feature of them. In the very early days, Jewison worked for the BBC in London, and per Wells got a “taste of real poverty” that included “shoplifting a turnip.” Fast forward to 1966, and the once “starving in Bayswater” BBC functionary was showing his critical and box office hit The Russians Are Coming to 40 members of Parliament. A decade later Jewison had a massive farm outside of Toronto, an apartment in Toronto, plus a beachhouse in Malibu in which up-and-coming writer Joe Eszterhas was staying in as they planned the writing of F.I.S.T. This is notable mainly because during an argument between the two, Jewison purposely left on the kitchen table a letter one night that was “Personal and Confidential.” He figured that Eszterhas would read it while Jewison and wife Dixie were out for the evening, and sure enough he did. It was a letter from his accountant to the “hippie capitalist” indicating the massive amount of money he’d earned the previous year. Jewison’s message was that if Eszterhas listened to him, one day he might be the recipient of a similar kind of letter.
Jewison’s life is a reminder that just as luxury is historical, so is one’s economic status. Once extraordinarily poor, Jewison reversed his circumstances. And he did so not by seeking his fortune away from the rich. In Jewison’s case he made his fortune in New York, Los Angeles and London. Where the rich work and produce is where the opportunity is. Get it? The world’s poorest have long been coming to the world’s most unequal country (the U.S.) in order to fix their poverty. They haven’t gone to Aliquippa, East St. Louis and Flint. No, they’ve gone to where the rich are. The rich don’t cause poverty; rather their unspent wealth is the capital that makes it possible for the poor to improve their station. No doubt Jewison’s story is an extreme version of this truth, no doubt Jewison fought with the suits all of his career, but without the money people whose funds made the creation of movies possible, there’s no Norman Jewison biography. His spats with the money people are a reminder that the fight between creatives and finance is as old as creativity is. It’s a given, but it’s almost as though both sides have a secret crush on each other. Yes, they bash each other left and right. They’re at odds. But they need each other. Desperately.
Furthermore, the lefty in Jewison made enough movies in enough places to know that politicians weren’t exactly art patrons. During the rollout of The Russians Are Coming Jewison expressed frustration that political statecraft was getting in the way of his idealistic case for better relations between the Americans and the Soviets. He lamented “It’s too bad that politicians and international relations have to fuck up the arts.” As for state financing of films, Jewison was more realist than emotive left winger. He noted that “state control can be just as great an evil as control by the banks.”
Which brings us to Jewison’s 1975 film, Rollerball. The story was in many ways tailor-made for the lefty in Jewison. Every so often Hollywood goes for these tales of control by “the man,” or something like that. The view here is that They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was the precursor to Rollerball, and that The Hunger Games was an imitation of both. Jewison plainly liked the idea of Rollerball because it fit his left-wing narrative of “a world run by six mammoth corporations – ENERGY, TRANSPORT, FOOD, HOUSING, SERVICES, AND LUXURY.” Of course, such a view is nonsense. The alleged power of corporations is nonsensical simply because corporate success attracts the very investment that leads to the businesses up top being vanquished by former unknowns. In other words, the unspent wealth of the rich ensures that today’s dominant business most likely won’t be tomorrow’s. Looked at in terms of 1975, Google the top businesses from that time. Or from 1985, 1995, or even 2005. There’s quite simply no such thing as a world run by “mammoth corporations.” In other words, Jewison’s political stridency was overdone. Only governments have immense power. Never businesses. Jewison should be a libertarian, but doesn’t know it.
Funnily enough on the above score is that Wells reports no less than Roger Ailes sent Jewison a fan letter about Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night. Brilliant! Though it must bother Jewison endlessly that the creator of Fox News was a fan of his movie decrying racism in the south, how perfect. Plus if Jewison felt the Americans could make peace with the Soviets, why not left with right?
Better yet, Ailes would have perhaps understood Jewison. Ultimately we’re all a bit freedom-seeking with our own wealth. Jewison’s career took him and his family to New York, then Los Angeles (Brentwood), then to London when Jewison became worried about raising his three kids in the unreal cradle of filmmaking. Wells makes plain that he loved living in England. But not that much. The author writes that “In 1974, the new Labour government increased his [Jewison’s] tax bracket to 83 percent.” He and family soon left. Staying, according to his agent, would have been “financially ‘disastrous.’” Yes, taxes matter.
So does this excellent book. Hopefully it achieves wide readership simply because Jewison’s story rates big-time treatment. Indeed, to read Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life, is to wonder why this most consequential of directors wasn’t better known. A big thanks to Ira Wells for giving biography treatment to a major Hollywood creator who strangely never became a legend.