Norman Jewison Feature Profile

This profile on Norman Jewison was written by Jack Batten in 1998 as part of a booklet that CFC created when we presented Mr. Jewison with our Lifetime Achievement Award.

See the original profile from CFC’s Norman Jewison Lifetime Achievement Award Booklet HERE.

Norman Jewison’s passport bulged with residence visas and visitor’s documents, and the immigration officer at Toronto Airport on this day in late July 1978 seemed exasperated at the thick pages of stamps and certificates. “Where do you live?” he asked Jewison. “I’m going to live in Canada again,” Jewison answered. “I’m a returning settler.” “Returning from where?” the immigration man pressed him. “What places have you been living?” “Well, the last eight years have been in London, England. For eight more before that, I was in Los Angeles. And the four years at the beginning after I left Canada were in New York City.” “Huh,” the immigration man said, incredulous. “So why are you coming back here?” Welcome to Canada. “Only in my native country would an official in a department of the federal government question my sanity in returning home,” Jewison says of the encounter. “An American immigration officer would have asked what took me so long to come home. The Canadian guy thought that I was nuts. But I knew I was right.”

Jewison, one of the world’s great movie directors, had become homesick for the country of his birth. He’d grown up over his parents’ dry goods store at the corner of Queen Street and Kippendavie Avenue in the Beaches section of Toronto. He attended Malvern Collegiate, detoured into the Royal Canadian Navy for two years, then took an arts degree at the University of Toronto. He freelanced as an actor and a writer for BBC radio and television in London in the early 1950s. Back in Toronto, he got in on the ground floor at CBC-TV and directed everything from Uncle Chichimus to Wayne & Shuster. That brought him to the attention of CBS-TV in New York where he directed stars (Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye) and won Emmys. Next stop: Hollywood.

Jewison’s directorial oeuvre today* extends to 22 feature movies. They have drawn 45 Academy Award nominations (including three for Jewison as Best Director) and won 12 Oscars. The movies cover a wide and complex range, from dramas about race ( In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story) to meditations on violence and the future (Rollerball) to classical musicals (Fiddler on the Roof) and romantic comedies (Moonstruck). In all his movies, no matter the subject, mood or style, Jewison explores personal themes and gives them a universal accessibility. Betrayal is a favourite and recurring text. So are confrontation and responsibility. Jewison’s movies come disguised as popular entertainments, but dig a little deeper and they reveal insights with the power to move and surprise their audiences.

In 1978, Jewison, the returning settler, established himself on a farm in Caledon. Typically, he wasn’t content to play the gentleman farmer. He made his property, which he named Putney Heath Farms after the suburb of London he was moving from, into a working farm. It was a place where he raised prize-winning Polled Herefords, where he tapped the maple trees and produced a particularly delicious brand of maple syrup. In the same creative and energetic fashion, he threw himself into many other areas of Canadian life. His alma mater, the University of Toronto, was one; he founded a film lectureship at Victoria College, launched the Norman Jewison Fellowship in film studies at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and served as a chair of the university’s Annual Fund in 1997 and 1998. On an even broader philanthropic front, he and his wife Dixie set up causes that are dear to the Jewison’s hearts: First Nation’s culture, research for AIDS and heart disease, help in such areas as pediatrics, the underprivileged, and the physically challenged.

And, of course, Jewison involved himself inextricably in the care and nurturing of Canadian movie-making. “Film has become the literature of this generation,” he has said. “Canada’s cultural distinction and survival depend on its ability to master the medium and command a place on the screens of the world.” In pursuit of this ambitious and necessary goal, Jewison established the Canadian Film Centre in 1998 and continues his closer connection with the Centre to this day, serving on its Board of Directors and Executive Committee and, more personally, mentoring its students.

As both a producer and director, Jewison has worked wonders at putting Canada and Canadians into his movies. The acclaimed Jewison-produced 1994 feature, Dance Me Outside, boasted an all-Canadian cast and crew. And though he still maintains a busy office in Los Angeles, Jewison has made parts or all of the movies he has directed in the last dozen years on his home turf, employing Canadian artists, technicians and crafts people. His 1984 drama, Agnes of God, was largely filmed at the Academy in Rockwood, Ontario. He shot much of his 1995 comedy-drama, Bogus, in Toronto parks, streets, homes, sound stages and back alleys. And his next feature, scheduled to begin production in the late autumn of this year, a story based on the astounding life of the boxer Hurricane Carter, will likewise be filmed mostly in southern Ontario. In all ways, Jewison has been a modern trailblazer in the development of Canadian film.

For all these reasons, because he is a master of his art form, because he is a man of great spirit and generosity, the Centre is tonight bestowing on Norman Jewison its Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is in recognition of the sweep and scope of Jewison’s remarkable career in film and television, his respect for higher education and his unfaltering drive to aid, support and inspire the next generation of Canadian movie-makers.