Norman Jewison, now 95 and long retired, despite having directed some of the best-known and consequential movies of the past 50 years in every genre—The Cincinnati Kid; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; In the Heat of the Night; Moonstruck; The Thomas Crown Affair (the original); and Jesus Christ Superstar—has somehow been overlooked by history.
Says Boaty Boatwright, a lifelong friend who cast Jewison’s first feature, 40 Pounds of Trouble, in 1962, “He never got the recognition he deserved. Perhaps it was because he was so eclectic in his choice of projects. He never wanted to do the same picture twice.” He wasn’t an “auteur” with a signature style—there’s no such thing as a “Norman Jewison film”—nor was he part of the fabric of Hollywood, and for long periods of time he didn’t even live in the U.S.
Of all his pictures, Jewison says in a quavery voice over the phone from Toronto, where he now lives, “Fiddler on the Roof and In the Heat of the Night are my favorites.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Fiddler on the Roof, his most successful picture, providing an opportunity to pay him and it the attention they deserve. The film began life on September 22, 1964, as a Broadway hit, based on a short story by Sholem Aleichem. The production was directed by the legendary Jerome Robbins—revolutionary choreographer, closeted gay, former Red, and friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee—and starred Zero Mostel, who hated him for squealing.
Years later, Jewison, who was more or less the house director of United Artists, was summoned to the office of its president, Arthur Krim, who asked him, “What would you say if I asked you to direct a film of Fiddler on the Roof?” Looking uneasily around the room packed with UA’s Jewish executives, Jewison replied, “There’s one enormous problem. What would you say if I told you I was a goy?”
“Jewison, J-E-W-I-S-O-N, is a goy?”
“We don’t want a Seventh Avenue [Yiddish] production,” Krim said with a smile.
Still, UA was nervous. Broadway theater was one thing; a movie was another. Said one producer, “What am I gonna do for an audience once I run out of Hadassah benefits?” But Jewison was enthusiastic. He had always wanted to live up to his name—that is, become Jewish—so much so that Topol, the Israeli actor whom he chose to play Tevye, the lead, said, “We have a joke about it, that he’s going to convert into Judaism and change his name to Norman Christianson.”
The show is set in Anatevka, a fictional shtetl in Russia, circa 1905, but Jewison couldn’t get insurance to shoot in what was then the Soviet Union and ended up settling for three different villages in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, now Croatia.
“I didn’t want it to be an American film,” Jewison explains. “I wanted to root it in Eastern Europe, where Sholem Aleichem envisioned it. To keep the audience involved, you’ve got to make a film as close to life as possible. My films are all so different, but the audience believes the story is real.”
The conceit of the story is based on a 1912 painting by Marc Chagall of a fiddler perched on a roof. For the fiddling, Jewison wanted only the best, and in this case the best was Isaac Stern, world-renowned violinist. Jewison flew to Chicago, where Stern was performing, to plead his case in person, but Stern informed him that he didn’t climb roofs. Jewison, charming and persistent as always, explained that an actor would do the climbing. All he wanted was Stern’s sound. The fiddler agreed.
Translated into a musical, Chagall’s painting becomes the metaphor for its theme: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” The trouble is, tradition dictates that the patriarch of the family, in this case Tevye, must approve the connubial choice of each of his five daughters. Tevye is only a milkman and views his daughters’ betrothals as a ladder on which they will be able to climb out of poverty. But the oldest three daughters have their own ideas about whom they wish to marry, and worse, they don’t care about wealth; they want to marry for love. Breaking with tradition, they choose a poor tailor, a revolutionary scholar, and a Russian Christian.
One of the many reasons the Broadway show was so successful is that it hit a vein, tapping into the historical forces that shaped the 20th century. The Holocaust hovers like a dark shadow over the entire enterprise. The film ends with Anatevka’s Jewish peasants driven from their homes by czarist officers. In Barbara Isenberg’s thorough examination of the show, Tradition, she quotes actress Molly Picon, who plays Yente, the matchmaker, remarking, “What began with Fiddler and the life in the nineteenth hundreds ended, finally, with Hitler … ”
The Broadway show opened a year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published, and so it was able to surf the first wave of feminism, which becomes one of the not-so-sub subtexts of the story. As Jewison put it, quoting his friend Bobby Kennedy, “Timing is everything.”
“He never got the recognition he deserved. Perhaps it was because he was so eclectic in his choice of projects. He never wanted to do the same picture twice.”
Often wearing a suede jacket with a fleece collar turned up against the wind, a baseball cap barely containing his long, graying locks curling around his ears, Jewison was known for his rapport with actors, having been one himself, and in the various making-of documentaries he can be seen behind the camera humming the songs along with the performers.
With seeming ease, Jewison indeed managed the difficult feat of anchoring the musical’s magical realism, not to mention its songs and production numbers, in the gritty realism of the locations. The camera fluidly glides, for example, up and away from a close-up of the daughters singing “Matchmaker” to a solitary Tevye laboring along a dirt road behind his cart and broken-down horse, framed by a desolate horizon. You can almost breathe the dust. Tevye occupies himself with an ongoing lamentation to God, during which he looks skyward. To make sure he did so at the same angle, Jewison’s God was a piece of cardboard with a Star of David drawn on it attached to the end of a stick.
Choreographing the stage version, Robbins had used the circle—in the dances, the rhythms of the seasons, and so on—to symbolize the safety and stability of a community, dependent as it was upon the continuity of its traditions, as well as its insularity. Jewison smartly leaned into that, but when the Jews are driven from Anatevka, he breaks the circle with a heartrending shot of the peasants, trudging single file across a bridge, their few belongings strapped to their backs. The final image is unforgettable—the dark silhouette of the fiddler on the roof playing the theme, backlit by the golden glow of the setting sun.
Fiddler on the Roof was released in November 1971. UA needn’t have worried about a limited audience. It was an instant hit. It seemed like the entire world was Fiddler-ized. When the film played in Tokyo, its writer, Joe Stein, was asked, “Do they understand this show in America? Because it’s so Japanese!” It was nominated for eight Oscars, but 1970 was a tough year, and it lost best picture to The French Connection. Jewison had to settle for an accolade from none other than the sainted Pauline Kael, who called it “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda says he was so deeply moved by the film that he used one of its songs in his wedding. Calling attention to its universality, he noted that he’s Puerto Rican and his wife is Dominican and Austrian. “In moments of great upheaval, Fiddler is always going to seem relevant, because the world is changing faster than we can understand, and we look to our traditions to guide us, and sometimes they fail us.”
After three Oscar nominations for best director (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, and Moonstruck), and producing the 53rd Academy Awards show himself in 1981, Jewison finally won his Oscar, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, for lifetime achievement, in 1999. Backstage he was petrified, but once he got onstage and the 80-piece orchestra began playing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, he began to sing and dance. He looked down at the first row—Steven Spielberg, Nick Nolte, Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Judi Dench—and thought, “My God, they’re all getting up. Holy shit, I’m getting a standing ovation,” and he was.
Over 40-odd years, Jewison directed some 24 films, produced others, and did TV work. Today, superhero movies have crowded out the kinds of films he made. “I didn’t think about the box office,” he says. “The gross of a film is not as important as the story. And each film must have its own soul and center.”
Does he ever get the itch?
“I just can’t do those 12-hour days anymore. But I never stop wanting to tell stories. I make them in my dreams.”
Peter Biskind is the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls