This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography

by Norman Jewison
ISBN: 1552632113

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A Review of: This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography
by Clara Thomas

As producer and director, Norman Jewison has had the most successful career in television and movies of any Canadian. He climaxed and celebrated his career by establishing the Canadian Film Centre on Bayview Avenue in Toronto, an immensely important amenity for the entire Canadian film industry. He never relinquished his Canadian identity. Like him, Dixie, his wife, grew up in the Beaches/Scarborough area of Toronto and the two older of their three children were born in Canada. The Caledon farm is their most prized and permanent home. His life story, written because of a promise to Jay Scott, a dear friend who had begun it then died, reflects the characteristics most evident in his career: "I've tried to be truthful and entertaining, to write something that's sometimes serious and sometimes funny. Sometimes sad and sometimes joyful. Something with passion and anger, laughter and tears, and even the occasional insight...something that's like one of my better movies, in other words."
The book begins on a beguiling comic note-the little Jewison boy with Yorkshire Methodist forbears so wanting to be Jewish that he went to the synagogue with his friend, wearing his yarmulke proudly until the fateful day when his friend's mother realized that his family regularly attended Bellefair United Church. He was called Jew boy and Jewy, chummed with the Jewish kids at school, and was chased as they were by Gentile classmates. His introduction moves right into the very centre and most satisfying assignment of his career, his directing of Fiddler on the Roof in 1969.
He was summoned to a meeting in New York by the top executives of United Artists and asked if he would be interested in directing Fiddler. After some moments of stunned silence at his honest rejoinder, "What would you say if I told you I am a Goy?", they recovered from shock and reiterated their offer. Jewison was off on the most wide-ranging challenge of his career. He was in charge of finding a village suitable for the screening-after much searching it turned out to be in Yugoslavia-and for the actors. His choices were triumphs, particularly his persuading of Isaac Stern, the world's most acclaimed violinist, to actually play "the Fiddler" and the young Israeli actor, Topol, to play Tevye, the father and central character in the film. It garnered eight Oscar nominations and won three, though it was denied the best picture award and Jewison likewise denied the best director. As he believed all along, however, this film version of Scholem Aleichem's stories has become a classic and is constantly shown on the world's screens.
Born in 1927, Jewison became an enthusiastic performer early in life. He grew up during the depression when children were often asked to "say a piece." Jewison was very early in demand for his dramatic renditions of Robert Service's endlessly popular Dan McGee and Sam McGrew. At Malvern Collegiate he turned out skits for every occasion, and at Victoria College he was in his element writing satirical nonsense for the annual "Bob" productions. Very early he had got in the habit of what he called "dancing" his projects, which to him meant dramatized presentations to persuade his audience to accept them. This too became a life-long part of his method. In his teens he became a sea cadet and at 17 he joined the navy. When the war ended he had a long leave before demobilization. He chose to hitchhike in uniform, through the southern United States and there, for the first time, he encountered virulent racism. The treatment of Negroes left its permanent marks on him. Already a lifelong Jew in his sympathies, he carried his sensitization throughout his career and many of his choices of projects were governed by it. He served his media apprenticeship in the exciting, growing, immediate post-war years of Canadian radio and CBC television which began in 1952. Norman Campbell, of CBC, acknowledged by all those around him as their leader and inspiration, became his life-long mentor and close friend.
Jewison's account of his career is roughly chronological, but more than that, it is anecdotal, moving readily into remembered episodes, out of order, and captivating by doing so. Vignettes of a galaxy of stars with whom he worked-Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Harry Bellefonte-add layers of informal interest to his story. Most of all, we are informed about the responsibilities and challenges facing a director and producer. This facet of his memoir is particularly valuable. It is safe to say that few readers will begin with any clear picture of the duties of a director. We all know that in the last decades "Director" and "Producer" have replaced "Star" in critics' assessments of movies, but few of us know why. Jewison's various directing gambits reveal that endurance, patience, and imaginative innovative strategies, have all become everyday requirements. Every facet of the film rests on his shoulders, from finding and sometimes nursemaiding the actors to cutting and shaping the finished film and living through the suspense of the various trial screenings that indicate its likelihood of becoming a success.
To meet the challenges, he had to move-to New York, to London for the BBC, to Los Angeles-and also to persuade his family to move with him. They stayed together, a very large feat in itself. The litany of his films include names that we recognize immediately for their distinction-The Russians Are Coming, Moonglow, In The Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Jesus Christ Superstar-among many others. In 1999 at the Academy Awards, his career was crowned by the Thalberg Award, the film industry's highest honour. "Never mind the gross, Top Ten or Bottom Ten," he said in his acceptance speech, "just tell stories that move us to laughter and tears...I have tried to tell stories that have some relevance to people's lives. William Wyler once told me, It's not over until your legs give out, kid.'" Jewison has given us an abundantly engrossing and informative account of a deservedly successful life.

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