Note: This is a series on film directors, two at a time.
Arthur Hiller and Norman Jewison both had long careers directing feature films. Both started in television directing series and then television movies before moving into feature films.
Both directed big hits and cultural bending films, and both men had a style that was versatile enough to direct any genre of film. If I mention the films, you know them. If I mention their names, you might have heard of them but not sure where. These two men didn’t have a particular directing style, yet they directed with style. Actors liked working with them, but don’t be misled, these men could direct action films and put high energy on the screen too.
Hiller (above, left) and Jewison (above, right) came to films after the studio system was gone, but in the early age of television. Had they arrived several decades earlier, they would probably have flourished under the studio system process, learning their craft and moving from production to production and turning out good work, within budget.
Arthur Hiller spent the first ten years of his career directing episodic television. He cut his teeth in dramatic series like Zane Grey Theater, Playhouse 90, Climax!, Goodyear Theatre and Thriller. He also directed Wagon Train, The Third man, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman, The Naked City, Ben Casey, Route 66 and others. Working in television required directors to work fast, work with actors and crew you didn’t know, and meet the expectations of producers who called the shots. It is not a coincidence that many directors from early television also became good producers. You had to recognize good writing, get crews that worked efficiently and get product on the screen within budget.
He began directing longer form, first with television films and then theatrical fare. His third feature film was his permanent ticket to studio films: The Americanization of Emily. A brilliant film written by Paddy Chayefsky, from the novel by William Bradford Huie, and starring James Garner, Julie Andrews, Melvyn Douglas and James Coburn, the film is a dark comedy wrapped around a war drama and love story. It was a soufflé that had to be perfectly executed to work and it did. The film is a classic.
From there, his film were Promise Her Anything, Penelope, Tobruck, The Tiger Makes Out, Popi and The Out of Towners. These were A-List films; he was working with the top writers and actors, they were mostly successful, but he was waiting for his first really big hit.
Love Story. Boom, a cultural phenomenon. This was Romeo and Juliet for the twentieth century. Love Story was a huge hit and sent everyone’s career connect with it into orbit. For the next two decades (in Hollywood this is an eternity) he directed mostly comedies but several dramas too.
Next up was Plaza Suite, a Neil Simon comedy, then The Hospital (George C. Scott, Diana Rigg), another Paddy Chayefsky black comedy, then a musical, Man of La Mancha (Peter O’Toole, Sophia Loren). These were big film and large financial investments. Neil Simon was not even at the top of his film game yet, but climbing; Chayefsky was considered a mad genius of a writer; and the La Mancha project was a huge gamble especially since it was a musical and starred non-singers, and Hiller was brought on board after the original
director was fired.
After a few lesser films and a bomb (W.C. Fields and Me), he hit paydirt with Silver Streak (Gene Wilder, Jill Clayborne). This was followed by The In-Laws (Peter Falk, Alan Arkin), Author! Author! (Al Pacino), Romantic Comedy, The Lonely Guy (Steve Martin), Teachers (Nick Nolte), Outrageous Fortune (Bette Midler), See no Evil, Hear No Evil (Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor), Takin Care of Business (Jim Belushi, Charles Grodin), Married to It and The Babe (John Goodman). His career wound down after that, but what a run!
If you gave a film to Arthur Hiller, it would get done, not bust the studio’s budget, attract talent and turn a profit. Hiller worked with edgier material earlier in his career, but as he aged the projects became a bit more formula and safer, which mainstream producers appreciated. Arthur Hiller was a classy guy and his films reflected that.
Norman Jewison was born in Canada and worked both in Canada and London before he made his way to the United States. Before he started working in features he had directed a lot of television programs. Again, that training focuses on working fast, assembling a capable crew, and a “no extravagance” style. Let the work speak for itself.
His first feature film was 40 Pounds of Trouble, a lightweight Tony Curtis comedy, but a Hollywood film! His next two films were Doris Day comedies followed by a James Garner/Dick Van Dyke comedy (written by Carl Reiner). These were moderately successful films that helped to build his reputation.
These comedies were followed by his first serious film: The Cincinnati Kid, with Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson. McQueen’s star was blazing, ever since The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Jewison had directed dramas before and the next decade he would direct some of the most important dramas of the time. Before that happened, he would direct The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, a farce with some dramatic overtones.
In 1967, he directed one of the most important films of his career, In the Heat of the Night. The film won the Academy Award for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Editing and Sound. Jewison was nominated for his direction too.
The film was trailblazing then, thought today’s audiences probably find it a bit melodramatic. If you consider the times, this film crackled with energy and conflict. Jewison had to keep his foot on the gas pedal but keep this rocket from careening out of control. He did and the rest is history.
After that came the very stylish The Thomas Crown Affair, another film with McQueen, who probably only had a page of dialogue in the entire film. The editing and camera work was outstanding, but quickly appears dated. However, the film retains a hip, time-stamp of 1968.
Three years later, Jewison returned with Fiddler on the Roof, nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, winning three statues. Interesting, many people thought he got the job because he was Jewish, which he is not, but his sensitivity and ability to capture a big story paid off. The film has endured. This may have led to his being hired to direct Jesus Christ Superstar, the filmed version of the very successful theatrical production. Popular at the time, it has not resulted in the timeless classic that Fiddler was. Of note, Jewison was also listed as the producer on most of his films now.
The next few years, Jewison alternated between action films and comedies, with mixed results. Rollerball and F.I.S.T. were two high profile films, the first starring James Caan, was a futuristic action film, and F.I.S.T. starred Sylvester Stallone, hot off of his Rocky success. Both films had a lot of hype but neither were blockbusters. Jewison followed those films with two comedies, the satirical ….and justice for all, starring Al Pacino, and Best Friends, a romantic comedy pairing of Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. Both films were written by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtain, and both films only hinted at deeper, more successful stories.
Next, Jewison directed two murder mysteries, although very different types of films. A Soldier’s Story features an all African-American cast and Agnes of God, starring Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft. Both were based on plays, controversial in nature, with mixed reviews. The films were well-done, just not big earners or classic films.
His next film would become a classic, and arguably, the biggest hit of his career: Moonstruck. This is the kind of film Jewison is strongest at: a mixture of light comedy, a confluence of quirky character stories, a dramatic thread, and a story that aims at the heart. Thirty years later the film retains its charm and light, irresistible nature.
Jewison would direct a few more films, and produce several others, before his career closed. One of his better films was a quiet little drama called In Country, starring Bruce Willis and a young Joan Allen, which deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Later, he directs Denzel Washington in The Hurricane, the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, getting an Academy Award nominated performance from Washington.
Jewison never had trouble attracting fine actors, or in getting some of their best work. Sometimes his trouble was in finding audiences for ambitious films. Jewison frequently tackled plays and edgy screenplays by top writers, not all of these translated well to the screen or lived up their huge.
Hiller and Jewison were two of the most reliable and gifted directors of their generation. They didn’t always have the box office hits or win best picture, but they put quality on the screen and got the best work from their actors and crew. Many of their films were nominated for the top awards and some won. It is hard to look at the 1960s or 1970s without looking through the lens of their films.