My favorite Norman Jewison movie is Gaily, Gaily. I was only twenty and just starting out in the newspaper business when I saw it in 1969.
I, of course, identified with the movie’s innocent reporter-protagonist, played by a very young Beau Bridges. Based on Ben Hecht’s Chicago newspaper days in the early 1900s, its wildly romantic portrait of Chicago, hard-drinking newspapermen, corrupt politicians, and beautiful whores with hearts of pure gold, coincided exactly with my wistful view of journalism.
There is a scene in the film in which Melina Mercouri as Lil, the madam of the bordello our hero believes is a boarding house, reads aloud one of his overwrought stories. With Henry Mancini’s evocative score swirling in the background, Lil transforms a horribly cliched tale about a poor starving street urchin on a wintery eve, into a moment of magic that reduces everyone to tears–including a certain young reporter sitting transfixed in a Windsor, Ontario movie theater.
I’ve never discussed Gaily, Gaily with Norman, even though I’ve known him both professionally and socially since the 1980s, and I still see him from time to time with his wonderful wife, Lynne (whom I’ve also known since the eighties). The film did not do much at the box office and is largely forgotten now in the face of such Jewison classics as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, The Cincinnati Kid, In The Heat of the Night, and Moonstruck.
However, I’m delighted that the movie will be screened August 29 as part of a Norman Jewison film retrospective being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Bell Lightbox beginning tonight with a 7 p.m. screening of Moonstruck (1987), which marked the last time anyone made a great romantic comedy.
At this point, I suppose I should write that it is high time Norman got his due. But the fact is Norman has long since received his due (Including, finally, an Oscar in 1999), and then some. There are not many filmmaking legends left in the world, but Norman is one of them. He wears his legend casually, I must say, and with a certain twinkling good humor.
Still, it’s nice to see his work on a big screen again to remind everyone just how good he is–and how the passage of time has only made him look better. The kind of carefully crafted commercial Hollywood studio film he specialized in has all but disappeared. No studio in all likelihood would touch Gaily, Gaily these days or The Cincinnati Kid or many of his other classics (although they did a terrible remake of Rollerball, and a so-so reworking of The Thomas Crown Affair).
The Cincinnati Kid, for example, contains one of the most exquisitie and ironic endings ever put into a star-driven Hollywood film. At the end of it, the hot young stud poker player, played by Steve McQueen, has lost the big game to Edward G. Robinson’s Yancy Howard (who gets one of the most famous movie lines: “You’re good Kid, but as long as I’m around, you’re second best”). Stunned and defeated, McQueen staggers out into an alley where he encounters an African American shoeshine boy.
At the beginning of the movie, McQueen has been playing games of pitching quarters with the shoeshine boy and always beats him. He’s Steve McQueen, right? He’s The Cincinnati Kid. He’s unbeatable. The boy challenges him to one more game. McQueen can’t resist. Here, perhaps, is a small moment of redemption.
McQueen tosses his quarter and it bounces off the wall. The boy throws, and his quarter lands closer to the wall. In addtion to being beaten by the world’s greatest poker player, he’s just had his butt kicked by a shoeshine boy in an alley.
And that’s the end of the film.
It is unimaginable that any studio in this feel-good era at the movies would allow that ending to stand. It’s equally uninamaginable that any of today’s stars would allow themselves to look quite so ignomanious at the conclusion of a major Hollywood production.
But that’s the sort of thing Norman could get away with (although not completely: in his memoir, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, Norman writes that for Kid’s European release, the entire sequence was dropped in favor of a happier ending with co-star Tuesday Weld).
Norman worked within the studio system as it existed in the 1960s and 1970s, but somehow he always made that system work for him, a wily player at the top of his game. Watching one of his movies today is like entering a particularly well built, beautifully decorated house, the sort of structure that leaves you breathless with admiration because they just don’t make them like that anymore.
Norman was fortunate in that he had real movie stars to fill his houses: Doris Day and Rock Hudson for Send Me No Flowers; Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night; Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair; Al Pacino for …And Justice For All.
When McQueen and Dunaway kissed in The Thomas Crown Affair, it was advertised as the longest kiss in movie history. If it isn’t the longest, it’s one of the best. But then Norman had the eager participation of movie stars whose chemistry together lit up the screen. Who would he end up with today, I wonder? Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis? Any way you cut it, it’s just not the same.
Still, we have Norman’s movies and that is some consolation as will be amply demonstrated at the Lightbox retrospective throughout August. I see Norman and Lynne on such a casual basis, and they make each encounter such fun, that I sometimes have to remind myself of the movie weight Norman carries into the room with him. Whenever I see him though, I always make sure I give him a hug.
After all, it’s not every day you get to hug a legend–not to mention the superb craftsman who long ago brought a young reporter to tears watching Gaily, Gaily.
click HERE for more on TIFF’s Norman Jewison retrospective.