In his November 9 introduction for director Norman Jewison, the recipient of the Mayor’s Career Achievement Award at the 30th annual Starz Denver Film Festival, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper quoted dialogue from one of the less distinguished entries in the Jewison canon: Other People’s Money, a 1991 flick starring that towering cinematic icon, Danny DeVito. In the film, DeVito’s character, Lawrence Garfield, is asked by Bill Coles, portrayed by Dean Jones, “Can I speak frankly?” Garfield replies, “No. Lie to me! Tell me how thrilled you are to know me. I always speak frankly. I hate people who say, ‘Can we speak frankly?’’ It means they’re bullshittin’ me the rest of the time.”
After delivering the profanity, Hickenlooper, who’d been doing an energetically lame DeVito impression, added the comic aside, “I probably shouldn’t have said that," then emphasized that he hadn’t written the line. The moment, punctuated by a generous laugh from the audience at the Ricketson Theatre, crystallized everything that’s wonderful about the Denver Film Festival. Anytime the city’s top elected official makes a good-natured ass of himself in tribute to a visiting artist is okay by me.
Of course, Hickenlooper also engaged in the usual honorific hyperbole, declaring Jewison’s filmography to be among the most distinguished in the history of cinema. In truth, his track record is eclectic but scattershot: a couple of noteworthy, convention-busting musicals (Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar), some socially conscious work that stands out more for its good intentions than its achievements (A Soldier’s Story, Agnes of God and his last major effort, Hurricane), enjoyable star-vehicles (The Cincinnati Kid and The Thomas-Crown Affair, both with Steve McQueen), and some deft comedies (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and the charming Moonstruck). Moreover, he doesn’t have a trademark visual style or an approach to narrative that’s been mimicked by those who’ve followed him. He’s a solidly professional craftsman who’s gotten the most out of the luminaries in front of his camera.
This last quality comes through strongly throughout his most renowned movie, In the Heat of the Night, a 1967 Best Picture winner that was screened prior to the Jewison salute. Heat’s story was daring for the era (especially by Hollywood standards) given its examination of race in a small Southern town during a period when the civil rights movement was reaching critical mass. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective who’s roped into investigating a murder in a Mississippi hamlet protected, in a manner of speaking, but blustery Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who earned an Oscar of his own for his performance). All the expected points are made about Southern prejudice, but they’re generally presented viscerally – like Poitier’s slap of character actor Larry Gates, as an oily patriarch – instead of in dry, preachy fashion. Likewise, Jewison allows his actors to squeeze every bit of juice from their scenes. Poitier, who all too often was stuck portraying one-dimensional personifications of African-Americans’ finest qualities rather than complex and believable characters, is at his fiercest and most exciting, and Steiger, one of the silver screen’s great over-actors, rips into his dialogue like a starving man handed a rare T-bone.
In a Q&A with the long-winded but eminently sympathetic Variety film writer Joe Leydon, Jewison expressed shock that Academy Award voters selected In the Heat of the Night over two other 1967 Best Picture finalists, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, and that’s understandable, since both of these also-rans proved to be more singular and influential in the long run. Nevertheless, Heat continues to work even though the issues it tackles have shifted so dramatically in the forty years since its debut, and Jewison put his finger on why. While talking about the picture’s themes, he emphasized his determination to make the film as entertaining as it could possibly be, and thanks to a slew of smart decisions – including his use of a vibrant Quincy Jones score and a memorable title tune wailed by Ray Charles – he succeeded. Too bad this component is missing from a lot of current anti-Iraq films (such as Rendition), which even opponents of the war are understandably staying away from in droves.
Speaking frankly is fine, but finger-wagging is a drag. – Michael Roberts