7:10 am May. 27, 2011
If he’d had an eye for irreverence, Norman Jewison might have been the next Nicolas Ray. Like Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause and various other dramas about radical outcasts, Jewison’s films celebrate the underdog. “Relentless Renegade,” the comprehensive retrospective of Jewison’s work this week from the Film Society at Lincoln Center, highlights some of his best films and a number of also-ran titles.
With some notable exceptions, Jewison’s films didn’t reach the same heights of sympathetic ecstasy that Ray’s works did. But as wildly uneven as, say, Jesus Christ Superstar is when compared to a superior film like Fiddler on the Roof, both highlight Jewison’s eccentric vision.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a perfect example of Jewison’s biggest weakness as a storyteller: he seems to need us to like all of his characters. At least, all of the characters that he portrays as individuals and not self-important representatives of Authority. Co-adapted with Melvyn Bragg, Jewison’s script for Jesus Christ Superstar was his first and only official writing credit. While the film hewed pretty closely to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original musical, the few changes that were made were pretty significant. The biggest one has to be the way that Jewison portrays Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson) as being concerned and conflicted about betraying Jesus (the abysmal Ted Neeley).
Judas introduces us to Jesus’s story in Superstar by telling us about his concerns for Jesus, who is portrayed as a human being with a hippy cult backing him and not as a demi-god with a mandate from Heaven. Judas tells Jesus that he and Mary (Yvonne Elliman) should not be together. He assures Jesus that his objection is not because he doesn’t like Mary or because she’s a prostitute. Instead, Judas is concerned that Jesus’ relationship with Mary will give the Romans an excuse to attack Jesus and his followers.
Jewison prominently develops Judas’ character and his motives so much that he often looks like Jesus Christ Superstar’s real lead protagonist. This because Jewison doesn’t want us to misconstrue his Judas’ motives in the slightest: his Judas is an informer, a character that Jesus empty-headedly curses as “You Judas.” But Jewison’s Judas also genuinely doesn’t know what to do, agonizing over the decision will characterize him forever. He cries out to the priests of the Jewish temple: “I have no thought at all about my own reward. I really didn’t come here of my own accord. Just don’t say I’m damned for all time.”
That kind of internal conflict greatly appealed to Jewison. One of the biggest changes he made to Webber’s story was making it seem as if Judas didn’t even care about the 30 pieces of silver that he was given in exchange for turning Jesus in. Instead, he offers to give that money to charity. Jewison just couldn’t let Judas die without giving him a shot at martyrdom, too. After he hangs himself at film’s end, screaming to God, “You have murdered me,” Judas returns two scenes later so that he can sing some more about his concerns for Jesus. This is especially strange considering that the film, like the musical, ends with Jesus’ crucifixion and not his resurrection. Judas comes back from the dead, singing all the while, but Jesus dies a curiously silent death.
The very idea that Judas could be a bigger martyr than Jesus is consistent with Jewison’s interest in individuals that struggle to pursue their own interests without being bothered by everyone else. Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye is a more sympathetic character than Arthur Kirkland—the righteous lawyer grappling with corruption played by Al Pacino in And Justice For All—because while Kirkland goes out of his way to pursue what he knows is right, Tevye struggles to protect the way of life he’s accustomed to without attracting attention of the outside world. Like Judas, Tevye is conflicted because his ideals first lead him into conflict with his community and then with authority. He doesn’t actively set himself in opposition to anyone or any system of belief because the very act of survival is opposition enough.
Jewison’s Judas is such an interesting character because unlike Tevye, he doesn’t have an entire community at his back. He’s also different than Jewison’s other loner rebels like The Cincinnati Kid’s Eric Stoner, In the Heat of the Night’s Virgil Tibbs or The Thomas Crown Affair’s Thomas Crown because unlike them, his definitive act of disobedience has no element of self-interest to it. Jewison’s Judas doesn’t want to keep the silver he’s offered for his act of treason and, as he sings at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar, he really only wanted to see Jesus succeed: “If you came today, you could have reached the whole nation.” Judas is such a pariah that, on a conceptual level, he’s Jewison’s most complex hero.
Making rebellious protagonists look attractive came easily to Jewison. His characters often live far outside of the communities that they oppose, making their dissidence much more palatable than if they wound up going to war with people that they actually knew and liked in the first place. See Rollerball’s Jonathan E, played by James Caan. Jonathan succeeds in defying the all-powerful corporate backers of the titular sporting event. But in doing so, he completely isolates himself from everyone he loves and even the mob-like crowd that supports him.
In the film’s final scene, Jonathan, the last man standing during a deadly last round of Rollerball, does a series of pensive victory laps. The crowd is initially silent and you feel the full weight of that silence, thanks to Jewison’s distant long takes. Then the crowd slowly rallies behind Jonathan, cheering his name as they have throughout the film. Unlike those previous times however, their cheers this time are not enough for Jonathan. He’s beaten the system and while the crowd is still on his side, he’s lost everything in the process: the chance to compete, the life of luxury he’d become accustomed to, and his friends and lovers, too.
At this point, the din of the crowd only serves to cover up the silence that defines Jonathan’s new post-Rollerball life. Being alone in the middle of so much adulation seems to put Jonathan directly opposite Judas’s lamentable position. But it shows, again, how Jewison’s most memorable characters all grapple with issues so much bigger than they are that they end up destroying themselves. As martyrs, their stories don't end with them being put on a pedestal, but with them suffering the consequences of their actions.