Best Movies by Farr: Need-to-Watch Norman Jewison

September 15, 2013 | John Farr

by John Farr

Prolific director Norman Jewison has hemled dozens of films, many of them considered classics. John Farr delves into Jewison’s middle 1980s output to recommend three need-to-see films.

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

In the rigidly segregated military of the American South during the 1940s, a highly unpopular black sergeant named Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar) is found murdered.The starchy, all-business Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins), a black officer, visits the base to launch an official inquiry, and gets more than he bargained for. Though the investigation proves much more charged and complex than expected, the determined Davenport sees it through to a surprise conclusion.

Based on Charles Fuller’s play, which he also adapted to the screen, this cerebral mystery operates on several levels, as we get to know the murdered man through flashbacks and see how many people had a motive to kill him. Set on top of this is the condescension with which the inquiry is treated by the white brass. All these ingredients make for a meaty, involving murder tale, shedding stark light on the racism of the time. A young Denzel Washington is particularly strong in an early pivotal role, and the late Caesar was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the loathsome Waters (note: both had originated their roles on stage.) This “Story” was also Academy-nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay; it’s easy to see why.

Agnes of God (1985)

A bizarre occurrence is reported in a Catholic convent: a young nun, Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), is found bloodied but alive in her room, along with her new-born child, now dead. Court appointed psychiatrist Martha Livingstone (Jane Fonda) is sent to the convent to investigate. There she comes up against formidable Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft), who seems as intent on protecting the child-like Agnes as Martha is on uncovering the truth.

Norman Jewison’s adaptation of the hit Broadway play makes for a gripping spiritual mystery, where no conventional solutions or answers materialize. The movie works as both whodunit and drama, as two strong women, one representing science, the other faith, go head-to-head to explain an unthinkable crime and determine the fate of the innocent at its center. All three leads make the most of what they’re given, with the late Anne Bancroft and young Tilly particularly good (both were Oscar-nominated). An involving, thought-provoking film from skilled veteran Jewison.

Moonstruck (1987)

Loretta (Cher) is a young Italian-American widow set to marry Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). Only problem: while Johnny’s away in Italy caring for his dying mother, Loretta falls for Johnny’s wayward younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Meanwhile, Loretta’s mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) has her own romantic troubles, trying to keep the embers burning with preoccupied husband Cosmo (Gardenia). Just how will all these messy issues of “amore” work themselves out?

Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and winning statuettes for co-stars Cher and Dukakis, this movie overflows with off-kilter charm and humor. Cher hits all the right notes as the bewildered Loretta, but Dukakis comes off best in the tricky role of Rose – a rare woman who’s as wise about herself as others and faces a challenging personal situation with grace and dignity. A flavorful, heartwarming delight from director Norman Jewison.

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