SIDNEY LUMET DIES
SIDNEY LUMET was one of the great filmmakers of the twentieth century.
A magnificent craftsperson whose eclecticism was practically unmatched, he was also a fabulous actors’ director who was comfortable in almost any genre.
I own NETWORK, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE VERDICT and BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD. The latter is a testament to his immense talent: a searing, gorgeously crafted thriller that flows as elegantly as a high stakes game of Dominos. It’s practically Shakespearean in its intensity.
And he made that spectacular film in his eighties.
Hardly anyone has talked about three fantastic motion pictures that he directed: THE GROUP, JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT and THAT KIND OF WOMAN – which features the spectacularly beautiful SOPHIA LOREN and TAB HUNTER.
I haven’t found them on DVD yet. But I will.
The thoroughly awesome OWEN GLEIBERMAN of EW discusses his career in SIDNEY LUMET: AN APPRECIATION
His contributions and achievements in film were grand and varied. Mr. Lumet will be definitely be missed.
SIDNEY LUMET, a director who preferred the streets of New York to the back lots of Hollywood and whose stories of conscience — SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, NETWORK and THE VERDICT — became modern American film classics, died Saturday morning at his home in Manhattan.
He was 86.
His stepdaughter LESLIE GIMBEL said the cause was lymphoma.
“While the goal of all movies is to entertain,” Mr. Lumet once wrote, “the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his or her own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”
Social issues were of paramount importance to him and his best films not only probed the consequences of prejudice, corruption and betrayal, but also celebrated individual acts of courage.
In his first film, 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), he took his cameras into a jury room where the pressure mounted as one tenacious and courageous juror, played by HENRY FONDA, slowly convinced the others that the defendant on trial for murder was, in fact, innocent.
(Justice SONIA M. SOTOMAYOR of the United States Supreme Court said the film had an important influence on her law career.)
Almost two decades later, Mr. Lumet’s moral sense remained acute when he ventured into the deepest darkest vein of black comedy with NETWORK (1976), perhaps his most acclaimed film. Based on PADDY CHAYEFSKY’S biting script, the film portrays a television anchor who briefly resuscitates his fading career by launching on air tirades against what he perceives as the hypocrisies of American society.
The film starred FAYE DUNAWAY, WILLIAM HOLDEN and PETER FINCH as the commentator turned attack dog whose proclamation to the world at large — “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” — became part of the American vernacular.
NETWORK was nominated for 10 ACADEMY AWARDS, including BEST PICTURE and BEST DIRECTOR, winning four: BEST ACTRESS (Ms. Dunaway), BEST ACTOR (Mr. Finch), BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS (BEATRICE STRAIGHT) and BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY (Mr. Chayefsky).
Because of his own acting background, Mr. Lumet told THE NEW YORK TIMES in 2007, most of the actors he had worked with felt like they were “in sympathetic hands but without being indulged.”
Elaborating in a 1997 interview with THE LONDON GUARDIAN, he said: “I was an actor, therefore I know where it hurts. I know when it’s painful for them, when they have to go digging. All good work is self revelation. They know that. I know that.”
Yet for all the critical success of his films and despite the more than 40 ACADEMY AWARD nominations they drew, Mr. Lumet never won an OSCAR for directing, though he was nodded four times. (The other nominations were for 12 ANGRY MEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and THE VERDICT.)
Only in 2005 did THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS & SCIENCES present him with an honorary OSCAR. MANOHLA DARGIS, writing in THE NEW YORK TIMES, called it a “consolation prize for a lifetime of neglect.”
When Mr. Lumet received his honorary OSCAR in 2005, presenter AL PACINO, who had received BEST ACTOR ACADEMY AWARD nominations for his work in SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON, said the director was not being honoured for his longevity but for the quality of his work.
Mr. Pacino stated: “A Sidney Lumet movie has a signature, a stamp of individuality, a point of view, a feeling.…It’s real kinetic energy. You were there as the story was being told….I’m forever grateful, along with all the other actors and writers who have benefited from Sidney’s genius.”
In 2007, Mr. Lumet was asked how it felt to receive an ACADEMY AWARD at long last. He replied, “I wanted one, damn it…and I felt I deserved one.”
That he was more a creature of New York than of Hollywood may have had something to do with his OSCAR night disappointments.
“Hollywood is a company town,” Mr. Lumet told THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1968.
“There is no real world there outside of filming. I don’t feel organic life there and I need that around me when I work.”
For Mr. Lumet, location mattered deeply and New York mattered most of all. He was the quintessential New York director.
“Locations are characters in my movies,” he wrote. “The city is capable of portraying the mood a scene requires.”
He explored New York early on in THE PAWNBROKER (1964), the story of a Holocaust survivor, played by ROD STEIGER, numbed and hardened against humanity by the horrors he has endured, who deals with racketeers in his Harlem pawnshop until his conscience is reawakened by a vicious crime on his doorstep.
The city loomed large in Mr. Lumet’s several examinations of the criminal justice system. Police corruption particularly fascinated him, beginning with SERPICO (1973). The film, based on a book by PETER MAAS, was drawn from a real life drama involving two New York City police officers, DAVID DURK and FRANK SERPICO, who told DAVID BURNHAM, a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES, that they had ample evidence of police graft and corruption.
Publication of their story led to the mayoral appointment of a commission to investigate the charges and ultimately to major reforms. Both the book and the film concentrated on Detective Serpico, played by AL PACINO and his efforts to change the system.
Mr. Lumet returned to the theme in 1981 with PRINCE OF THE CITY, for which he shared screenwriting credit with JAY PRESSON ALLEN. Based on the book by ROBERT DALEY, the film dealt with an ambitious detective, portrayed by TREAT WILLIAMS, who goes undercover to gather evidence for an investigative commission and who winds up alienated and alone after being manipulated into destroying the lives and careers of many of those around him.
Mr. Lumet focused on criminals, rather than the police, in DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), telling the story (again, based on fact) of a botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank. Mr. Pacino again starred, this time as SONNY, the leader of an amateurish gang of bank robbers whose plans go awry and who winds up taking hostages and demanding jet transport to a foreign country. It turns out that SONNY, although he had a wife at home, had planned the robbery to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation. In 2009, the film was added to the NATIONAL FILM REGISTRY by THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
By the time he finished shooting NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN in 1996, Mr. Lumet had made 38 films, 29 of them on location in New York City. That film, written by Mr. Lumet and based on another ROBERT DALEY novel TAINTED EVIDENCE once again looked at the justice system as it moved from a shootout with drug dealers into a revealing courtroom trial.
The courthouse was one of Mr. Lumet’s favourite arenas for drama, beginning with 12 ANGRY MEN. He returned to it again in THE VERDICT (1982), with a screenplay by DAVID MAMET and a cast led by PAUL NEWMAN as a down at the heels lawyer who redeems himself and his career when he represents a malpractice victim in a legal battle with a hospital.
Mr. Newman, nominated for a BEST ACTOR OSCAR for this performance, said of Mr. Lumet: “He just had an incredible eye for the truth.”
But Mr. Lumet’s concerns could also range more broadly, to issues of national survival itself. One of the most sobering films of the cold war era was his 1964 adaptation of EUGENE BURDICK and HARVEY WHEELER’S novel FAIL SAFE, a taut examination of the threat of accidental nuclear war, with HENRY FONDA as the president of the United States and a young LARRY HAGMAN as his Russian speaking interpreter. The film concluded with a harrowing suggestion of an atomic blast on American soil, rendered as a series of glimpses of ordinary life — children playing, pigeons taking wing — simply stopping. The scenes were from the streets of New York.
SIDNEY LUMET was born in Philadelphia on JUNE 25, 1924 to BARUCH LUMET and EUGENIA WERMUS, both actors in Yiddish theater. His father was born in Poland and moved his family to New York when SIDNEY was a baby and joined the Yiddish Art Theatre. By the time he was 4, SIDNEY was appearing onstage with his father and he went on to make his Broadway debut in 1935 as a street kid in SIDNEY KINGSLEY’S DEAD END. He appeared in several more Broadway shows, including MAXWELL ANDERSON’S JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM in 1940, in which he played the young Jesus.
After wartime service as a radar technician in the Far East, Mr. Lumet returned to New York and started directing Off Broadway and in summer stock. His big break came in 1950, when he was hired by CBS and became a director on the television suspense series DANGER.
His career soared in 1953, when he began directing original plays for dramatic series on CBS and NBC, including STUDIO ONE, PLAYHOUSE 90 and KRAFT TELEVISION THEATRE, eventually adding some 200 productions to his credits. He returned to the theater to direct ALBERT CAMUS’ CALIGULA and GEORGE BERNARD SHAW’S MAN & SUPERMAN, among other plays.
Among the highlights of Mr. Lumet’s television years were a full length production of EUGENE O’NEILL’S play THE ICEMAN COMETH, with JASON ROBARDS as the salesperson HICKEY and 12 ANGRY MEN, which he directed for television before turning it into his first film.
Some of Mr. Lumet’s early films had their origins in the theatre. He directed ANNA MAGNANI and MARLON BRANDO in THE FUGITIVE KIND (1960), an adaptation of TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ play ORPHEUS DESCENDING, he travelled abroad to film part of ARTHUR MILLER’S VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (1962) in Paris, with RAF VALLONE, MAUREEN STAPLETON and CAROL LAWRENCE, completing the film on the Brooklyn waterfront and he returned to the world of O’Neill to film LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), with KATHARINE HEPBURN and RALPH RICHARSON. His 1968 adaptation of CHECKHOV’S THE SEA GULL, however, was generally deemed uneven despite a stellar cast that included JAMES MASON, SIMONE SIGNORET and VANESSA REDGRAVE.
A trainload of stars turned out for Mr. Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, a project that took him abroad again, this time to Britain, France and Turkey, to film the famous whodunit in which the detective HERCULE POIROT (ALBERT FINNEY) must single out a murderer from a crowd of suspects that included LAUREN BACALL, INGRID BERGMAN, SEAN CONNERY and JOHN GIELGUD.
There was also RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988), with JUDD HIRSCH and CHRISTINE LAHTI as 60s radicals still in hiding from the FBI 20 years after participating in a bombing; the police drama Q & A (1990), with a screenplay by Mr. Lumet, about a racist New York detective (played by NICK NOLTE) and CRITICAL CARE (1997), a satiric jab at the American health care system.
In 1995, Mr. Lumet published a well received memoir MAKING MOVIES, in which he summed up his view of directorial style: “Good style, to me, is unseen style. It is style that is felt.”
He returned to television in 2001 as executive producer, principal director and one of the writers of a new courtroom drama for cable television 100 CENTRE STREET. (The title was the address of the Criminal Court Building in Lower Manhattan). The series, which ran for two seasons on A&E, had an ensemble cast, with ALAN ARKIN as an all too forgiving judge known as Let Em Go Joe.
The director seemed immune to advancing age. Before long, he was behind the camera again.
FIND ME GUILTY (2006), which starred VIN DIESEL, was a freewheeling account of the events surrounding the federal prosecution of a notorious New Jersey crime family.
And he marked his 83rd year with the 2007 release of his last feature film BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, the bleakly riveting story of two brothers (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN and ETHAN HAWKE) propelled by greed into a relentless cycle of mayhem. The film drew raves.
WOODY ALLEN, the celebrated New York director, remembers SIDNEY LUMET: “He was definitely the quintessential NY film maker, although ironically his finest film The Hill was shot elsewhere. I’m constantly amazed how many films of his prodigious output were wonderful and how many actors and actresses did their best work under his direction. P.S. Knowing Sidney, he will have more energy dead than most live people.”
LENA OLIN, who appeared in NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN, said: “Such sad news to hear. But boy was he inspiring – to work at such a level even in advanced years. What an incredibly rich and well lived life.”
ETHAN HAWKE, who starred in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, stated: “Sidney Lumet was honest, fierce and kind. A craftsman who believed in hard work, discipline and preparation; he represented the best of our profession. His body of work is simply staggering.”
AL PACINO remarked: “Sidney Lumet will be remembered for his films. He leaves a great legacy. But more than that, to the people close to him, he will remain the most civilized of humans and the kindest man I have ever known. This is a great loss.”
MARTIN SCORSESE, another legendary New York filmmaker, had this to say: “The death of Sidney Lumet really marks the end of an era. He started in theatre as an actor, worked his way through the golden age of live television and by the time he made his debut in 1957 with Twelve Angry Men, he was all ready a seasoned veteran. He had a unique gift with actors, an unusually dynamic feeling for drama and a powerful sense of place, of the world of the picture. I admire so many of his movies — his adaptations of Williams, Miller, Chekhov and O’Neill, his exquisite version of Murder On The Orient Express, The Verdict — but he was a New York filmmaker at heart and our vision of this city has been enhanced and deepened by classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and, above all, the remarkable Prince Of The City. It’s hard to imagine that there won’t be any more new pictures by Sidney Lumet. All the more reason to take good care of the ones he left behind.”
Mr. Lumet’s first three marriages — to RITA GAM, GLORIA VANDERBILT and GAIL JONES, the daughter of LENA HORNE — ended in divorce. He married MARY GIMBEL in 1980. She survives him.
Besides his stepdaughter Ms. Gimbel, he is also survived by two daughters he had with Ms. Jones, AMY LUMET and JENNY LUMET, a screenwriter; a stepson, BAILEY GIMBEL; nine grandchildren and a great grandson. Mr. Lumet also had a home in East Hampton, on Long Island.
Ms. Dargis called Mr. Lumet “one of the last of the great movie moralists” and “a leading purveyor of the social issue movie.”
Yet Mr. Lumet claimed that he was never a crusader for social change. “I don’t think art changes anything,” he said in a NEW YORK TIMES interview.
So why make movies?
“I do it because I like it and it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.”