How do you sum up someone like Sidney Lumet? How do you describe a career filled with spectacular highs (and a few significant lows) without resorting to hyperbole or endless accolade? Do you start with his seminal work in television, a true pioneer who brought Broadway level performances to a fledgling medium? Do you tackle his first forays into film, impressive titles like 12 Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Fail-Safe and The Pawnbroker, or do you concentrate instead on his ‘70s masterpieces Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network? Even his ‘80s/‘90s lull saw standouts (The Verdict, Prince of the City) amongst the minor efforts (The Morning After, A Strange Among Us).
Four years ago, he provided a rare return to form with the ridiculously good Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Now, with his death at 86 from lymphoma, the artform has lost a significant player. More importantly, Lumet joins a rare breed of decades in the chair director who helped redefine the medium and yet never received the industry’s highest honor for actually doing so. Like Hitchcock and Kubrick, he helped defined the medium—in this case, neo-realism in pre-post modern moviemaking—all while churning out efforts that earned numerous notices. Yet, he did not earn a single individual Academy Award for his efforts. And just like the names listed before, he was long overdue for more than a mere honorary one.
Lumet was born into a Yiddish theater family in 1924. His father was a writer/director/actor, while his mother was a dancer. Pushed toward performing, he first stepped on a stage at age four, and pursued said passion in radio and the Great White Way. He even studied his craft at the prestigious Professional Children’s School and Columbia University. His mother passed away when he was very young, and World War II interrupted his burgeoning career. He spent three years in the Army and, upon release, moved to the noted Actor’s Workshop, establishing his own group within the important teaching facility. He even spent time working with young wannabes at NYC’s High School for the Performing Arts.
It was during these days in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s that Lumet discovered the freedom to be found working in TV. Because he was fast, had theater experience and an eye for material, he was quickly picked up, working on such early anthology series as Danger (with friend Yul Brynner), the comedy-drama Mama, and perhaps most importantly, the news-oriented You Are There. His success paved the way for addition assignments, specifically for such then known honor guards as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. It was here where he developed his signature technique: artistic ambition set within realistic human emotion. While striving for both naturalism and authenticity, he wasn’t beyond experimenting with camera angles, lens, depth of field, and the rest of the cinematic language.
When star Henry Fonda decided to bring the hit teleplay 12 Angry Men to film, he knew exactly who he wanted. Lumet was so well known at the time that he seemed like a natural fit. Sure, some feared he didn’t recognize the different between live television and movies, but the results spoke for themselves. Men, the story of a jury pool conflicted over both the crime and the criminal they are chosen to judge, was a hit both critically and commercial. It established Lumet as a filmmaker in touch with contemporary issues, as well as someone who could use his ability behind the lens to open up an otherwise stodgy, stagey work. For only his first film, he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. While he would lose out to David Lean for Bridge on the River Kwai, Lumet had arrived as a Hollywood heavyweight.
After working with Fonda again (Stage Struck) and putting Sophia Loren through some standard melodramatic paces (That Kind of Woman), Lumet got a chance to work with the fellow Actor’s Studio alum and lightning hot star Marlon Brando in yet another Tennessee William’s adaptation, The Fugitive Kind (from the famed playwright’s Orpheus Descending). Alongside Joanne Woodward and another Italian temptress, Anna Magnani, the brutish, brooding icon delivered another excellent turn. From there, it was more stage play translations for Lumet (A View from the Bridge, Long Day’s Journey Into Night) before really hitting his stride with the groundbreaking The Pawnbroker.
He was not the first choice as director. Several known names, including Kubrick, turned it down. In star Rod Steiger, Lumet found another NYC acting ace (he had studied with Stella Adler at the New School) and in the story of a Lower East Side shop owner whose memories of the Holocaust continue to haunt him, the filmmaker also found fertile material. Both the director and the lead would later say that The Pawnbroker was one of the most important movies they ever made. It was one of the first films to even deal with the lingering legacy of Hitler’s Final Solution, and its affect on those involved in it. Steiger received universal praise, and Lumet had his choice of follow-ups. When Fonda came calling once again for someone to handle his Cold War nuclear crisis thriller, his friend said “Yes.”
Fail-Safe is significant in that it would mark the end of Lumet’s string of strong successes. Audiences were not happy about a narrative which seriously dealt with the threat from positional politics and atomic weaponry (they preferred to laugh at it, via Kurbrick’s Dr. Strangelove) and the film was not a hit. From then on, the director divided his time between more war stories (The Hill), attempts at attracting the counterculture (The Group) and low comedy (Bye, Bye Braverman). By the time the ‘70s rolled around, Lumet was stuck, resorting to return favors for old friends (Sean Connerym James Mason) while searching for his next bit of inspiration. It came in the form of his gritty home territory and the actor who fit perfectly within its rotten Big Apple cor:, Al Pacino.
The two films Lumet made with the rising Method man (fresh off his Oscar nomination for The Godfather) would come to define Manhattan in the Me Decade. Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon may have affected the police/crime story—and the acting and approach within same—the most, but the whole look and feel of the crumbling city can be seen in works as widespread as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and the entire initial output of Martin Scorsese. Pacino perfectly encapsulated the dashing, daring nonconformist using crime and its punishment to forge a mythic machismo, and Lumet was right there alongside him. Even a couple of confusing choices (Lovin’ Molly, a flawless period piece recreation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express) couldn’t contain his new found fierceness.
It all came together on the still prophetic and way ahead of its time television satire Network. Using Paddy Chayefsky’s masterpiece of a screenplay (the scribe, like Lumet, got his start working in the glass teat) as a jumping off point, the director dived into post-Watergate America and came up with a clarion call for the belief in broadcast junk food. Gone was ethics—in their place was reality and entertainment. Even with its wide lapels and avocado and gold color schemes, it’s so prescient and medium clairvoyant that it’s like reading Marshall McLuhan’s thought waves on the year 2011. The message here was simple—give the masses dreck and they’ll eat it up like drones—that is, until the next cause celeb comes along. The delivery was equally on target.
And yet, once again, Lumet got lost. He tackled two more important stage works—Equus and The Wiz—and both were bombs. He then entered the ‘80s with the lame romantic comedy Just Tell Me What You Want. While he would revive his fortunes once again with the riveting Prince of the City and the pristine Paul Newman vehicle The Verdict, the rest of the decade was a mess. From Deathtrap to Garbo Talks, from Power to Running on Empty, it looked like the filmmaker’s best days were behind him. The tired titles of the next decade (1990’s Q&A excepted) would be his undoing. With a token acknowledgement from the often clueless AMPAS in 2005 with that aforementioned honorary statue, Lumet remained one of the format’s finest, a name always associated with great works and even greater leaps of invention and sincerity.
During a taping of the Bravo Series Inside the Actor’s Studio in 1994, the director argued for his efforts to find the ‘truth’ in his various film subjects. Flash and finery without such a solid source was unimportant. From the dark documentary style he would often employ to the cut from the street characters he would celebrate, Sidney Lumet was definitely a filmmaker on a quest for finding authenticity and genuineness in everything he did. While the end product was often amazing, it could be equally awkward and awful. There wasn’t just one dimension to what this amazing moviemaker did behind the lens. The same could be said for him personally as well.