Tuesday, April 21

The Directors: Sidney Lumet

His artistry as a director is legendary.  Much like Hollywood director Stanley Kramer, Lumet, known as a New York director with many of his films being made there, cherished making social dramas with a slight leftist leaning.  Many actors wanted to work for him and why not since he steered 18 of them to Oscar nominations.  I wonder who else can say that.  Not all of his films are well-regarded but there are more than a few that are true gems.

He was born in 1924 in Philadelphia, the son of an actor-father and a dancer-mother.  His parents were both part of the Yiddish Theater and the son debuted there at age four.  He studied acting at the Professional Children's School of New York.  After attending Columbia University and a short stint in the army, he returned to New York and joined the famed Actors Studio.  After leaving he started his own theater workshop while directing off-Broadway and teaching at the High School of Performing Arts (think Fame).  The man was not lacking in credentials.

He then began directing in TV, mostly the lauded, live anthology series of the day... Playhouse 90, Omnibus, Studio One.  While his fame grew, so did the respect.  He was praised for the truth in his productions, getting things done well and quickly and from getting top performances from his actors.

He is also well-known for directing films that were Broadway productions. While all have not been successful, it certainly started off with a bang.  Henry Fonda, the star and producer of the play, 12 Angry Men, personally asked Lumet to helm the film version.  An indictment of prejudice, it took place almost entirely in a jury room and contained electric performances from a cast of marvelous character actors.  Lumet would be nominated for a 1957 Oscar, an astonishing fete for a newbie in films.

He continued to work in television but in 1959 he made That Kind of Woman starring a young Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter in one of his best roles.  She played George Sanders' kept paramour and he was an anguished G.I. who was in love with her.  It has not gone down as one of Lumet's great films but I was quite taken with it.

The Fugitive Kind (1960), despite its Oscar-winning cast of Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward, was wretched.  I never saw it when it was released but one day bought a cheap DVD, came home and watched it and threw out the DVD.  Ugh.  An adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night (1962), filmed like a play, was a long time sitting in the theater but the performances of Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell were cloaked in brilliance.

The Pawnbroker (1964), the story of a concentration camp survivor's attempts to work in Harlem, is considered one of Lumet's best films.  It may well be but I found it way too grim for my tastes (at least at that time in my youth) and Rod Steiger is not an actor I cared for in leading roles (not counting No Way to Treat a Lady).  Henry Fonda worked for Lumet again in Fail-Safe (1964), about America on the brink of nuclear war.  While it was a good work, it was overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick's similarly-themed Dr. Strangelove, released earlier in the year.

The Group (1965), a certifiable chickflick, one of Lumet's most unusual films, caught my attention as it did most of America.  The story of eight Ivy League college women who stay in touch after graduation starred a gaggle of newcomers, among them Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Jessica Walter and Joanna Pettet.

From the mid-60s til the early 70s, Lumet's career skidded off course a bit.  Films like The Hill, The Deadly Affair, Bye Bye Braverman, The Sea Gull, The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, The Anderson Tapes, Child's Play and Lovin' Molly didn't strike a chord with the public.

In 1972 he made the little-seen The Offence with Sean Connery giving one of his best-ever performances as a British police detective who kills a suspect in a rage.  Lumet would work with Connery five times.  He would also direct acclaimed English actor James Mason four times. 

Lumet made six films I greatly admired.  One was 12 Angry Men and the second was Serpico (1972).  I think this is Al Pacino's finest couple of hours as a New York undercover cop trying to stay alive after testifying about corruption.  It was surprising that Lumet didn't receive an Oscar nomination.  A third favorite was Murder on the Orient Express (1974), another unusual enterprise for Lumet.  What's to not like about a glamorous Agatha Christie whodunit with one of the most exciting international casts ever assembled... Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Widmark, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Tony Perkins, Connery and others?

The following year Lumet and Pacino teamed for the second and last time in Dog Day Afternoon.  Lumet would nab another Oscar nomination for the fact-based story of a couple of would-be robbers who attempt to holdup a Brooklyn bank so one of them can get the money for his boyfriend's sex-change operation.  I suspect many regard this as his best film; I've had friends and other movie cronies who've raved about it.  I liked it at the time but its frenetic pace exhausted me when I saw it years later. 

Network (1976) probably should have been on my 50 Favorite Films list.  It was a wonderfully edgy, exciting film trashing the television industry.  As adept as Lumet's directing is (another Oscar nomination), most of the acclaim goes to Paddy Chayesfsky's thunderous screenplay (the words give me goosebumps every time I see it).  Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight all won Oscars with William Holden and Ned Beatty also nominated.  I've said it before and I'll say it again... the fact that this film lost out to Rocky as best picture royally pisses me off.  Hang your heads in shame, you dumbass Hollywood people.  (Thank you, I feel much bitter... oops, I mean better.)

Equus (1977) wasn't as successful as the play, The Wiz (1978) is surely the worst thing Lumet ever did, Just Tell Me What You Want (1980) suffered with Alan King and Ali McGraw as the leads and Prince of the City (1981) needed Al Pacino instead of Treat Williams.  I did like the mostly-clever Deathtrap (1982) about a playwright's efforts to steal credit for a student's play.  So engaging were the performances of Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon that I overlooked the occasional preposterousness of the script.

Also in 1982 came The Verdict, another of my favorite of the director's films and garnering him his final Oscar nomination.  Starring Paul Newman (in one of his most glowing performances of a storied career), Charlotte Rampling and James Mason, it concerns an alcoholic, washed-up attorney who recovers his standing when he takes on an unpopular case. 

Lumet would make 14 more films but the only one of any real merit was 1988s Running on Empty.  It concerned the difficulties facing a family on the run from the FBI for radical acts of the parents some years earlier.  Most affecting performances were delivered by Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch and especially River Phoenix.

Lumet occasionally wrote screenplays and did some producing.  Though his directing output was somewhat erratic, he was nonetheless awfully good at his craft.  To think that I very much liked, admired and respected six of his films (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, The Verdict and Running on Empty) is more than I can say for a number of directors.

While his four directing Oscar nominations didn't result in a win, he was honored with a special Oscar in 2005.

He was married four times.  The first was to actress Rita Gam, then socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, next to a daughter of singer Lena Horne and finally to a non-professional to whom he was married at the time of his passing.

Sidney Lumet died of lymphoma at age 86 in 2011 in his beloved Manhattan.  Manhattan owes Lumet a great deal, too, for the director brought the city to life on the big screen, made it thrum with electricity, a real, vibrant character in his films.  In one of numerous tributes after his death, he was referred to as the last of the great movie moralists in a career that guided many of the world's most respected actors through roles that connect with the conscience of multiple generations

A 50-Year Tribute


1 comment:

  1. Lumet was definitely an actors' director...he brought out the very best in Fonda, Pacino, Dunaway, Finch, Burton and so many other unforgettable actors.