Sidney Lumet wrote the book on making movies. Literally. His fascinating and wise 1995 career memoir/handbook Making Movies is unlike any other film book I know. He meticulously takes you through the process in a way even the greatest pros can learn from. It’s a must reference to have, but even greater is the remarkably fine filmography he has left behind.
Although his movie career actually stretched back to 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year, when as a teen actor he made his film debut in …One Third of a Nation…, throughout the 1950s he was a leading director during TV’s Golden Age — and most significantly in 1957 with his feature directorial debut, 12 Angry Men. This ultimate courtroom drama knocked it out of the park. It “explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite,” as the ads said. And it established Lumet’s gritty New York-based style while winning Oscar nominations for Screenplay Adaptation, Best Picture and Best Director. David Lean and The Bridge On The River Kwai won, instead.
But it represented the first of only four nominations in that category for Lumet. That’s an underwhelming number when you consider the rich variety of movies he made that weren’t recognized by Oscar: The Fugitive Kind (1960), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962 – DGA nom), A View From The Bridge (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965 – DGA nom), Fail Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), Serpico (1973 – DGA nom), Murder On The Orient Express (1974 – DGA nom), Equus (1977), Prince of the City (1981 – although he did deservedly get a writing nom for it), Daniel (1983 – one of his personal favorites), The Morning After (1986), Running On Empty (1988), Q&A (1990), Night Falls On Manhattan (1996), and his final grossly overlooked gem, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), released when he was 83.
In addition to his film debut, the three other directing Oscar nominations he received came in his own golden period between 1975 and 1982, and they were masterpieces all: Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982).
For me the one unforgivable loss was Network, a movie as relevant, important and prescient today as it was when it was made 35 years ago. It earned 10 Oscar nominations, the largest single total for any Lumet film, and won four including for Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant original screenplay predicting a new media age run amok, and lead acting awards for Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway, and supporting actress Beatrice Straight. It was wickedly funny and knowing, a perfectly written, acted, and directed film. But it ran smack into the Rocky juggernaut that year and probably also divided votes with extremely strong competition from the other Best Picture nominees, All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory and Taxi Driver. That’s a tough year in which to make a masterpiece.
The Academy went with its heart in awarding Rocky the big prize. But it should have split the bounty and recognized Lumet as Best Director over Rocky’s winner John Avildsen. Perhaps Network was perceived more as a movie of words, but, as he has proved again and again, Lumet was a master of turning that brilliant dialogue into compelling and unforgettable pictures, too. Another beautifully constructed Network-like film, The Social Network and its director David Fincher, ran into the same wall this year. But classics and movies way ahead of their time live on, and Lumet has gone to his grave knowing he made more than a few.
Also take a look at The Verdict today. (I recently saw it again on the big screen). With The Hustler and Hud, it represents Paul Newman’s greatest work. And you will be stunned that it (and E.T. for that matter) could have been an also-ran to Gandhi in the Picture and Director races of 1982.
At least the Academy rectified the Lumet oversights by awarding him an Honorary Oscar in 2005 at age 81, “in recognition of his brilliant services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture.”
A common thread in everything you will read about Lumet in the days to come will indeed be his service to writers and actors, as well as to New York City, a location he used many times in the more than 40 films he directed. Gritty. Unsparing. Unsentimental. Tough. Those words are often associated with Lumet and his movies. Actors gravitated to him. He worked with the best, giving them some of their best performances: Newman, Brando, Fonda (both Henry and Jane), Steiger, Connery, Pacino, Holden, Finch, Dunaway, Burton, Finney, Caine, Bancroft, Bergman, Nolte, Hepburn (Kate), Woodward, Magnani, Bridges, and many others right up to Vin Diesel, who certainly benefited from the association in 2006’s Find Me Guilty. Lumet was the actors’ director, perhaps because that is also where his roots lay originally.
I am sure there will follow a bevy of Lumet retrospectives and tributes, but I hope they will include not just the acknowledged masterpieces and successes but also movies that are often completely overlooked in the Lumet oeuvre. True, 1966’s The Group was somewhat soapy but a real guilty pleasure now, as is 1980’s wickedly funny Just Tell Me What You Want, which features a great Alan King turn and even a bearable one from Ali MacGraw. Despite her Oscars for other films, I don’t think Jane Fonda was ever better than in the criminally underrated The Morning After opposite Jeff Bridges. I personally loved Anne Bancroft in Garbo Talks (1984), Sophia Loren in That Kind of Woman (1959), James Coburn in Last Of The Mobile Hotshots (1970), and Sean Connery in the terrific heist flick The Anderson Tapes (1971). Pity that 1964’s Fail Safe was lost in the praise for Dr. Strangelove in the same year, but it is worth a revisit as a still-chilling look at the world on the brink of nuclear castastrophe.
Although there are so many critical successes associated with Lumet, there were the failures that can’t be ignored today, including a misguided 1999 remake of Gloria and the dreary A Stranger Among Us (1992), with a laughable performance from Melanie Griffith (one of the few actors not to flourish under Lumet’s direction). Lumet even tried a musical, The Wiz (1978), which didn’t really work despite everyone’s best efforts. But it did feature one memorable final screen moment for his then mother-in-law Lena Horne as well as represented Michael Jackson’s only real feature film acting gig.
Still, despite a miss here and there, Lumet was about as consistent as they come. And when he really connected with script and actor, it was instant classic time. From Pacino chanting “Attica, Attica” in Dog Day Afternoon or staring down New York’s corrupt cops in Serpico, to Peter Finch shouting “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” in Network, or Rod Steiger’s anguish in The Pawnbroker, and all those other unforgettable moments we have had in the dark watching a Sidney Lumet film, it’s sad to remember not just Lumet on the occasion of his death — but also that studios certainly don’t seem to be interested in making Lumet’s signature kind of movies nowadays. But he was always an independent in a very dependent business, a Hollywood outsider who managed to thrive anyway. It’s fitting that his final two films were right on point: Find Me Guilty (2006), a courtroom drama to bookend his first film 12 Angry Men, and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), a character-driven crime drama. Both vintage Lumet movies to their core.
Even in his 80s, Lumet still found the key to keep “making movies” his way, the Lumet way. That’s a lesson that wasn’t in his book, but one that hopefully, for the sake of the “art of the motion picture,” future filmmakers will remember.