Pete Hammond Remembers Sidney Lumet

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. (more…)

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