Immensely gifted movie director Sidney Lumet (Oscar-nominated for helming 12 ANGRY MEN, NETWORK, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and THE VERDICT—and writing PRINCE OF THE CITY) will receive a lifetime achievement Oscar at the Academy Awards celebration in Hollywood on February 27, 2005.
Lumet’s films have been nominated for more than 50 Oscars—although this is his first personal win. Previously he has earned the Director’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, two L.A. Critics’ Best Director honors, a Writers Guild award, a Golden Globe and top honors in Berlin, Denmark, Britain, Italy, Korea, Spain, New York and elsewhere. Several of his 44 movies and 12 TV projects have been nominated for eight BAFTAs, seven DGAs, six Golden Globes, three Emmys and many other awards.
I have enormously enjoyed many of Lumet’s great films, because of their social relevance, intelligence, attention to detail, high drama quotient and great complexity—and for his ability to draw Oscar-winning performances from Al Pacino, Peter Finch, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Katherine Hepburn, Richard Burton, Faye Dunaway, James Mason and seven others. The 68% of his movies that Lumet lensed in “the Big Apple” wonderfully and uniquely captured New York’s gritty look, sounds and populace.
Excellent film critic F.X. Feeney, writing in VARIETY, declared, “Lumet was the quintessential New York filmmaker, grappling with issues of corruption and redemption among conflicted, working class…loners, (who) have become indelibly etched in the collective conscience.”
Lumet did direct a few duds--including THE WIZ,
A STRANGER AMONG US, LOVIN’ MOLLY and GUILTY AS SIN--but a whole lot of his pics succeeded with both audiences and critics. “Lumet is one of the most important film directors in the history of American cinema,“ declared Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Frank Pierson (who won an Oscar for writing DOG DAY AFTERNOON, which Lumet directed brilliantly). “His work has left an indelible mark on both audiences and the history of film itself."
Like millions of other readers, I learned a lot about good filmmaking from his excellent how-to book MAKING MOVIES. This is a great, easy-to-read primer on the major aspects of moviemaking—and between the lines it explains much about why he is a master of his art.
Sidney Lumet was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924, to dancer Eugenia Wermus Lumet and Yiddish stage actor Baruch Lumet. Sidney he made his stage debut at the age of four, in a New York Yiddish Art Theater production featuring his father. Young Sid studied at New York's Professional Children's School and made his Broadway debut at 11 as one of the original DEAD END kids. Four years later, he made his first feature film appearance acting opposite Sylvia Sidney in ONE THIRD OF A NATION.
Sidney enlisted in the army at 17 and served in Burma and India as a radar repairman from 1942-46. After the war, Lumet replaced Marlon Brando in the in the Broadway production of Ben Hecht's A FLAG IS BORN. Then he focused on the production side of show business, working his way up the summer stock ladder.
In 1947, dissatisfied with Lee Strasberg’s approach at the legendary Actors Studio, Lumet, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach and other rebels founded a rival off-Broadway acting group. Two years later, Lumet began his five-year marriage to actress Rita Gam (Berlin “Silver Bear” Best Actress for NO EXIT in 1962).
During the 1950s, at CBS, Sidney worked his way from cameraman to director, helming many of the era’s top live dramatic series, including STUDIO ONE, KRAFT TELEVISION THEATRE, OMINIBUS, PLAYHOUSE 90, THE ALCOA HOUR, GOODYEAR TV PLAYHOUSE and about 150 episodes of DANGER.
In 1956 he commenced a seven-year marriage to designer-heiress Gloria Vanderbilt.
A year later Lumet exploded into movies, directing the highly praised and wildly successful courtroom drama 12 ANGRY MEN, starring Lee J. Cobb and first-time producer Henry Fonda. The film won major awards in Finland, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Germany, Britain and the United States and was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (Reginald Rose) and Best Director
Next Lumet won the San Sebastian Film Festival’s “Golden Seashell” for directing fellow award-winner Joanne Woodward (and Marlon Brando) in the racy vengeance drama THE FUGITIVE KIND (which inspired David Lynch’s whacked-out 1990 opus WILD AT HEART).
In 1963, Sid married again—for 15 years, this time—to Lena Horne’s daughter, journalist-author Gail Jones.
During the 1960s, Lumet was a triple threat, directing on Broadway, in movies and on TV. In 1960 he was nominated for two Emmys for directing THE ICEMAN COMETH and the controversial SACCO AND VENZETTI STORY. He had a run of fine films in the early 1960s, including the riveting family drama LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (which garnered Cannes’ Best Actor/Actress awards for all four stars: Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell—plus an Oscar nom for Kate); the gripping Cold War stand-off FAIL SAFE; the powerful concentration-camp-survivor-in-Harlem opus THE PAWNBROKER (with Rod Steiger’s explosive performance nominated for an Oscar); and the stark prison drama THE HILL (which earned several awards for one of my all-time favorite character actors, Harry Andrews, and two BAFTA nominations for
Sidney’s stuff sagged in the late ‘60s (THE GROUP, BYE BYE BRAVERMAN, LAST OF THE MOBILE HOT SHOTS) but bounced back in the ‘70s with the taut, successful Sean Connery heist flick THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971). In 1973 Lumet directed his masterpiece, SERPICO, which is easily the best movie ever about police corruption. Al Pacino truly earned his Golden Globe for it, Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler absolutely deserved their Best Adapted Screenplay WGA award and Lumet honorably came by his BAFTA and DGA best director nominations.
The highly entertaining, all-star 1974 Agatha Christie mystery MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was a box-office hit, earning scads of awards and nominations for Lumet, Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller and numerous people behind the camera—plus an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman.
New York critic Pauline Kael called Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) “one of the best New York movies ever made,” and hundreds of other scribes also warbled its praises. It received six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Al Pacino for Best Actor and Lumet for Best Director; current AMPAS prexy Frank Pierson [who also scripted THE ANDERSON TAPES], won for Best Original Screenplay).
It seemed impossible for Lumet to improve on the triumphant successes of three of his last four films (interrupted by the flopola LOVIN’ MOLLY), but he did it in black pointy cards with 1976’s NETWORK, which was nominated for no fewer than 10 Oscars (winning four for screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and thespians Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight). Lumet’s outstanding work on NETWORK earned him nominations for Oscar, BAFTA and DGA honors and won him a Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics’ Best Director award. NETWORK brilliantly, scathingly and humorously skewered a TV news operation that would do anything for ratings—resulting in the unforgettable on-air mental meltdown of its anchorman.
A year later, Richard Burton, Peter Firth and screenwriter Peter Schaffer were Oscar nominated for Lumet’s fine direction of the vivid psychodrama EQUUS. [I am startled each Saturday evening to see Firth—in 1997 an angry, nutso, naked teenager—performing maturely as the bald head of service in the super contemporary British spy drama MI-5, on A&E.]
For the past 28 years, Lumet’s career has been maddeningly inconsistent. Astonishingly good films like 1982’s beautifully etched courtroom drama THE VERDICT (Oscar noms to Lumet, Paul Newman, James Mason and scripter David Mamet, plus one for Best Picture) and smart, gritty works such as PRINCE OF THE CITY (which earned Lumet a passel of directing and writing awards and nominations) and (Oscar nominations to writer Naomi Foner and supporting actor
RUNNING ON EMPTY River Phoenix, plus another Golden Globe nom for Lumet) with crap like THE WIZ, GLORIA, GUILTY AS SIN and
A STRANGER AMONG US.
More recently, however, Lumet wrote, directed and exec-produced the powerful, highly original TV courtroom drama series 100 CENTRE STREET, which A&E foolishly cancelled after two seasons. While doing 100 CENTRE STREET, 78-year-old Lumet learned how to shoot in the new digital video format, in preparation for his upcoming mafia movie BAD GUYS.
In 1980, Lumet broke my personal record of three marriages by wedding Mary Gimbel—a union that has so far lasted 25 years.
Virtually all movie directors have hits and misses, because they work with scripts of varying quality, difficulty and audience-accessibility. What’s remarkable, I believe, is how excellent so very many of Sidney Lumet’s films are. His batting average is extremely high. The fifteen favorite films of his that I list below all benefited hugely from his great ability to work with actors (based on extensive rehearsal), his terrific eye and ear, his deep humanity and social conscience, his considerable technical skills (read his book!), his originality (which is still fully operative at age 80) and his innate sense of the dramatic. I believe that my top six Lumet films below (plus #12) have all attained the status of classics, and that the other eight are damn good, smart, sensitive, emotionally involving movie dramas that are well worth watching.
For way too long the Oscar has narrowly avoided Lumet (as it did Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Orson Wells, Francis Truffaut and many other genius directors). This belated honor will hopefully expand awareness of his work and enable millions of others to derive the many exciting rewards from them that I have so long enjoyed.