Film Director Sidney Lumet Dies
Directing legend behind Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon
I’m mad as hell…to find out that directing legend Sidney Lumet died. He was 86, so maybe I shouldn’t be so mad. The guy just showed no signs of slowing down. Heck, it was only four years ago that he gave us the dark Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with Marisa Tomei, Phillip Seymoure Hoffman, and Ethan Hawke. The thought of an 82-year-old giving us a movie with hardcore sex scenes, drug use, murder, dealing with inept cops – and done very well – is an amazing feat. But people were amazed when his debut film, 12 Angry Men, came out in 1957.
Lumet was directing his first feature film, but he wasn’t new to acting. He had gone from being a child actor (his parents were in the business) to being a teenager doing more radio and even more acting. He ended up spending three years in the Army thanks to World War II. He became part of the Actor’s Studio, and quickly formed his own workshop and Off-Broadway group.
Lumet was so prolific at direction TV productions, he got a shot from the motion picture industry and gave the world the classic 12 Angry Men. Acting legend Henry Fonda only produced one film, and that was it; and it was Lumet he tapped to direct the piece. At the time, it was critically praised – but more so now. All but three minutes of the film took place in the jury room. Those jurors included Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, and Jack Klugman (who would become most famous for The Odd Couple). The film got a few Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. It also helped open the doors for other television directors that wanted to make the leap to the big screen.
Lumet would have more luck with the Oscars when he returned to the courtroom with The Verdict in 1982 (a movie that included one of the 12 Angry Men – Jack Warden).It would garner another Oscar nomination for his direction, as well as four other nominations.
The long-time New Yorker got a reputation like Woody Allen, for filming many movies in the Big Apple. He said it was because unlike Los Angeles, New York actually has streets. His filming in New York created some controversy during 9/11. Lumet was in the middle of shooting his TV series 100 Centre Street when the terrorists struck. He asked his crew if they wanted to stop for the day, and none of them did. They continued on with the show and when people found out, it ruffled some feathers.
Serpico came out in 1973, and garnered a couple of Oscar nominations. It had rising star Al Pacino (The Godfather was the year before), and was the true story of corruption in the police force. Lumet would become known as a person that told stories with morals, people challenging the system, or political messages.
A few years later, Lumet and Pacino would team up again for Dog Day Afternoon. It would get six Oscar nominations (including Best Director); and it gave us the pop culture catchphrase “Attica! Attica!” John Travolta would later utter the phrase in his underwear in Saturday Night Fever.
The last time Lumet worked with Pacino, it was merely Lumet suggesting a few things for his film Scarface (one of those being that the characters should be Cuban). That might have been a good instinct, but one of the weirdest stories involving a movie Lumet wanted to do, was the Charles Bronson revenge picture Death Wish. And he wanted Jack Lemmon as the lead. Yikes!
Lumet made a dark comedy/drama with Network, a year after Dog Day Afternoon (for most of his career, he averaged a movie a year). This time, the Oscars came pouring in. It won four (three for acting, which is rare). The directing Oscar still alluded him. Actor Peter Finch yelled the second catchphrase we’d get from a Lumet film: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” This was a newscaster live on the air, after finding out he’d be fired in two weeks for poor ratings. Once he gets angry, threatens suicide on the air, and suggests everyone else yell the phrase out their windows. He died before he was able to take home the Oscar for that role. He’d be the only actor, until Heath Ledger, to win posthumously. It would be the first film that made me mad for how supporting actors and actresses get nominations. Beatrice Straight won the supporting actress Oscar, and she was in the movie less than six minutes.
We always heard critics and film buffs dissecting Lumet films, but we didn’t hear a lot about his personal life.
He was married four times. One of those wives was Gloria Vanderbilt. She was known back in the day for her families wealth, and her clothing designs (mostly scarves and tight blue jeans). Now she’s known more for being Anderson Cooper’s mother. Another wife (Gail) was Lena Horne’s daughter. Lumet had been with wife Mary Gimbel since 1980. He had two daughters, Amy (a sound engineer) and Jenny Lumet -- who followed into the family business. She starred with Nick Nolte in the police drama Q&A (directed by daddy), and she wrote the critically praised Rachel Getting Married a few years ago (which garnered an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway, last years Oscar host).
And speaking of Oscar hosts, I’m guessing the host next year will mention Sidney Lumet at great length. He’s not just a name you’ll see on the In Memoriam list. Of the many times Lumet was nominated, it wasn’t until 2005 that he got the gold guy. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.
One interesting footnote to all his Oscar nominations was the 1981 film Prince of the City. He directed it, but got a nomination for co-writing the screenplay.
There’s never been an actor that worked with Lumet that complained. Many called him an “actor’s director,” which may have stemmed from the fact that he started out as an actor. He’s told many people that he likes to get the shot in one take, two at the most. He does like to do weeks of rehearsals before shooting started, with the actors doing the story from beginning to end as if it were a play.
The late Christopher Reeve, who was in his movie Deathtrap – had said that Lumet is able to work with all styles, whether that’s Method acting, improvising, or being technical.
Critics enjoyed the fact that we were given dialogue driven vehicles, instead of vehicles used in high speed chases with lots of gunfire.
Lumet penned a memoir in the mid-90s called Making Movies, and upon hearing of his passing from lymphoma in his Manhattan apartment, I thought I’d look up all the movies of his that slipped my mind. Here all the movies Lumet his done, in order of the most recent to the first in the late ‘50s.
- Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
- Find Me Guilty (also wrote this mob story starring Vin Diesel)
- Gloria (the last good performance we saw from Sharon Stone)
- Critical Care (a rare Lumet comedy with Helen Mirren, James Spader, Kyra Sedgwick)
- Night Falls on Manhattan (also wrote, starring Andy Garcia, Richard Dreyfuss)
- Guilty as Sin (another lawyer film, but Don Johnson is no Paul Newman)
- A Stranger Among Us (another cop film in New York, with Melanie Griffith)
- Q & A (wrote, directed, and daughter Jenny in lead)
- Family Business (Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick)
- Running on Empty (fugitive family on the run, starring Judd Hirsch, River Phoenix)
- The Morning After (this time Henry Fonda’s daughter Jane, and Jeff Bridges)
- Power (Richard Gere, Gene Hackman)
- Garbo Talks (comedy with Carrie Fisher, Anne Bancroft)
- Daniel (Timothy Hutton, Mandy Patinkin)
- The Verdict
- Prince of the City (more New York cops, with Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach)
- Just Tell Me What You Want (Ali MacGraw, Alan King)
- The Wiz (got some acting out of Michael Jackson; also starred Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell)
- Equus (Richard Burton)
- Dog Day Afternoon
- Murder on the Orient Express (Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, and Albert Finney, who starred in his last film in 2007)
- Lovin’ Molly (Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges, Blythe Danner)
- Child’s Play (no Chuckie, but starred James Mason, Beau Bridges)
- The Offence (the often cast Sean Connery, in film about British police)
- The Anderson Tapes (Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon)
- King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (documentary)
- Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (James Coburn)
- The Appointment (Omar Shariff)
- The Sea Gull (James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave)
- Bye Bye Braverman (George Segal, Jack Warden)
- The Deadly Affair (James Mason, Maximilian Schell)
- The Group (Candice Bergen)
- The Hill (Sean Connery)
- Fail-Safe (the first doomsday movie, starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau)
- The Pawnbroker (Rod Steiger)
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards)
- Vu du pont (Arthur Miller play)
- The Fugitive Kind (a Tennessee Williams play)
- That Kind of Woman (Sophia Loren, Tab Hunter, first of many films with Jack Warden)
- Stage Struck (Henry Fonda)
- 12 Angry Men