With Thanks and Appreciation: Sidney Lumet 1924-2011

 I feel the need to say a few words about the great Sidney Lumet.

There will be scores of other tributes for you to read and most of them will be more in depth, but like a casual acquaintance compelled to say a few words at a funeral, I want to add my humble voice to those reverberating around the internet and the blogisphere. Anyone who cares about movies has experienced a loss today.

Director Sidney Lumet, ex-husband of Gloria Vanderbilt, former son-in-law of Lena Horne, left behind a huge body of work; a list of films that contains some of the greatest of the 20th century. His very first film, 12 Angry Men, is arguably the definitive court room drama against which all others are measured.

For me, ever since I saw Murder on the Orient Express, with its flawless all-star cast, when I was a kid, a Lumet film was an event. If he directed it, I went to the theater to see it, and with few exceptions, could just about be guaranteed that I’d like it.

With a distinctly American voice, Lumet helped define a decade with two of the most realistic and gritty urban films of the ‘70’s, both set in his beloved New York City: Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. (They both almost certainly inspired another son of NYC, Martin Scorsese.) He’d go on to use the city as a backdrop many more times, with varying degrees of success in Prince of the City, Night Falls on Manhattan, Q & A and  Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.  While I can recommend all of them, the last four don’t have the resonance of Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon. (They didn’t have Pacino either.)

Network, another classic of the 1970’s that appears on many critics all-time Top 10 lists, was made in the same period. In fact, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express and Network were all made in a single three year span.

Known as an ‘actor’s director’, he wrested some of the best performances of their careers from a long list of venerable artists, many of whom were nominated for a great many awards, starting with Henry Fonda for 12 Angry Men and Fail Safe, Katherine Hepburn for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Peter Finch in Network (for which he was awarded a posthumous Oscar) up to and including his final film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which won numerous critics awards for ‘best ensemble cast.’

He made stars of River Phoenix in Running on Empty and Andy Garcia in Night Falls on Manhattan, kept Timothy Hutton employed and resurrected the careers of Jane Fonda (The Morning After), Nick Nolte ( Q & A) and Sean Connery (Family Business – although he’d also worked with him nearly 20 years before in The Anderson Tapes.)

Not every film was a classic, by any stretch. Guilty As Sin with a then-hot Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay is pure camp (and can still be enjoyed as such.) A Stranger Among Us with Melanie Griffith as a NYPD detective infiltrating a community of Hasidic Jews defies further description. There was something oddly charming, yet tinged with melancholy about Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, but for the most part, the rest of The Wiz was a mess. Probably because the musical itself was a mess. Diana Ross was never going to make anyone forget Judy Garland, any more than Sharon Stone could replace the great Gena Rowlands in the completely unnecessary remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria.

By far, my favorite Lumet film is The Verdict, which also contains my favorite performance by Paul Newman, as a down-at-the-heels, alcoholic lawyer seeking personal redemption with a medical malpractice case he can actually believe in.  Beautifully photographed by long-time Lumet collaborator, Andrzej Bartkowiak, with an adapted screenplay by David Mamet, this film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (James Mason) and Best Director. (It didn’t win any of them. Unfortunately, Gandhi was also released in 1982.)

This film is on my personal “once a year” list. If you haven’t seen it, you owe to yourself to do so.
(Bit of trivia: The Verdict’s writer, playwright David Mamet was married to Newman’s co-star Lindsey Crouse, who also appeared with him in Slap Shot. It was after seeing that film, that Mamet sought her out and they were married in ’77.) 
In any case, despite other accolades and even though three of his films are on AFI’s list of the 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time #42 12 Angry Men (also #2 AFI’s Top 10 Best Courtroom Dramas), #75 The Verdict ( #4 Best Courtroom Dramas), and #84 Serpico, Sidney Lumet never won an Academy Award. He was given an honorary Oscar in 2005. This is another travesty that the Academy has run out of time to rectify. They’ll probably try with a posthumous tribute at next year’s ceremony. Too little, too late. JMHO.

*AFI – The American Film Institute


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