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Person Of The Week: Sidney Lumet

Written by: FFT Webmaster | April 18th, 2011

We lost one of the greats this past week. Sidney Lumet, a national treasure and the quintessential New York filmmaker (sorry, Woody Allen) died last week at the age of 86. In a career that spanned over 50 years in both live television and the big screen, Lumet was nominated for the Best Director Oscar four times and has left an indelible filmography of titles that are distinguished by their social relevancy and strong caliber of acting. Lumet’s most famous films were shot in and were about New York, including such milestones as TWELVE ANGRY MEN, THE PAWNBROKER, SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PRINCE OF THE CITY.

Born in New York City in 1924 to an established star of the Yiddish stage, Lumet began his career as a child actor on Broadway and radio in the 1930s. In the early 1950s he became a director of live television in New York during the golden age of live television dramas, adapting one of his most successful outings into his directorial debut TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The Reginald Rose-scripted 1957 legal drama set in a Manhattan jury room with Henry Fonda leading an ensemble cast received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Lumet’s film career was on its way.

In a career that continued through 2005’s UNTIL THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD, an edgy heist drama starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and hailed as a return to form for the then-81 year old director, Lumet would be nominated three other times for Best Director Oscars, specifically for the 1975 Brooklyn bank-heist film DOG DAY AFTERNOON, the Paddy Chayefsky-penned television satire NETWORK and the 1982 legal drama THE VERDICT, with a searing performance by Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer. He also received an Oscar nomination for his and Jay Presson Allen’s adapted screenplay for PRINCE OF THE CITY, a 1981 police corruption drama that he also directed.

Known as an actor’s director, Lumet guided numerous Academy Award-nominated performances, including those of Oscar winners Ingrid Bergman (for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) and Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight (all for NETWORK). In one of the true scandals of Oscar history, Lumet never one a statuette, joining a long line of celebrated directors who had been passed over, including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston and Otto Preminger, among others. He finally did receive a Honorary Oscar in 2005, given to him at the Oscar ceremonies by actor Al Pacino, who did perhaps his greatest work for the director in Oscar-nominated performances in SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

During his long movie career, Lumet directed more than 40 films, including such early successes d’estimes as THE FUGITIVE KIND (with Marlon Brando), A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (from Arthur Miller’s play), LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (adapted from the Eugene O’Neill stage drama), the Cold War thriller FAIL SAFE and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (an all-star romp based on an Agatha Christie novel). He also had his share of flops, including the big screen, big budget THE WIZ, based on a hit Broadway musical, with a cast that included Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

Even after launching his film career in 1957, he continued to direct dramas for television, including the politically charged THE SACCO-VANZETTI STORY and the adaptation of another Eugene O’Neill play THE ICEMAN COMETH. In 2001, he returned to television as the creator, executive producer and principal director of the short-lived Manhattan-set legal drama 100 CENTRE STREET. Lumet’s 1995 book, “Making Movies,” a professional memoir and guide to filmmaking, has been called essential reading for would-be filmmakers. His personal life was equally intriguing, having been married four times: to British actress Rita Gam, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, journalist and author Gail Jones (the daughter of singer Lena Horne and with whom he had two daughters, Amy and Jenny), and Mary Gimbel.

The film business is not always kind to its geniuses and Lumet’s name has largely faded from public view since his golden period over 30 years ago. This is a terrible shame since he has one of the most consistent and powerful resumes of modern-day film artists. His works are certainly worth a revisit and most, thankfully, are available on DVD. His was a true genius for dynamic storytelling and for bringing out the best qualities in his actors. He will be sorely missed, but his great legacy continues to live on in the films he made.

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