Filmmaker Sidney Lumet (born 1924) has made some of America's most memorable movies, including Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. His films have received more than 50 Academy Award nominations. Often called "an actor's director," Lumet is known for the superior performances he draws from his actors.
Sidney Lumet's films often deal with social themes, such as the police, law, or Jewish life. Most of his films are shot in New York City and are often rough and emotional. Lumet treats the camera as an actor, making sure that the camerawork relates to what is happening dramatically. His vast technical knowledge allows him to use the tools of camera, lighting, and set design in a subtle yet distinctive style that is all his own.
A Child of the Theater
Lumet was born on June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents were actor Baruch Lumet and dancer Eugenia Wermus Lumet, both performers in Yiddish theater. Eugenia Lumet passed away when her son was a child. Lumet began his acting career at age four at the Yiddish Art Theater in New York City. He played many roles on radio and on Broadway, where he first performed in 1935. Lumet appeared in his only film role at the age of 15 in One Third of a Nation, in 1939. World War II interrupted Lumet's acting career; he spent three years in the U.S. army, including stints in Burma and India, where he served as a radio repairman. He often got into fights with his fellow servicemen, many of whom were from the South.
From Actor to Director
Lumet studied acting with Sanford Meisner, a famous acting teacher. In 1947 Lumet founded an off-Broadway theater troupe that included Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach, taught acting, and directed plays. In 1950 he joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and became a respected director of live television programs, including a crime series called Danger and a program titled You Are There. New York City was the heart of television production during the Golden Age of television of the 1950s, and many talented writers, actors, and directors lived and worked there. At the time, television was a medium that allowed intimate direction, much like the theater. Many television directors, like Lumet, progressed to films, often focusing on complex social and psychological themes and retaining a style derived from their informal origins in television.
Lumet creates "message pictures," movies that tackle social problems, and has been viewed as among the most perceptive and unsentimental directors of this genre. His films often feature actors who studied "Method" acting, characterized by an earthy, introspective style. And along with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet creates the appearance of spontaneity, an improvisational look achieved by shooting much of his work on location.
Lumet's work falls into several categories: the message picture; adaptations of plays and novels; large, showy pictures; films about families; tense melodramas; and New York-based black comedies. According to Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin in their A Short History of the Movies, "Lumet's sensitivity to actors and to the rhythms of the city have made him America's longest-lived descendant of the 1950s Neorealist tradition and its urgent commitment to ethical responsibility. … Beneath the social conflicts of Lumet's best films lies the conviction that love and reason will eventually prevail in human affairs, that law and justice will eventually be served—or not."
In 1957 Lumet directed his first film, Twelve Angry Men, a courtroom drama that was based on a TV play. The film received the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for Academy awards for best picture, best director, and best screenplay adaptation. In this film Lumet used a theme that would reappear later in his work: the motif of the enclosed space. Twelve Angry Men was filmed almost entirely in a single room, and in his book Making Movies, the director described the feeling he was trying to create. "One of the most important dramatic elements for me was the sense of entrapment those men must have felt in that room. … As the picture unfolded, I wanted the room to seem smaller and smaller. … The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie."
Harkening back to his roots in the theater, Lumet proceeded to direct three films that were adapted from plays. In 1960 he made The Fugitive Kind, based on the play Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams and starring Marlon Brando. The theme, according to Lumet, was "the struggle to preserve what is sensitive and vulnerable both in ourselves and in the world." Next came A View from a Bridge, an adaptation of a play by Arthur Miller. Long Day's Journey into Night, based on the Eugene O'Neill play, starred Katharine Hepburn and Jason Robards in a tale of a family's downward spiral into tragedy. In 1965 Lumet made the film The Pawnbroker, a powerful work about a Holocaust survivor haunted by his past and trapped in a lonely present that starred Rod Steiger. In this film, Lumet once again used the theme of the enclosed space, showing the main character caught in his own prison of pain.
From Slump to Apex
After The Pawnbroker Lumet's career entered a slump. He made a number of films in the second half of the 1960s, but not until 1971 did he have another hit with The Anderson Tapes, starring Sean Connery in a crime caper, followed by The Offense, a film about police brutality. Lumet's next work, Serpico, about police corruption, marked the beginning of the most respected period of his career. Lumet described the film as "a portrait of a real rebel with a cause." In 1974 he made Murder on the Orient Express, based on the Agatha Christie mystery, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Academy award. In this period piece, Lumet noted, "The object was to thrust the audience into a world it never knew—to create a feeling of how glamorous things used to be.… Richness was the order of the day. … Nodetail was spared in creating a glamorous look."
Dog Day Afternoon, which received Academy Award nominations for best picture and best director, is a dark comedy about a bank robbery. The film, made in 1975, was based on actual events involving a bisexual man who wanted to rob a bank to finance his male lover's sex-change operation. Film critic Pauline Kael called the film "one of the best 'New York' movies ever made." Regarding Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet explained that because the material was so shocking, he felt his first obligation was to indicate to the audience that these events really happened. To do so, Lumet shot the entire beginning section with a hidden camera, filming ordinary people on the streets of New York.
In 1976 Lumet made Network, a satire about television. The film received ten Academy Award nominations and won four, including best actor, best actress, best original screenplay, and best supporting actress. Lumet also walked away with a Golden Globe and two Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards for Network. In a 1995 interview with Rick Schultz, the director asserted that television has anesthetized the American consciousness and blurred the line between reality and fiction.
In 1981 Lumet won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best director for Prince of the City, a three-hour film about police corruption. He also receive an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, which he co-wrote. The theme of this work, Lumet noted in his book, is that "When we try to control everything, everything winds up controlling us. Nothing is what it seems." Lumet's The Verdict, a courtroom drama starring Paul Newman, was nominated for best picture and best director in 1982. The 1980s also saw release of Lumet's Deathtrap, Daniel, Garbo Talks, Power, The Morning After, Running on Empty, and Family Business. Running on Empty, about a family on the run from the FBI, won awards for two actors, and the screenplay won a Golden Globe.
In the 1990s Lumet directed Q&A, A Stranger among Us, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, Critical Care, and Gloria. In 2000 Lumet directed The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann, the story of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jewish woman who attempts to use her Nordic looks to escape the concentration camps during World War II. Reflecting on the director's body of work as a whole, film critic Leonard Maltin noted that "Lumet's films are generally intelligent and marked by a clean, unobtrusive directing style, but his signature is the caliber of the performance he elicits from his actors who speak of him—and his theater-based rehearsal process—in the most glowing terms."
A Return to Television
For the 2000-2001 television season, the A&E Network featured 100 Centre Street, a series created by Lumet, who also directed and served as executive producer as well as writing several episodes. The series concerns prosecutors, defense attorneys, and accused criminals as their lives unfold in the night court of the city of New York. The show broke new ground in high-definition video as one of the first major TV series to use Sony's 24P technology.
A Messy Personal Life
Lumet has been married four times. His first marriage, to Rita Gam, a television actress, ended in divorce. His second wife was Gloria Vanderbilt, the heiress who made a name for herself as a very successful designer. Married on August 27, 1956, the couple remained together for seven years. When Vanderbilt ended the union, Lumet attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills. He telephoned Gail Jones, the daughter of singer Lena Horne, to tell her what he had done, and she called the police. Lumet and Jones, a journalist and author, were married from 1963 until 1978 and have two daughters, Amy and Jenny, both actors. After his third marriage ended in divorce, Lumet married Mary Gimbel in 1980.
Aram Saroyan, in Trio: Oona Chaplin, Carol Matthau, Gloria Vanderbilt. Portraits of an Intimate Friendship, described Lumet's personality as crisp and kinetic. "He really seemed to be, quite naturally, the Hollywood idea of the 'director'," noted Saroyan, "—always hugging everybody and calling them 'baby' and 'sweetheart.' And yet there was something genuinely sweet and generous in the way he did it."
Cunningham, Frank R., Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision, University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
Lumet, Sidney, Making Movies, Knopf, 1995.
Maltin, Leonard, Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, Signet, 1994.
Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin, A Short History of the Movies, Allyn & Bacon, 2000.
Matthau, Carol, Among the Porcupines: A Memoir, Turtle Bay Books, 1992.
Saroyan, Aram, Trio: Oona Chaplin, Carol Matthau, Gloria Vanderbilt. Portraits of an Intimate Friendship, Linden Press, 1985.
People Weekly, June 10, 1985.
Mr. Showbiz, http://www.mrshowbiz.go.com/ (October 25, 2001).