Sidney Lumet, whose performers ranged from Katharine Hepburn to Sharon Stone, from Ralph Richardson to Marlon Brando, from Anna Magnani to Al Pacino, from Lauren Bacall to Jane Fonda, from Simone Signoret to River Phoenix, from Paul Newman to Vin Diesel, from Wendy Hiller and John Gielgud to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and among whose films are Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, died earlier today at his home in Manhattan. Lumet was 86.
Many won’t recognize the name behind the aforementioned movies. That’s because Lumet, strangely, was never a star director like Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, and John Ford, or more recently, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron. Just as strangely, there has never been a Sidney Lumet “cult,” such as those for the likes of Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, or Samuel Fuller.
It’s hard to understand why, considering that Lumet’s efforts were frequently respected by critics and oftentimes embraced by audiences as well. Additionally, they generally focus on men and their issues – a crucial element in the eyes of most film critics and historians – while offering a clearly discernible thematic core that should appeal to those into auteur worship, e.g., an urban, American setting (usually New York City), a social conscience, some heavy-duty drama, a general lack of facile resolutions. Moreover, Lumet’s films also share several stylistic elements in common: a naturalistic “look,” on-location shooting (“locations are characters in my movies”), and most important of all, they’re almost invariably phenomenal actors’ showcases.
Eighteen performances in Lumet’s films have gone on to receive Academy Award nominations. That’s more than all but five filmmakers (William Wyler, Elia Kazan, George Cukor, Fred Zinnemann, and Martin Scorsese), and as many as Mike Nichols and George Stevens.
Lumet’s Oscar nominees were: Katharine Hepburn (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Al Pacino (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), Richard Burton and Peter Firth (Equus), William Holden and Ned Beatty (Network), Chris Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon), Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Jane Fonda (The Morning After), River Phoenix (Running on Empty), Paul Newman and James Mason (The Verdict), and Rod Steiger (who was sure he was going to win for The Pawnbroker, but Lee Marvin won that year for Cat Ballou).
Additionally, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight (supporting) won Oscars for Network, and so did Ingrid Bergman (in the Best Supporting Actress category) for Murder on the Orient Express.
Among the non-Oscar nominees who shone in Lumet’s films were Henry Fonda and the whole cast of Twelve Angry Men, Geraldine Fitzgerald in The Pawnbroker, Charlotte Rampling in The Verdict, and Fonda again in Fail-Safe.
Lumet was nominated for five Academy Awards: Four as Best Director (Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict) and one for Best Adapted Screenplay (Prince of the City, with Jay Presson Allen). He never won a competitive Oscar, but was given an Honorary Award at the 2005 Oscar ceremony for his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of the motion picture.”
The director who dealt with nuclear Armageddon (Fail-Safe), media sensationalism (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), various kinds of family dysfunctions (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Appointment, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), the US justice system (Twelve Angry Men, The Verdict, Daniel, Running on Empty), the British justice system (The Offence), police corruption (Serpico, Prince of the City, Q & A, Night Falls in Manhattan), Chekhov (The Sea Gull), mental illness (Equus), and the after-effects of the Holocaust (The Pawnbroker), once wrote:
“While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”