We welcome this appreciation of director Sidney Lumet from our Hollywood correspondent.
passed away Saturday morning, and the news caught me completely off guard. He seemed like he could just go on forever. I certainly wished he would. Not simply because, at 86, he was still making movies, but because of the craft, passion, and audacity he retained even up to his great, underrated Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. That film, starring Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, not only was as dark and taut as any of his previous movies but also had the invigorating immediacy of shooting digitally. His energy was so unabated that he sat alongside Hawke and Hoffman to do an audio commentary for the disc, which like his others, was just filled with insight, humor, and immense respect for his performers and crew.
Perhaps there is a bias on my part, being an actor, for adoring Sidney and his films as much as I do. He managed to get the best from the best. In an age where the upcoming talent is trying to figure out new ways to fling a camera off a car, underwater, or ride along with bullets, Lumet knew the real effect was the human condition. Something he had a keen ability to break apart and find the crux of the moral animal within us.
There are plenty of accounts of his great achievements to be found, ranging from 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network to Running on Empty and Night Falls on Manhattan. Even trying to list these great accomplishments feels like a stroll down Academy Lane. But, personally, I didn’t just enjoy these great films, I loved how they came into being. Lumet wasn’t afraid of discussing process as he started each one anew with a fascination on how the puzzle would be taken apart and put back together again. He held rehearsals not simply for the efficiency of having done prep, but rather to find a unified vision that connected all the pieces.
S. Lumet, Making Movies
Many actors today dislike rehearsals for films as they feel it can flatten their spontaneity. I can agree with that as most are simply repetitions and the performers learn the others' reactions and it becomes stale. Yet, Lumet never believed there was a finished version of the scene. He would fight and work to get through to something deeper. Again, his process of examination bound each element into the theme and was always looking for something deeper. In 1964, Lumet did a live broadcast of the teleplay Fail Safe, with Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, about the threat of a nuclear attack. When he restaged it in 2000, starring George Clooney and Richard Dreyfuss (among many others), they rehearsed in the same way. They rented an airport hangar and taped down markings for where the sets would be: each performer was wired for sound, and everyone watched each scene build upon another. Having understudied for Noah Wyle on this project, I got to see first-hand how each piece fed into another, and the effect of feeling a part of a whole can create a greater perspective.
In Hollywood the buzz word is always “story.” But Lumet knew that there was more to a film than its story. There was the ability to tell it and the reason why. He took on Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Paddy Chayevsky, down to David Mamet with humility and courage. He used that vantage point to communicate his experience with greats such as Brando, Newman, Hepburn -- to let you know, they too were daunted by these great themes and the joy afterward of having gone beyond his and their expectations. There are just too many anecdotes for one column. He left behind great stories on great projects on and off the set. While I am saddened today to know I won’t get to anticipate another treasure from Mr. Lumet, I know I don’t have to go long without the pleasure of his company that he left behind.
A great man. A great legacy. You will be missed.