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Sidney Lumet, 86

We welcome this appreciation of director Sidney Lumet from our Hollywood correspondent.

Sidney Lumet 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.

available at Amazon
S. Lumet, Making Movies
In his book Making Movies, Lumet walks the reader through every aspect of production, from the analysis of the script, the philosophy of camera placement, working with actors all the way down to style (“The most misused word since love,” he quips in that chapter.) All this earthy, human preparation was not just to have the ship sail smoothly but quite the opposite: so that he’d be ready to take advantage of that great happening, the accident. In his commentary for Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet discusses the intense scene where Pacino, playing Sonny, has to say his goodbye to his transvestite lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon). Knowing, in advance, that such a delicate moment would take care and heavy lifting by the actors, Lumet had two cameras hidden from the view of Pacino. They shot and shot to the point where he felt Pacino had peaked…and then he shot some more. He cued the second camera to jump on the heels of the take. He laughs as he describes the murderous look that Pacino gave him as he felt he left it all on the floor. You can feel that emotional exhaustion in the movie, and to this day I still smile over the story.

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.


Atlanta Roofing said...

I've always liked Sidney Lumet's movies, and I've always liked the ideaof Sidney Lumet's movies, the elevation of sheer storytelling craft over self-indulgent personal expression. Lumet had plenty to express, all right, but he did it with a minimum of fuss and always with his full attention on entertaining the viewer in an intelligent way.He will be missed..RIP.

architects buckinghamshire said...

I just found out yesterday that Sidney Poitier directed Stir Crazy.

I mean, WTF? It was one of those "Did you know Steven Spielberg directed 1941?" moments.