Lumet was drawn to the messy business of simply being human
Somehow it has always felt right to me that Sidney Lumet’s first film was 1957’s “12 Angry Men,” with all the elements that Lumet loved best. It was a dialogue-driven set piece by writer Reginald Rose that was perfect for a director who loved words. There was its powerful ensemble of actors, with Henry Fonda’s lone dissenting juror facing off against Lee J. Cobb’s rage. An unseen defendant’s life hinged on a moral dilemma, with the jurors’ debate an examination of social class and cultural perceptions as much as one man’s guilt or innocence.
Lumet was 33 at the time, already seasoned by life in the theater, where he was raised, and television, where he cut his teeth behind the camera. The film would earn the first of five Oscar nominations. A win would elude him for a lifetime, though I’m sure the lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 2005 softened the blow.
But it was the anger, and all that created it, that became the thread running through the best of Lumet’s work. In his prime there was Al Pacino as the cop fighting corruption in “Serpico” in 1973; Pacino again in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” a cornered lover in a robbery gone bad; Peter Finch destroyed by depression, both his and the country’s, in 1976’s “Network”; Treat Williams, a cop forced to do the right thing in ’81’s “Prince of the City”; all the way through to Lumet’s final film, the under-appreciated “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” another robbery gone wrong with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2007. Lumet was 83 then, still not tired of making movies.
I knew all along there was more to his passion than all those angry men. It was the messy business of simply being human that the filmmaker found so compelling. Whatever the forces that pushed him in that direction, we are forever richer that he was drawn to moral ambiguity, and the high price exacted by integrity and corruption alike.
His were grown-up stories, most often New York stories, of adults caught up in fundamental conflicts of the kind that have mostly left cinema for television these days. His New York was more Lower East Side seamy, where he grew up, than the Upper West Side that his success would allow him to buy into. Would a young Lumet and his fascination with our baser nature find a home in Hollywood now? I doubt it.
He was less a stylist in the way of a Scorsese or a De Palma, than a populist, and he was extraordinarily prescient. “Network,” to my mind his best film, his greatest legacy, was certainly that. Written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, it envisioned a broadcast world that fed off life, literally. In this case the uncensored telecast of a man going mad in prime time, a ratings hit. In 1976, it seemed some bizarre Orwellian fantasy — the adrenaline rush of a culture craving reality, a society just waiting for someone to be the voice of discontent. Today it saturates the airwaves.
Peter Finch as the deconstructing TV host, Howard Beale, became an iconic figure, as did his chant: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” It still plays on YouTube 35 years later. Just as important to the story though, and as culturally defining, was the network producer played by Faye Dunaway, the role that would win her an Oscar, walking away in triumph, knowing, as she said, that with Beale’s madness “we hit the mother lode.”
Lumet was fascinated by the broadcast media — its obsession with real people and our obsession with it. That circus surrounds and drives “Dog Day Afternoon,” so much so that it’s easy to forget that Al Pacino plays a bisexual man trying to pull off a bank heist to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. It would win an Oscar for writer Frank Pierson, and earn Lumet another nomination. What the film would also do was tackle America’s discomfort with homosexuality years before most of his contemporaries would get close to the subject.
Linchpin moments, when decisions must be made in difficult circumstances, infused most of his work. It made for films that were, by nature, talky. But he brought a brisk economy to his films; he was a maestro of one or two takes years before Clint Eastwood would turn it into a respected specialty. Dunaway once told me that Lumet worked so fast it was as if he were on roller skates. A racing pulse generated by a big heart.
He made more than 40 films and was prolific on TV as well. Not all the films were great. Maybe the quantity hurt the quality, but I suspect it was a restlessness of spirit that drove him to take the best of what he was given.
One of my favorites is 1988’s “Running on Empty,” a small ensemble drama that garnered little attention. Written by Naomi Foner (better known these days as mother to Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), it’s a story of ‘60s political radicals, played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch, who have raised a family despite spending a lifetime on the run. Beyond the politics, it is a story of mothers and fathers and children and convictions — when to hold on, when to let go. A complex story, filled with simple truths, flawed people, heartbreak, but most of all love.
That was Lumet — intensely in love with humanity, forgiving of its flaws. Never running on empty.
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