By John H. Foote
Of the great film directors in movie history, Sidney Lumet was among the elite. Highly regarded as an actor’s director, he possessed the uncanny ability to draw Oscar nominated and winning performances from his actors in bold and magnificent films. Yet Lumet himself was a Best Director nominee just four times, and never won a competitive Oscar. He was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement shortly before he passed and, though appreciative, he never got over losing for Network (1976), which he considered his finest film.
His finest work includes Twelve Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Fail Safe (1965), The Pawnbroker (1965), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), The Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Daniel (1983), Garbo Talks (1984), Running on Empty (1988), Q and A (1992) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2006). Sure, there were failures along the way, The Wiz (1978) the most crushing, but overall Lumet was a studio dream. He shot fast, actors revered him, he was an excellent writer, came in under budget and critics loved him.
An extraordinary career.
It seemed actors found themselves nominated for Oscars when in a Lumet film, more than 20 fine actors taking a run at awards season for the coveted Oscar. The trust Lumet inspired on set was legendary. So I was genuinely excited when I heard a new book written by Maura Spiegel was coming about Lumet, entitled aptly “Sidney Lumet: A Life”.
What a crushing disappointment.
Most books about film directors dedicate much of the text to exploring the films they directed, which is highly biographical, speaking volumes about the filmmaker. Miss Spiegel gives great amounts to his childhood, his work as a child actor before moving behind the camera. But Network (1976), one of the most profound films of the last 50 years, with its spot-on foreshadowing of what television was to become (and has) receives four measly pages. Treated worse are Dog Day Afternoon (1975) with just three and the excellent period mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974) with one and a half. How did he balance all those egos aboard the Orient Express? Faye Dunaway, brilliant in Network, was said to be a hellion and travesty to work with, how did he do it? I was hoping for a greater understanding of why The Wiz (1978) was such a massive flop and how did the director feel about it? Why did Jack Nicholson turn down the lead in Equus (1977), bringing Lumet to cast the Broadway Tony winner in the part, Richard Burton, who was astonishing, but kept Lumet worried about his drinking.
What did he do to bring actors to so revere him?
After so many failures through the nineties, an ill-fated remake of Gloria (2000), he came back strong with a masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2006), which dazzled critics and audiences.
Sadly, it was his last film, time ran out.
With such an artist there is so much to explore, and I wish Ms. Spiegel had done so. Though well researched, the text is surprisingly thin and by the midway point I was in a fury of disappointment.
The author had all the information and films to create a profound book on Lumet, but she did not.
What did he do to create such urgent films? Why are directors today seeking to emulate his work? What staggering influence did he have on filmmakers? If he did anything unique with actors, what was it? Or, did he create a set that brought out their very best?
Nothing. None of that is explored.
Truly, a crushing disappointment.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”