I just get done eulogizing one industry titan, and then we go and lose another one. As I mentioned in my Liz Taylor tribute, acclaimed director Sidney Lumet passed away last Saturday of lymphoma at the age of 86, and while Lumet may have never reached such iconic status as Taylor, his filmmaking talent matched hers and then some. Lumet was one of the legendary generation that came of age in the late 60’s and 70’s, along with giants like Altman, Coppola, Spielberg and Scorsese. Though he never received the kind of household name recognition that those fellows did, Lumet’s work was consistently grounded, involving, and visually daring.
Lumet’s career stretched exactly 50 years, from his legendary debut “12 Angry Men” in 1957 to the dark, underrated 2007 drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” His signature style was a kind of unfussy, gritty realism, guided by a strong moral sense, which served him as well in theatrical adaptations like “The Fugitive Kind” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” to his gritty NYC police thrillers “Serpico” and “Prince of the City,” to topical films like “The Pawnbroker” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” to courtoom dramas like “The Verdict,” to social satire like “Network.” Lumet go along famously with his star actors, always coaxing great performances from his leads (“Network,” for instance, won three members of his cast Oscars). His 1996 book “Making Movies,” half autobiography, half instruction guide, is one of the most indispensable film books ever written and should be read by everyone with even a passing interest in the industry.
Lumet’s career was long, steady, and fruitful: his 45 films garnered 46 Oscar nominations, including 5 for himself (after losing all 5, the Academy eventually settled on giving him an Honorary Oscar). And “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” proved that he still had plenty of creative gas left in the tank. That was unsurprising, really; Lumet was always more durable than most of his contemporaries because he was so flexible, able to adjust his style to match contemporary trends, always while pushing more boundaries than he appeared to be.
On a personal note, Lumet’s passing has affected me more than most. “12 Angry Men” was a critical film in the development of my cinephilia. I can still recall watching that film for the first time in 5th grade – we were doing some unit on the justice system in social studies class and the teacher thought the film would be a good visual aid for the principles of the jury system and reasonable doubt (even if the film’s portrayal of the principles of the law is easily its most laughable/inaccurate element). I was just a kid, but “12 Angry Men” is easily one of the most accessible classics in the Hollywood canon, with ethical, adult conflict and tension that even children will find completely suspenseful without freaking them out. The film stuck with me for years, and was one of the first DVD’s that I ever owned. Both “12 Angry Men” AND “Network” (easily one of the most insightful, biting, witty satires in American film history) hold a firm place in my personal top 10 film list. Sidney, you will be missed.