Director Sidney Lumet, right, received an honorary Oscar in 2005, presented by actor Al Pacino, who starred in two of Lumet's films.
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LOS ANGELES -- Somehow it has always felt right to me that Sidney Lumet's first film was 1957's 12 Angry Men, framed by 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, who died this weekend at 86, was 33 at the time, already seasoned by life in the theater, where he was reared, and television, where he cut his teeth behind the camera. The film would earn the first of five Oscar nominations. A win would forever elude him, 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; Paul Newman's drink-addled attorney in '82's The Verdict; all the way through to Lumet's final film, the underappreciated 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 success would afford him. 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 an extraordinarily prescient one at that. Consider Network, to my mind his best film, his greatest legacy, it brought another of his Oscar nods. Written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, it envisioned a broadcast world feeding off life, literally. 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's still on YouTube 35 years later.
Just as important, and as socially defining, was Faye Dunaway's network producer who played television like a blood sport. In 1976, it seemed some bizarre Orwellian fantasy -- exploiting a culture that craved the sight of human wreckage in prime time. But the future was there in her epiphany that with Beale's madness "we hit the mother lode," variations of that very theme saturating the airwaves today.
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 offered.
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, which were potent enough, 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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