This morning FilmEdge is saddened to learn that renowned film director Sidney Lumet, whose career boasts a legacy of classic, character-driven dramas including 12 ANGRY MEN, NETWORK and THE VERDICT, has died at age 86.
Born in 1924, Sidney Lumet was a child actor in New York Yiddish theater and at age 11 made his broadway debut in a minor role in the Sidney Kingsley drama DEAD END. He continued acting through his teens, including a role in 1939’s ONE THIRD OF A NATION starring Sylvia Sydney. Lumet served as an Army Signal Corps radar repair technician in Burma and India during World War II, and later continued acting, forming an off-Broadway theater group which jump started his fledgling efforts in direction.
Later an industrious director of more than 40 feature films, Lumet got his early start directing television episodes in the 1950s, including notable installments of series like DANGER and YOU ARE THERE. Lumet’s feature film debut came in 1957 when he helmed the gripping character piece 12 ANGRY MEN in 1957, a courtroom drama about a jury deliberating on a case which may sentence a man to death for murder. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman and Martin Balsam among a dozen solid actors, 12 ANGRY MEN earned Lumet his first Academy Award nomination as Best Director, along with Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations. Lumet’s quick, efficient yet involving directorial style built over a decade of television assignments was brilliantly exhibited in 12 ANGRY MEN and would remain his hallmark through his career.
In 1962, Lumet directed Katherine Hepburn adapting Eugene O’Neill‘s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, followed with Rod Steiger in the tragic drama THE PAWNBROKER (1964), and reunited with Fonda portraying the President of the United States amid a nuclear war crisis in FAIL-SAFE that same year. Today FAIL-SAFE remains a chilling, tense classic about a technical malfunction which accidentally launches American nuclear bombers to attack Moscow, but Lumet’s film never got its due recognition at the time since its plot was closely paralleled in Stanley Kubrick‘s darkly satiric DR. STRANGELOVE, which debuted in theaters nine months earlier. Having deflated the plot concept of an unintentional start of World War III with Kubrick’s serio-comic humor, Lumet’s FAIL-SAFE suffered in its wake though both films have since earned their rightful place as cinema classics.
As Lumet’s stature and reputation as a feature director grew, so did his list of trademark character dramas (many set in and around his hometown of New York) including Al Pacino in the crime biopic SERPICO (1973), the all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie‘s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), and 1975’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON which earned Lumet his second Best Director Oscar nomination.
The next year Lumet followed up with one of his very best and most acclaimed films, NETWORK, an outrageous (at the time) satire about a fourth-rate network that boosts its news ratings after anchor Howard Beale has a mental breakdown on-air. Scripted by the inimitable Paddy Chayevsky, many in the TV industry accused he and Lumet of biting the hand that fed them when they both got their start writing and directing in television. Yet these critics entirely missed the point of NETWORK, which only heightened the increasing debasement of the medium for the sake of almighty ratings and floods of ad revenue. Lumet and Chayevsky proved themselves both right and prophetic, as what was once considered satire beyond the pale of reason has veered dangerously close to the standards in the television medium. NETWORK’s cast including William Holden, Ned Beatty received acting Oscar nominations, while Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight and the late Peter Finch all won Academy Awards. So did Chayevsky for his original script, though Lumet did not walk away with the gold in his third Oscar nomination.
Lumet followed up with more high-profile directing projects including Peter Shaffer‘s EQUUS (1977), the Diana Ross–Michael Jackson star vehicle THE WIZ (1978), his fourth Oscar nomination for co-writing PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981), and the Michael Caine–Christopher Reeve murder mystery DEATHTRAP (1982). The Academy again recognized (and failed to award) Lumet’s superb direction a fifth time for THE VERDICT (1982), starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer seeking justice for his client and redemption for himself. Newman was also denied an Oscar for the role in an Academy upset for a film which was critically considered among the best of both artists’ careers. Lumet continued directing features until 2007 marked his last directed film, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, a crime thriller starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney.
While consistently denied award recognition on specific projects, the Director’s Guild of America made up for seven unfulfilled nominations by giving Lumet the D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement in 1993, and the Academy finally bestowed an honorary Oscar in recognition of his stellar career in 2005.
Sidney Lumet is survived by his fourth wife and two daughters Amy and Jenny from his second marriage to Gail Jones, a stepdaughter and stepson, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Lumet was and remains one of my favorite directors and many of his stand-out films including 12 ANGRY MEN, FAIL-SAFE, NETWORK and THE VERDICT earned respected places on our all-time film favorites list. FilmEdge remembers the life and career of Sidney Lumet and is grateful for the many superb films examining and embracing the human spirit which will remain a lasting legacy for generations to come.