The following obituary on Sidney Lumet was published in the Australian Jewish News on 21 April 2011.
With this month’s passing of Sidney Lumet at age 86, the world has lost one of the greatest Jewish film-makers. Lumet was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924 to Yiddish theatre actor Baruch Lumet and his wife, dancer Eugenia Wermus, and moved to New York when he was four, making that city his primary home for the rest of his life. Like Woody Allen, he avoided working in Los Angeles, and was famously quoted as saying “I don’t feel organic life there”.
Lumet was married four times: to actress Rita Gam, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, African-American journalist Gail Jones, and Mary Gimbel. Lumet had two daughters with Jones – who in turn was the daughter of famed singer Lena Horne. Daughter Jenny wrote the screenplay for the recent (2008) film Rachel Getting Married and appeared in some of her father’s films.
Lumet began his career as a child actor on the New York stage and radio in the 1930s, and had a big break in his adult acting career when he replaced Marlon Brando in Ben Hecht’s 1946 Zionist play A Flag is Born and later acted in the utopian Holocaust drama Seeds in the Wind. Lumet studied acting with Sanford Meisner, formed his own acting troupe, but later observed that had “I stayed in acting, the best I could hope for was getting the part of the little Jewish kid from Brooklyn who got shot down … and then Clark Gable would pick me up with tears in his eyes.”
Instead, Lumet turned to directing, and crafted directed some of the most notable films of the last fifty years, starting with 12 Angry Men in 1957, about a jury that is slowly swayed into changing its decision, and which Obama-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cites as one of the reasons she decided to become a lawyer.
Lumet was well-known for being an “actor’s director”, and the actors who appeared in his films read like a “who’s who” of greatest twentieth century acting: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight all won Oscars for their performances in Network (1976), and Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Acting Oscar nominations for Lumet films also include Al Pacino for Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, Rod Steiger for The Pawnbroker, Paul Newman and James Mason for The Verdict, Jane Fonda for The Morning After and River Phoenix for Running on Empty. Others who appeared in his films include Henry Fonda, Sophia Lauren, Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward, Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Walter Matthau, Sean Connery, George Segal, Jack Warden, Vanessa Redgrave, Omar Sharif, Anthony Perkins, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Michael Caine, Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver, Richard Gere, Julie Christie, Gene Hackman, Jeff Bridges, Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith, Andy García, Ian Holm, Lena Olin, Richard Dreyfuss, James Spader, Sharon Stone, George C. Scott, Glenn Close, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney.
Lumet never had the sort of acclaim that many other directors have had (and remarkably little literature devoted to his work), in part because so many of his films have been adaptations and he has ranged so widely, working in theatre, television and film. His films have also been so different, and – to the dismay of his many fans – maddeningly inconsistent in quality. Unlike Woody Allen, Lumet never adopted an identifiable style or “signature” flourishes and never tried to create warm and likeable films, preferring gritty realism. He ascribed this to his Jewish background, telling an interviewer in 2007 that “Growing up Jewish — I lived in every borough but Staten Island — if I walked a few blocks one way or another into another neighborhood, I got beat up. So you learn to pay attention.”
Lumet kept returning to a number of favourite themes, particularly police dramas such as Serpico, Prince of the City and Q & A, although he did dabble with the black musical The Wiz, based on “The Wizard of Oz”. While Woody Allen’s films have been criticised for their almost total absence of blacks and Hispanics, Lumet’s films were filled with them.
In their 1993 book American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and Trends (University of Illinois Press), film scholars David Desser and Lester D. Friedman declared Lumet to be one of the four most significant American-Jewish film-makers (along with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Paul Mazursky), and devoted a substantial essay to his Jewish work, entitled “The Memory of Guilt” – in other words, the Jewish injunction to remember. They termed his films “celluloid Haggadahs”. Lumet’s 1965 Holocaust drama The Pawnbroker was one of the most significant Jewish films of the 1960s, but remains controversial because of its supposed “universalising” of Jewish suffering (Lumet’s father Baruch appears in the film as Mendel, an elderly Jewish man). His film Daniel (1982), based on the Doctorow novel, told the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Close to Eden (also known as The Stranger Among Us, 1992) was a murder mystery set in New York’s Hasidic community. While Running on Empty (1988) had no explicit Jewish themes, the lead character played by Judd Hirsch – an American radical on the run from the authorities for “Weathermen”-type actions – was one of the most nuanced Jewish film characters of that decade. Lumet’s other significant Jewish film was the bittersweet Bye, Bye Braverman (1968), in which a quartet of New York Jewish intellectuals mourn their dead friend.
Although Lumet received four “Best Director” Oscar nominations, he never won and finally obtained a “Lifetime Achievement” Academy Award in 2005. His most recent film – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a crime drama shot when he was aged 82 – was released in 2007 to extensive critical acclaim but limited box office.