Film maker Sidney Lumet, dies at 86


Sidney Lumet 1924-2011

  Sidney Lumet, the cinematic mind that brought to life such motion picture classics as Twelve Angry Men, Serpico , Dog Day Afternoon , Network, and many others; died Friday night at the age of 86. Reports indicate that lymphoma was the cause of death. 

    Lumet’s career behind the scenes as a director, producer, and writer would later span half a century, but all of his tenure in show business was not limited to work behind the scenes. Lumet was born in 1924 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, into a show business family of actors. During his childhood he acted on stage, screen, and  radio. In the early 50s, Lumet started laying the foundation for a career behind the scenes, honing his directorial craft in the medium of television then in its infancy. He directed episodes of early tv shows such as: the CBS television workshop, Danger, You are There, and Frontier among others. 

       In 1957, the thirty-three year old Lumet made his  feature film directorial debut with an adaption of the Reginald Rose play Twelve Angry Men. The film, starring (and produced by) Henry Fonda centered around twelve jurors sequestered into a backroom to arrive at the verdict in a murder trail. A consensus that the defendant is guilty emerges among eleven of the men, but the doubts of the twelfth (played by Fonda) keeps them from emerging with a clear and unanimous verdict. The twelfth juror stands alone in his view that the defendant is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and in a titanic debate of analysis of the facts and outburst of emotion, and rivalry on display he gradually peels away at the consensus, until all twelve end up emerging with a verdict of not guilty.

     His first film a wildly acclaimed hit, Lumet would go on in the early sixties to make several other successful pictures including The Fugitive Kind (1960) starring Marlon Brando and the story of a computer malfunction that could likely cause the first salvo in nuclear war in the Cold War classic thriller Fail Safe (1964). A string of less notable films followed, but in 1973 Lumet would once again win widespread praise for his style of gritty realism and social injustice with Serpico; staring an up and coming Al Pacino as Frank Serpico a New York City cop who fights to expose corruption at every corner and the indifference as well as resistance he meets at every corner.  Serpico won rave reviews and was a blockbuster hit that spawned a tv movie sequel Serpico: the Deadly Game  as well as a short-lived tv series.  The film also earned two oscar nominations (though it failed to win any).

      Audiences seemed to  like the Pacino- Lumet team and they reunited in 1975 for another true story set in New York City with Dog Day Afternoon, about a bank robbery gone horribly wrong  and soon devolves into a hostage situation. Dog Day Afternoon went on to garner several Academy Award nominations (including one for best picture) and went on to win one for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1976. That same year, Lumet would offer a darkly comic and disturbing look into the world of television rating with Network, a film portrays a darkly comical, disturbing, (and some would say prescient such as in regards to reality tv and angry unhinged cable news hosts of the Glenn Beck variety)   look into the world of television ratings.

    In the decades to follow Lumet would have many other hits such as The Whiz (1978) a musical staring Diana Ross and a young Michael Jackson. In 1981 he returned to familiar territory with Prince of the City, about a New York City narcotics officer who exposes the corruption of his partner and the toil it strikes on him.

   Other Lumet films included: The Verdict (1982), Death Trap (1982),  Daniel (1983),  Power (1986),  Running on Empty  (1988), and a slew of others.

        Lumet kept making films almost to the end. His final film was the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke vehicle Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead  (2007).

      Lumet was married four times, including once to heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. He is survived according to obituaries, by his wife Mary Gimbell (whom he had been with since 1980), two daughters, two stepchildren, nine Grandchildren, and one Great-Grandchild.  

  Lumet’s movies brought out some of the best in modern film that today’s directors could take a lesson from. Coming from a family of actor’s himself it is said that Lumet knew well the challenges and the desires of actors. Though he worked with some of the brightest and most famous stars of Hollywood such as: Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, and Jon Castle just to name a few; his movies were never about the stars. Never did he depend together glossy unnecessary close-ups or big name stars or employ camera tricks to dominate his films. With Lumet it seemed (based on his work) to be the richness and complexity of his characters and their response to the often corrupt and challenging world around them. His films weren’t eye candy dominated by special effects action scenes or escapism that shunned the grit of the real world, whether he embraced it. Lifting up a mirror to our collective reality and the institutions that make it and those who are brave enough to confront them when injustices are perpetrated by those institutions whether they be police departments, network television, or a jury of eleven men persuaded by a twelfth to see  the difference between guilt and innocence.

    Sidney Lumet may be dead, but the realism of his films and the brave and fertile characters he helped bring life into will never perish; forever to live in both celluloid and our own minds.


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