April 10, 2011

USA: Sidney Lumet, Director of Classics, Focused on Conscience

NEW YORK / The New York Times / Movies / April 10, 2011


Sidney Lumet, a director who preferred the streets of New York to the back lots of Hollywood and whose stories of conscience — “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict,” “Network” — became modern American film classics, died Saturday morning at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

His stepdaughter, Leslie Gimbel, said the cause was lymphoma.

“While the goal of all movies is to entertain,” Mr. Lumet once wrote, “the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.”

Sidney Lumet at 2007 screening of 'Before The Devil Knows You're Dead' in France. Luc Skeudener/European Pressphoto Agency

Social issues set his own mental juices flowing, and his best films not only probed the consequences of prejudice, corruption and betrayal, but also celebrated individual acts of courage.

In his first film, “12 Angry Men” (1957), he took his cameras into a jury room where the pressure mounted as one tenacious and courageous juror, played by Henry Fonda, slowly convinced the others that the defendant on trial for murder was, in fact, innocent. (Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor of the United States Supreme Court said the film had an important influence on her law career.)

Almost two decades later, Mr. Lumet’s moral sense remained acute when he ventured into satire with “Network” (1976), perhaps his most acclaimed film. Based on Paddy Chayefsky’s biting script, the film portrays a television anchorman who briefly resuscitates his fading career by launching on-air tirades against what he perceives as the hypocrisies of American society.

The film starred William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch as the commentator turned attack dog whose proclamation to the world at large — “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” — became part of the American vernacular.

Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet's Serpico

“Network” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best film and best director, and won four: best actor (Mr. Finch), best actress (Ms. Dunaway), best original screenplay (Mr. Chayefsky) and best supporting actress (Beatrice Straight).

Honorary Oscar

Yet for all the critical success of his films and despite the more than 40 Academy Award nominations they drew, Mr. Lumet (pronounced loo-MET) never won an Oscar for directing, though he was nominated four times. (The other nominations were for “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Verdict.”)

Only in 2005 did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences present him with an honorary Academy Award. Manohla Dargis, writing in The New York Times, called it a “consolation prize for a lifetime of neglect.”

In 2007, in an interview that was videotaped to accompany this obituary online, Mr. Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) was asked how it felt to receive an Academy Award at long last.

He replied, “I wanted one, damn it, and I felt I deserved one.”

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