I was very excited to hear the news that this year Sidney Lumet will receive an honorary Oscar “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of the motion picture.”
The first film he directed was 12 Angry Men. He had worked for years in the heyday of live television in the 1950s, creating relationships with people he works with (some of them) to this day. Everyone came from the theatre. The biggest TV series was Playhouse 90. Arthur Penn came from Playhouse 90. Paddy Chayefsky came and worked for Playhouse 90. Exciting times. Sidney Lumet, a wunderkind-kid in his 20s, got his start there.
Through that, he got an opportunity to direct 12 Angry Men. With Henry Fonda. Lee J. Cobb. Lumet was 33 years old.
Since then, he has never stopped, bringing us The Fugitive Kind, starring Brando and the astonishing Anna Magnani, Long Day’s Journey Into Night., The Pawnbroker. (an incredible acting job from Rod Steiger), Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (the movie that made me want to be an actor when I was 12), Network, The Verdict. (some of Newman’s best and subtlest work), The Morning After,Running on Empty (which is probably in my Top 5 Favorite Movies).
Lumet is notorious for bringing in films UNDER budget and AHEAD of schedule. He shoots like a bat out of hell, sometimes doing 3 or 4 locations a day. He believes in filming movies FAST. Often he cuts in the camera. He has had “final cut” from very early in his career – something almost unheard of for a young man. Many of the films he makes are outside the studio system. He pleases himself. Many studios didn’t want to touch movies like Dog Day Afternoon, or Network. Lumet would find the financing on his own and go ahead and make the movies anyway.
Actors who work with Lumet rack up the Oscars, you will notice.
He brings out the best in everybody.
He is 80 years old, and is currently filming something new. Of course.
Lumet hates the whole “auteur” thing, too. He is a true collaborator. He is most definitely the “boss” of his pictures, and he gets the final say, but he consistently surrounds himself with people who will bring out the best in him. He loves the collaborative thing, coming from the theatre.
People who work with Lumet typically take big pay cuts. They don’t care. They work for scale. It doesn’t matter. Nick Nolte, when he got the role in Q & A agreed to do it for practically nothing.
Sidney Lumet has written one of the best books on film-making that I am aware of: Excerpt from Making Movies:. It’s invaluable. It’s invaluable for anyone involved in the film-making process – actors, editors, directors, cameramen … He covers it all.
It’s interesting to hear someone talk about how they got to a final result. And also how nothing is accidental in movie-making. You may not even notice half of the things the director does (lighting choices, camera moves) – but it’s all there to add (hopefully) to the story.