Our “feature” last night was a PBS American Masters on film director Sidney Lumet, who started out as a child actor in New York in the 1930’s (he was in the original stage cast of Dead End and got a contract as a child star from MGM, though they never did anything with him and according to his own account he was just a cat’s-paw they used to get their male child star Freddie Bartholomew to sign a new contract at a reasonable rate) and was inspired by the Yiddish theatre in general (he says he read Shakespeare in Yiddish before he ever read him in English) and his dad, actor Baruch Lumet, in particular. Sidney says his dad was a great actor — a judgment I’ll have to take on faith since my only experience of Baruch Lumet as an actor was in the unspeakably awful 1958 film The Killer Shrews, and when I saw that I marveled at how someone involved with a terrible movie like The Killer Shrews could have sired someone involved with a great movie like Network. Lumet’s earliest filmed appearance — at least the earliest included on this show — was in a 1939 independent production filmed in New York called One-Third of a Nation in which he played a street kid growing up desperately poor; though the clips indicated that it might suffer from Popular Front schlockiness, it would be a movie well worth seeing “complete,” especially since the director was the always interesting Dudley Murphy of St. Louis Blues and The Emperor Jones. (Bessie Smith and Sidney Lumet: one degree of separation!) Anyway, Lumet served in World War II (in the interview that forms the spine of this film, shot in 2008 — three years before Lumet’s death and a year after the release of his last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — he ridicules the famous actors who signed on for Special Services and spent the entire war entertaining and making public appearances in New York City) and tells a story that’s basically his Rosebud moment: on a train in an occupied country he saw a fellow servicemember pull a teenage girl off the platform and onto the train, then into his compartment — and he later realized that the girl was a prostitute and she was being paid to undergo what was essentially a gang rape as all servicemembers on the train took turns with her. Lumet was offered his shot and quoted a price for it, and he declined but never reported the incident to anyone — and it seems as if his entire subsequent career was governed by that moral failure. In film after film he sets up similar situations in which a central character is torn between moral convenience and integrity, and he seems to have sought absolution for his own sins by creating stories in which the leading characters respond with more morality and integrity than he’d been able to show himself.
After World War II Lumet found work directing live television in New York; previously he’d studied acting at the Actors’ Studio but been fired by them because he insisted that the realistic style of acting they taught was not appropriate for all scripts, so he founded his own competing operation called the Actors’ Workshop. Among his innovations at the Actors’ Workshop was to have the actors direct each other in their scenes. Lumet used that experience to get a job directing at CBS, including working on the show You Are There, which dramatized such historical events as the trial of Socrates and the Salem witch trials as if TV crews had been around then to film them and Walter Cronkite had been available to narrate them. He made his feature-film directing debut with the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men, in which Henry Fonda plays a juror who slowly convinces the other 11 to acquit a defendant they’d originally voted to convict (and in the film’s climax, the last holdout for conviction, played by Ed Begley, is revealed to be a racist convinced that the defendant must be guilty because he’s Puerto Rican and “you know what they’re like”). It was based on a TV play from the Studio One series, Twelve Angry Men (the TV title spelled out the word “Twelve” while the film version used the numeral) written by Reginald Rose and directed by Franklin Schaffner, with Robert Cummings in the role played by Fonda in the film. Lumet’s recollection is that Fonda was producing the film as well as starring in it, and hired Lumet as director based on a couple of scenes he’d seen Lumet direct when he’d visited the Actors’ Workshop. Fonda, in his autobiography, said he was basically tricked into the role of producer — he thought he was just being offered the lead role in a movie but was told he would also have to be named as producer to get the film greenlighted — and he made it seem like he’d had nothing to do with picking the director.
Be that as it may, 12 Angry Men created a sensation — even though it was a moneymaker but not a blockbuster hit (and since it all took place in one jury room it can’t have been an expensive film to make). Not surprisingly, the By Sidney Lumet documentary focused mostly on his films of social conscience and serious dramatic weight — from 12 Angry Men to Long Day’s Journey Into Night (an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play based on his own father, actor James O’Neill, who coasted for years on his title role in The Count of Monte Cristo), The Pawnbroker (about a Jewish pawnbroker in New York in the 1960’s haunted by memories of surviving Auschwitz, but losing his entire family there, two decades earlier), Fail-Safe (a movie with virtually the same plot as Dr. Strangelove but which told the story seriously and was a flop because people had already seen the same story just months earlier), The Hill, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network (my choice for Lumet’s finest film — oddly he said in the interview that he did not have final cut on Network, but he doesn’t say whether the version that got released is significantly different from what it would have been if he had — anyway Network is as much a Schreiber as an auteur movie, the Schreiber being Paddy Chayevsky, who like Lumet had worked in TV in the 1950’s and saw it as having descended from the idealism of its early days to the lowest-common-denominator corporate-run crap it’s given us since), Prince of the City, The Verdict (the 1982 film with Paul Newman), Daniel (his adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel The Book of Daniel, loosely based on the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case — in the 1970’s I met Robert Meeropol, younger son of the real Rosenbergs, and he was bitter that his character was sex-changed into a woman named Susan in the Doctorow novel and the Lumet film; “I’m the Boy Named Sue!” he grimly joked), and Running on Empty. Lumet’s movies were often shot on location (many of his most characteristic stories are set in — and shot in — New York City, his home town) and reflect a deliberately gritty realism even as they’re also often rather didactic moral tales. For all his stated love of morally ambiguous characters, he really didn’t create that many.
Another odd part of Lumet’s oeuvre is that, like William Wyler, he was quite proud of not having a distinctive auteur style; he liked to direct a wide variety of subjects (his second film was a remake of Katharine Hepburn’s first Oscar-winner, Morning Glory, retitled Stage Struck, with Susan Strasberg pathetically inadequate in Hepburn’s role and Henry Fonda talented but miscast in Adolphe Menjou’s; his third, That Kind of Woman, was a comic vehicle for Sophia Loren; and in the middle of his run of socially conscious films in the 1970’s he also took on Agatha Christie’s all-star thriller Murder on the Orient Express and the musical The Wiz, of which I remember saying when Diana Ross was announced for the lead, “Not content to trash the legacy of Billie Holiday, she’s going to trash the legacy of Judy Garland as well”) and avoid the trappings of a personal style. (One critic writing against the auteur theory — the idea that the director is the true creator of a film the way an artist is of a painting or a writer is of a novel — said that an auteur was a director who made the same movie over and over.) Lumet’s interview, spiced with film clips by director and writer Nancy Buirski, was fascinating and made me want to see some of the films depicted either over again or for the first time, and at the same time it was an interesting story about what a career at the top level of motion pictures is really like even though Lumet didn’t really get into much detail about the deal-making that some people have cynically called Hollywood’s true art form. Like Alfred Hitchcock, he sustained a quite long and active career (Hitchcock made 53 films in 51 years; Lumet made 44 in 50), and also like Hitchcock, Lumet never won an Academy Award for Best Director (and, unlike Hitchcock, he never directed an Academy Award Best Picture winner either). When Network lost for Best Picture to Rocky, Lumet was philosophical: “There was no trace of an accent. It’s embarrassing that Rocky beat us out. [Writer Paddy] Chayefsky was so prescient. Everyone was saying we were going to take it all. And on the flight out to L.A., he said, ‘Rocky’s going to take Best Picture.’ And I said, ‘No, no, it’s a dopey little movie.’ And he said, ‘It’s just the sort of sentimental crap they love out there.’ And he was right.”