When Steven Spielberg mentioned on last night’s Oscar show a few great movies that never won the Academy Award, I got to thinking about Sidney Lumet–especially because his one time mother in law Lena Horne was honored in a tribute during the show. Lumet received an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 2005.
At 86, he is now facing some health issues; I couldn’t help but think of his towering contribution to the film canon when Spielberg was talking. As recently as four years ago, Lumet made a shocking masterpiece called “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” The film would have been an Oscar contender except for the fact that its distributor had no money and failed to follow through at all. It was heartbreaking. Under Lumet’s guidance, “Devil” actors Philip Seymour Hofffman, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei gave Oscar calibre performances. But the whole thing remains a hidden classic.
Lumet’s better known gems are just that: “Serpico,” “Q&A,” “Prince of the City,” and “Night in Manhattan” are the blueprints for any director who wants to make a police procedural with New York verisimilitude. “Daniel,” “Running on Empty,” and “Dog Day Afternoon” have the feel of cultural landmarks. “Fail Safe” was the first and still the scariest of all doomsday movies, with Henry Fonda’s voice still ringing in your ears long after the film is over. It was Lumet who found Michael Jackson’s film presence in “The Wiz” and brought it to life for the first time.
And then there are two films I think of together: “Network” and “12 Angry Men.” In his excellent speech last night, Aaron Sorkin referenced Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for “Network.” Lumet turned Howard Beale and “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” into transcenders of the gestalt. And think of it: “Network,” with all its cynicism and anger, came just as Richard Nixon was forced from office. Howard Beale, sweating in his trench coat, spoke for everyone.
And did I mention that Lumet is a great guy, one of the most beloved New York figures, and father of Jenny, much awarded screenrwiter of “Rachel Getting Married”? She told me the other night that she and director Jonathan Demme were working on a new film, and that Sidney had helped fix a problem in the second act of the script.
This is a ‘get well’ card, Sidney, and know that film lovers would be bereft without your amazing work.