Date published: July 1, 2011
Considered one of the most gifted and socially conscious film directors of his generation, Sidney Lumet was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924. His father, Baruch Lumet, was a theater producer/ director and his mother, Eugenia Wermus, was a dancer. Both had emigrated to the United States and were very active in the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York in the 1920s and '30s. Sidney studied acting at the Professional Children's School in New York City and appeared in numerous Broadway plays and on radio programs as a child, making his feature film debut in 1939. He studied dramatic literature at Columbia University for a year but dropped out to enlist in the Army, serving as a radar mechanic in India and Burma during World War II.
After his military service Lumet went behind the camera, and throughout the 1950s, often considered the golden era of television, he directed a slew of TV shows while also working in theater. In 1957 he directed his first feature film, 12 Angry Men, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. He would go on to make over fifty movies, including the Oscar-nominated films Dog Day Afternoon (1 975), Network (1 976), and The Verdict 0982).
In a recent tribute to Lumet titled, "Urban Realist With a Humanist Streak," New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote: "the didactic, moralizing streak that runs through much of Mr. Lumet's work has provided some critics with a convenient, readymade case against him. We are supposed to be too sophisticated to require stories that place their themes in the foreground. And also, perhaps, too jaded to be stirred by a dramatic universe built around increasingly battered beliefs in progress, solidarity, and fair play." Considering the list of Lumet's films (which also include A Long Day's Journey into Night, Serpico, Prince of the City, Murder on the Orient Express, and Running on Empty) it can be stated clearly that his talent for entertainment, in every sense of the word, proves those critics wrong.
Film historians Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin have written that beneath the social tensions in Lumet's films lies the "conviction that love and reason will eventually prevail in human affairs," and that "law and justice will eventually be served - or not." But always there is a very humanistic streak of hope, the possibility for improving our affairs with each other.
Lumet was also known as an energetic, expethent, and collaborative filmmaker with a great affection for New York City, which provided the backdrop for a majority of his films.
In her 2005 collection of interviews, editor Joanna E. Rapf writes that the legendary director was "fascinated by the human cost involved in following passions and commitments, and the cost those passions and commitments inflict on others." She also notes his affinity for the "little guy fighting against the system."These characters included women, notably the character played by Anne Bancroft in the 1984 comedy-drama Garbo Talks. Rapf describes her as "a committed activist for all kinds of causes, who stands up for the rights of the oppressed, who is lively, outspoken, courageous, who refuses to conform for the sake of convenience, and whose understanding of life allows her to die with dignity."
When asked in the New York Times magazine how he'd choose to die, Lumet responded: "I don't think about it. I'm not religious. I do know that I don't want to take up any space. Burn me up and scatter my ashes over Katz's Delicatessen."
Lumet died from lymphoma at the age of eightysix on April 9,201 1, in his home in New York City.