Sunday, August 7, 2016

"By Sidney Lumet" Connects the Director's Life and Career

Nancy Buirski, director, "By Sidney Lumet."
Sidney Lumet on location, 1964's "The Pawnbroker."
Nancy Buirski, director of the documentary By Sidney Lumet, says that when watching his television and film catalog, after viewing interview footage of the director, it was clear how Lumet’s passions in life were strongly present in his work.  

Buirski had the huge task of taking those 18 hours of Lumet interviews and mixing the best moments with five decades of his best television and film work. No wonder she decided that talking head tributes from fellow directors, writers, and actors weren’t necessary. She could have found many since Lumet was beloved by actors and writers, much like Mike Nichols. Lumet’s warm personality and thoughtful comments were all she needed to mesh with scenes from his most relevant films. Sadly, Daniel Anker, a director who conducted the Lumet interviews, died of lymphoma before he could finish the project; ironically Lumet also died of the same illness in 2011. Buirski did a fine job of picking up the pieces and seeing the project through.

Lumet, Oscar-nominated 5 times, receives an honorary Academy Award in 2005.
Lumet was a life-long New Yorker. He came from a popular Yiddish acting family and was a child star the onstage, oft-times with his larger-than-life, at times dominating father. So many directors, writers, and actors who made their name in New York City escaped as soon as they hit the big time. Lumet looked at the Big Apple as his personal and artistic landscape, saying he got restless whenever he was travelling or on location too long.

Paul Newman as a washed-up lawyer in "The Verdict."
Katharine Hepburn as in O'Neill's  "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
What made Lumet’s work lasting, not dated, was they presented moral dilemmas without moralizing, had social conscience that was complex, and sought truth that sometimes ended with painful consequences. Lumet often directed, on television and film, works by such playwright greats as Eugene O’ Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Another familiar aspect to Lumet’s films was New York City as a frequent backdrop, especially in the ‘70s: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Prince of the City. Lumet directed two of the best courtroom dramas, 12 Angry Men headed by Henry Fonda, and The Verdict, giving Paul Newman one of his best latter day roles.

"Dog Day Afternoon," with Al Pacino as an agitated bank robber chanting: "Attica, Attica!"

1976's satirical look at modern media, "Network." Peter Finch is the nutty newsman
who urges viewers to shout: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
During his heyday, Lumet was not thought to have a signature style. Lumet wasn’t flashy—by design. Sidney Lumet was a realist. His movies were memorable for their great dialogue, intense acting, and fast-moving storytelling. Lumet chose a visual palette that fit whatever story he was telling. For instance, in Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet allowed the extras to be filmed in whatever clothes they showed up in. He wanted them to look like real people, not like extras straight out of wardrobe. A former actor, Lumet was empathetic and didn’t try to manipulate actors, like his friend/fellow director, Elia Kazan. He wanted natural performances, not stunts. He dealt with the subjects in movies as honestly and humanly as possible, which is why so many Sidney Lumet films still feel fresh. One film actually predicted the tabloid reality of television and the internet today, 1976’s Network, which is as relevant as ever.

Henry Fonda chose Sidney Lumet for "12 Angry Men," the classic courtroom
drama which launched his feature film directing career.
Lumet’s talent for working fast came as one of the most prolific young directors on television during the 1950s. Henry Fonda caught some of his socially relevant dramas on TV and asked him to direct a big screen version of 12 Angry Men, with Fonda standing up against fellow jurors over the fate of a young man from the slum’s murder case. An instant classic, Lumet was off and running, with the director making 44 features and additional TV dramas right up through 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, a heist-gone-wrong drama with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney.

It’s easy to see what attracted doc director Buirski to Lumet. Early in, By Sidney Lumet has him recalling a haunting memory of a gang rape on a train while he was a WW II GI in Calcutta, and feeling helpless and weak to step in. Buirski’s next documentary is The Rape of Recy Taylor, about a young black wife and mother gang-raped by white men in 1940’s American south. Buirski previously directed Loving, about the 1960s interracial couple who fought for the validity of their marriage all the way to the Supreme Court. Sidney Lumet, a white Jewish man, was married many years to Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Buckley.

Watching director Nancy Buirski’s well-chosen moments of Sidney Lumet’s interviews about his life and art, mixed with his classic clips, is an insightful look at a master director.

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