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SIDNEY LUMET, 1924 - 2011

'Actor's director' avoided Hollywood

Sidney Lumet, a four-time Oscar nominee, was known for guiding strong performances in films such as '12 Angry Men,' 'Network' and 'Dog Day Afternoon.' He directed more than 40 films in his long career, many of them in his hometown of New York.

April 10, 2011|Dennis McLellan

Sidney Lumet, the prolific four-time Oscar-nominated director known for guiding strong performances in classic films such as "12 Angry Men," "Dog Day Afternoon and "Network," died Saturday. He was 86.

Lumet, whose film career spanned more than 50 years, died of lymphoma at his home in New York, his family said.

Once described in Variety as "the quintessential New York filmmaker," Lumet shot a large number of his films in his hometown, including "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico" and many others.

As former Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin once wrote, Lumet avoided Hollywood "with a fervor that would do credit to Woody Allen."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, April 11, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Sidney Lumet obituary: In some copies of the April 10 Section A, a headline accompanying the obituary of director Sidney Lumet said the year of his birth was 1925. Lumet was born in 1924.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 17, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Sidney Lumet: In some copies of the April 10 Section A, a headline accompanying the obituary of director Sidney Lumet said the year of his birth was 1925. Lumet was born in 1924.

"Hollywood is a company town," Lumet told The Times in 1968. "There is no real world there outside of filming. I don't feel organic life there, and I need that around me when I work."

A onetime child actor on Broadway and radio in the 1930s, Lumet was a director for CBS in New York during the golden age of live television dramas in the '50s when he made his auspicious feature-film directorial debut with "12 Angry Men."

The Reginald Rose-scripted 1957 legal drama set in a Manhattan jury room with Henry Fonda leading an ensemble cast received three Academy Award nominations, including best picture and director.

Lumet went on to garner three other Oscar nominations for directing: for the 1975 Brooklyn bank-heist film "Dog Day Afternoon," the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky-written television satire "Network" and the 1982 legal drama "The Verdict."

He also received an Oscar nomination for his and Jay Presson Allen's adapted screenplay for "Prince of the City," a 1981 police corruption drama directed by Lumet.

Known as an actor's director, Lumet guided numerous Academy Award-nominated performances, including those of Oscar winners Ingrid Bergman (for "Murder on the Orient Express") and Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight (all for "Network").

When Lumet received an honorary Oscar in 2005, presenter Al Pacino, who had received best actor Academy Award nominations for his work in "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon," said the director was not being honored for his longevity but for the quality of his work.

"A Sidney Lumet movie," Pacino said, "has a signature, a stamp of individuality, a point of view, a feeling.... It's real, kinetic energy. You were there as the story was being told.... I'm forever grateful, along with all the other actors and writers who have benefited from Sidney's genius."

During his long movie career, Lumet directed more than 40 films, including "The Fugitive Kind," "A View From the Bridge," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Fail-Safe," "The Hill," "The Group," "The Anderson Tapes," "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

He had his share of flops, including "The Wiz," his 1978 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical.

"His career is a little bit inconsistent, but that's because he's been at it for so long, and when you're a working director like Sidney Lumet, you're going to have your outstanding successes and you're going to have films that are not so hot," Rick Jewell, a professor of film history at USC, told The Times in 2008.

"He was not like a Stanley Kubrick, who, once established, would do a film every five or seven years," said Jewell. "Lumet has been turning them out one after another since the '50s. To me, he's kind of a throwback to the old days when some directors were making two or three films a year. He hasn't had that kind of productivity, but still his output is extraordinary."

As a director, Lumet was drawn to intense, dramatic kinds of narratives.

Calling Lumet "one of the last of the great movie moralists," New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote in 2005 that he was a "leading purveyor of the social-issue movie (police corruption, the injustice of the justice system)." He was, she wrote, a filmmaker whose defining screen image "is that of a man -- and, almost inevitably, it is a man -- struggling with his conscience and against the world."

"He just had an incredible eye for the truth," Paul Newman, who received a best actor Oscar nomination for his role as an alcoholic lawyer who finds redemption in "The Verdict," once said.

Lumet also had a reputation for being a quick and efficient filmmaker, one who brought his movies in ahead of schedule and under budget.

With his background in theater and live television, he rehearsed his actors for two or three weeks before he began filming. He then typically shot only a few takes and "cut in the camera": He knew how each scene would be edited beforehand and shot only what needed to be shot.

As a filmmaker, Lumet believed that the best technique does not call attention to itself.

"I hate any style if you can spot it," he told the New York Times in 2007, noting that in most of his movies, "I don't think there's a visual style, because I try very hard to find the visual style that [particular] story needs."

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