Hollywood lost another legend over the weekend, as news of Sidney Lumet‘s passing spread across the internet. He passed away April 9 from Lymphoma. He was 86.
Surprisingly, in spite of his long and lustrous career, Lumet never won an Oscar. He was nominated five times, yet the Academy never gave him the final nod. In fact, his films were nominated for more than 50 Oscars in total. Finally, in 2005, the Academy gave him an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement.
Lumet’s first success came in 1957, with the classic court drama 12 Angry Men. It was nominated for three Oscars, and Henry Fonda won a BAFTA for his turn as the lone sane juror in a murder trial. It initially suffered at the box office, but is now considered one of the best films ever made; and certainly the best courtroom drama.
The movie poster exclaims “It explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite!”, and the claustrophobic setting, and intense debates certainly feel explosive. It’s ranked #7 on IMDb’s Top 250 list, and is a must-watch for any fan of film.
Lumet then spent some time working on TV series’ and TV movies, but in 1965 he released the dramatic war film The Hill, starring Sean Connery. Connery is sent to a WWII British disciplinary camp in the Libyan desert where detainees are ruthlessly persecuted. The film won a BAFTA for it’s cinematography, but probably deserved more accolades. Connery is great, and Harry Andrews is remarkable as RSM Wilson – a likeable, but misguided soldier.
Lumet followed up with several somewhat forgettable films, including a couple with Sean Connery again (The Anderson Tapes, The Offense). However, in 1973, Lumet crafted another masterpiece with Al Pacino in Serpico. The intense crime biography earned Pacino his second Oscar nomination (the first being the year before with The Godfather), and cemented both Pacino and Lumet as forces within Hollywood. In fact, Pacino’s turn as the titular character is ranked #40 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains list.
The next three years must have been quite a ride for Lumet. In order, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon and Network were all released. They won a total of six Oscars, and a total of 16 other Academy Award nominations.
Let’s begin with Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. Again Sean Connery returns to work with Lumet, but this time as part of an incredible ensemble cast that included Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset and Lauren Bacall. Despite his obvious talent as a film director, Lumet’s take on Agatha Christie’s classic novel nearly didn’t happen.
Previous efforts to turn the book into a movie had failed miserably, and Christie was reluctant to sell the rights again. However, with the extra convincing (from Lord Louis Mountbatten, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, no less) Christie sold the rights, and Lumet’s spin on the tale turned out to be her favorite. The film also earned Bergman the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, her third.
Next came Dog Day Afternoon, and another pairing with Al Pacino. The film was release in 1975, but it based on events that occurred three years earlier. Anti-Vietnam sentiment was still high, the prison riots at Attica were fresh in people’s minds, and Lumet wove all of this anti-establishment into the film. It beautifully captures the overall early-70s sentiment amongst Americans: that of anger, frustration and lack of hope.
Lumet does a brilliant job with the pacing and story and Pacino is brilliant as the frustrated bank robber, and the film garnered six Oscar nominations (winning one) and seven Golden Globe nominations. It ranks #181 on IMDb’s Top 250 list, and is widely praised and well-received.
In 1976, Lumet finished his three year streak with the powerful film Network. Still relevant in today’s society, Lumet attacked the abuses of television and the “news” that is fed to society. Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Peter Finch as the indomitable Howard Beale.
This was a counter-establishment movie about a counter-establishment news anchor and the TV show that is crafted around his antics. With one simple phrase, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, Finch’s character galvanizes a nation, and Lumet’s film resonates with an American audience tired of the ills of the 1970s.
Paddy Chayefsky’s is utterly brilliant, and Network ended up winning four Oscars, with another six nominations. (Note: Network and A Streetcar Named Desire are the only two films to even win three of the four acting Oscars).
In 1981 Lumet was nominated for another Oscar for his co-written screenplay (with Jay Presson Allen) Prince of the City. Yet another NYC police film, Lumet made it shine by drawing out some impressive performances from stars Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach and Richard Foronjy.
Although it struggled at the box office, Prince of the City (and The Verdict in ’82) meant Lumet had directed an Oscar-nominated (or Oscar-winning film) in four consecutive decades. Stanley Kubrick didn’t match that. Nor did Hitchcock. James Cameron hasn’t, yet.
Those who have? They don’t even require first names. Spielberg. Scorcese. Coppola. Bergman. Hawks. Kurosawa.
The longevity and dedication to a craft that is required to make this list is astounding. Lumet continued to direct into his 80s, with Before The Devil Knows Your Dead coming in 2007. This was a brilliant movie that was terribly underrated, and probably deserved more attention than it received. Impressive for an 82-year old.
Spielberg. Scorcese. Coppola. Bergman. Hawks. Kurosawa. Lumet. Hollywood truly lost a legend this past weekend. May he rest in peace.