The curtain is drawn on a great director

In February 2008, NYC’s Film Forum held a tribute to director Sidney Lumet, who died today at the age of 86. The celebration of Lumet’s life and career took the form of a two-hour Q&A, interspersed with clips from some of his most memorable films. We were lucky enough to be on hand, and we are pleased to offer, as a tribute to a very talented movie maker, our account of the evening.

Lumet shared in the early part of the discussion that his father, Baruch, was an actor in the Yiddish theatre, and Sidney himself got his start there at a very early age.

Lumet went on to appear in a number of Broadway shows, among them a Max Reinhardt production, before slipping behind the camera as a television director in the 1950s.

So it was fitting that the evening opened with a clip from One Third of a Nation (1939), which boasts Lumet’s only film acting appearance. The then-14-year-old director-to-be starred as the nephew of Sylvia Sidney.

The next clip shown was from the first movie he directed, Twelve Angry Men (1957). Asked if he’d made a specific effort to make the film in a cinematic style, so as to prove to the industry bigwigs that he could direct as well for the large screen as for the small, Lumet admitted with a laugh, “I was too arrogant. It never occurred to me that I might need to convince anyone.”

Asked later about working with Henry Fonda, Lumet said Fonda was constitutionally unable to make a false or dishonest move as an actor. “I don’t think he could’ve done it if I’d asked him to,” Lumet said. “He could only play the truth.”

Lumet said that filming on Twelve Angry Men was completed in 19 days. He said he shot the film in a very particular way. There were three levels of lighting in the film—sunlight through the windows, cloudy skies, as a storm approached outside, and with the overhead lighting in the jury room illuminated once the storm is underway.

Lumet shot the film entirely out of sequence, rotating around the room, getting each shot he needed from each actor under that particular lighting. Once he’d shot all of his sunlit shots, Lumet had the set relit to suggest cloudy conditions and slowly worked his way around the room again, going from character to character, getting every shot he needed.

Finally, he had the set relit once last time, with overhead lighting lit, and made the rounds again.

Lumet said he never used storyboards, as Alfred Hitchcock was famous for doing. Instead, he preferred to rehearse his actors for two weeks, as if they were mounting a play, and when he had all the blocking down, then he considered where to place the camera in each scene.

Regarding The Fugitive Kind, which paired Marlon Brando with Anna Magnani, Lumet said that Magnani, despite her reputation as an earthy, instictive actress, actually came from a show business background, that she had been a song-and-dance performer when she was young—“a hoofer,” Lumet termed her.

As such, she and Brando worked very differently, and he offered just a hint that the two stars might not have gotten along very well. But Lumet refused to gossip, and he was very careful in choosing his words when he spoke of actors he’d worked with.

As an example of his disinclination to use aspects of an actor’s personal life to draw a stronger performance from him or her—as opposed to Elia Kazan, whom Lumet cited as standing ever ready to throw facts from an actor’s private life at him in order to get what he wanted—Lumet told a story of a monologue in The Fugitive Kind that Marlon Brando was struggling with. Take after take, Brando strived to get through the monologue, and each time, he faltered at the same point in the speech.

Lumet said that Brando had told him a personal story the week before that gave Lumet insight into why the actor was repeatedly stumbling at the same point in the monologue, and the director knew that, if he’d only cited that story, it would’ve freed Brando to get through the speech.

But as Lumet put it, “I’m not his analyst. That’s his private life; this was his work.”

At one point, as the evening dragged on, Brando said to Lumet, whom the actor knew did not like to work overtime, “Let’s call it a night. Let me get some sleep, and I know I can do this in the morning.”

“No,” Lumet recalled saying, “You won’t sleep well, with this hanging over you, and the pressure will be even greater in the morning. We’ll stick with it; you’ll get it.”

Eventually, on the 32nd take, Brando nailed the monologue, and all was well.

Lumet told Brando later that he knew could have merely reminded Brando of the incident from his life that he had shared with the director and it would have allowed Brando to complete the monologue, but that he didn’t feel right approaching it that way.

He said Brando was moved to lean over and kiss Lumet. And yet, Lumet is fully aware of the irony inherent in the fact that Brando cited Kazan as his favorite director.

“There’s no right way to do things,” Lumet repeatedly stated. “I just have to do it my way.”

Lumet beamed after a clip from A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). He clearly considered it one of his finest films, and he bristled at the memory of certain critics of the day dubbing it a mere “filming of the stage play.”

“I shot each character in the film from a different level, shot each with different lighting,” Lumet said emphatically.

Lumet lavishly praised Katharine Hepburn‘s performance in the film, stating for the first of several times on the evening that when an actor is that locked into a role, it makes the director’s job easy. The director just has to follow the lead of the actor, he said, and go with the flow.

Lumet went on to cite Cary Grant as another actor who doesn’t get enough credit because he made it look so easy.

Lumet clearly felt that much of the credit for the success of Serpico (1973) should go to Al Pacino. It was another instance in which Lumet clearly marveled at an actor’s ability to be so “locked in” to a role. He spoke often throughout the evening of the benefits of an actor coming in “full,” with all his work done and the character a part of his very being. When that happens, Lumet said, an actor can climb the walls and the audience is right there with him. The most theatrical, over-the-top gestures can work, he said, when an actor is fully in the role.

He also said he’d much rather have to rein in a very demonstrative actor—Pacino, for example, or Rod Steiger, who starred in Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964)—than to have to extract a more energetic and demonstrative performance from an inhibited actor.

Lumet said that he very consciously aimed for a verité look for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), a picture with which he wanted to show, he said, that “freaks and outsiders are not so different from the rest of us. We have more in common with them than we allow ourselves to admit.”

Dog Day Afternoon was shot almost entirely in natural light, Lumet said. In scenes inside the bank, if more light was needed, they just added more florescents. He likes it, he said, when an audience feels as if they’re right there, and that’s why he’s very enthusiastic about shooting pictures in hi-def video, as he’d done with his previous two movies.

“Hi-def allows you to capture exactly what you see,” said Lumet. “With film, you almost never get what you’re seeing.”

Lumet said Pacino was totally locked into his character, so much so that Lumet allowed him to ad lib extensively.

Lumet said that, if ever the success of a film could be credited to a single individual, it was Network (1976), which, in his estimation, was entirely a product of Paddy Chayevsky‘s brilliant script. He acknowleged that some say the picture has proven to be prophetic, but that he never considered it a satire. Having worked in television, he felt in 1976—and still felt in 2008—that it was an accurate portrayal of the industry.

Lumet agreed with one comment that, as great as Peter Finch is in the picture, William Holden is the heart of the film. “There was a humanity to Holden’s performance,” Lumet said, “that is far too often missing from films today.”

Lumet said his favorite thing about Prince of the City (1981) was that he got to meet Akira Kurosawa because of it. The film features a memorable, lengthy on-foot chase scene in the rain shot on location on the streets of New York, and the great Japanese filmmaker, who knew something about rainy scenes in movies, was moved to pull Lumet aside at a dinner party and ask him how he had achieve that impressive deluge.

Lumet spoke very highly of Paul Newman, who starred in the director’s 1982 feature, The Verdict. “What a shame it is,” Lumet said after viewing a clip of featuring Newman, who was still alive at the time, “that Paul has announced he’ll no longer act in movies. That’s a real loss.”

Newman’s alcoholic attorney, Lumet said, was a character who found solace and comfort only in the past, who had nothing in the present to make life worth living, so he set out to make the film using only autumnal tones. “There’s only one scene in the whole movie that has blue in it,” Lumet said, “and that was the sky, and I couldn’t hide it.”

Asked why he thought that so many of his films dealt in one way or other with the justice system, Lumet said growing up in a poor immigrant family had given him an interest in how the system worked. “All Jews have a certain interest in the workings of justice,” Lumet added.

Lumet told a story of being a kid and pitching pennies with his pals. A cop would come around and break up the game, he said, but the cop would keep the pennies. This was in an era when a pack of cigarettes cost twenty cents, he said—a penny a cigarette. So those eight pennies, which bought about a half a pack of cigarettes, were, to them, a substantial amount.

Asked about the melodramatic aspects of his most recent picture, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2008), Lumet said the two brothers who plan the robbery were originally written as friends, but he felt the tension was heightened if they were brothers.

And Lumet had no use for those who would mock melodrama as somehow a lesser form.

“Imagine it’s a warm spring day in Greece,” Lumet said. “You pack a lunch and you join your friends at the theatre. It’s a lovely setting, and you’re enjoying a good play. After an hour and a half or so, the lead character has plucked his eyes out, there’s blood streaming down his face, and he’s holding two dead children in his arms that he fathered with his own mother.

“I’d say that’s pretty melodramatic, but it works.”

At 83, Lumet couldn’t have been sharper, more alert, or more energetic. He seemed far more like a man of 60 than a man in his 80s, and he harbored no thoughts of retirement. He was at work on his next project at the time, and hoped to start shooting in April of that year. We don’t know if he ever got that project completed, but we certainly hope so. Lumet was an artist who had plenty to say, and the advance of age did nothing to diminish his creative passion. The picture business—and the lives of those of us who love movies—are diminished by his passing.

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