Moviecrazed
  Web www.moviecrazed.com   

 



SIDNEY LUMET--THE LITTLE KID ACTOR WHO GREW UP TO BE A BIG-TIME DIRECTOR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I interviewed Sidney Lumet in 1974 for this New York Times article, he had literally lost track of the number of movies he had directed. And, until his death on 4/9/11 in Manhattan, the passionate filmmaker continued to flourish in the profession he loved most, crafting such unforgettable dramas as "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Prince of the City," "The Verdict" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." --Guy Flatley

"Serpico," the tough but true story of a stubborn cop who refuses to go on the take, is exploding like gangbusters. And nobody seems more stunned than "Serpico’s" sizzling box-office performance than Sidney Lumet, the short, mild-mannered man who directed the movie and stands to make a gigantic killing from his percentage of the profits.

"I’m thrilled," he says, a smile of joyful shock lighting his face. Wearing a blue denim shirt and un-chic jeans and savoring a smooth but inexpensive Sicilian wine, Lumet looks almost elfin amid the towering bookshelves of his Eastside townhouse library. "I’m not one to be cool about a hit, having had so many flops. I know the marketplace, and I know you need hits to survive in it."

It’s true, Lumet has turned out a lamentable share of box-office lemons, from the trashy trivial ("That Kind of Woman," with puppy-like Tab Hunter mooning over loose but lovable Sophia Loren) to the brilliantly abrasive ("The Offence," with psychopathic cop Sean Connery savagely murdering child-molester Ian Bannen).

On the other hand, Lumet has hardly gone hitless. Beginning in 1957 with his lavishly lauded first film, "Twelve Angry Men," and running through "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," "The Pawnbroker," "The Group " and "The Anderson Tapes," the 49-year-old, Brooklyn-bred director has batted out enough winners - as well as a few prestigious losers like "The Fugitive Kind," "A View From the Bridge," "The Hill," and "The Seagull" – to assure his survival in the marketplace.

Still, "Serpico," with its "Godfather"-like grip on both the critics and the cash customers, is clearly something new under the sun for Lumet. Yet there is something old about "Serpico," too – that same old moral fervor, that same cry of social protest that sounds not too far below the surface of every Lumet venture. "Don’t look now," he says, smiling, "but ‘Serpico’ is a message picture."

And since the crusading Frank Serpico – played with awesome intensity by Al Pacino – gets shot in the face during a drug-bust presumably set up by his crooked buddies in blue, one could easily conclude that the message of this picture is a good policeman nowadays is hard to find, and to keep in one piece.

"I wasn’t interested in making an anti-cop movie," Lumet insists. "The thing I wanted to show was that the acceptance of corruption as a way of life is part and parcel of the American system. It’s this whole attitude we have of ‘What can we do? We can’t fight city hall’ that’s at the root of our problems. The police department is only one example, but if it’s true of police, and of the courts, then we are in profound trouble. To whom are we to turn for protection?

"It seems to me that unless I’ve done something dishonest – and I haven’t – you’ve got to admit the basic thrust of the movie is true. I felt a sense of obligation to Frank Serpico. All your life, you use phrases like ‘It’s killing me’ and ‘I thought I’d die’ and, suddenly, you’re sitting there with a man who carries two guns with him for protection, and those phrases become literal, and they demand something of you. I was determined to show the truth of Frank, not to dramatize, not to exploit, not to milk. Just to show what the man did.

"Al Pacino felt this same sense of obligation. But that was only part of the reason for his sensational performance. The other part is built into him as an actor. There are only a handful of actors who are literally incapable of doing something false, and Al is one of them. He never says, ‘I can’t do what you ask because it would not be true to me.’ He simply gets into a character and he doesn’t get out. I could work with Al forever."

He could also work forever with Marlon Brando, star of his controversial 1960 film, "The Fugitive Kind." "I thought Marlon was brilliant in that movie. His scenes with Joanne Woodward contained some of the best acting he’s ever done. But it’s no secret that Anna Magnani was a problem; she had arrived at a sad place in her life and none of us could help her. That great talent had a great problem, and it was vanity. Suddenly, she was worried about the way she looked. The whole staging had to be shifted, and there were things Anna literally refused to do. But Marlon was Hurculean – very giving with her – and yet he bore the brunt of the blame."

For Katharine Hepburn there was nothing to be borne but praise when she triumphed in Lumet’s 1962 screen version of Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey Into Night." "Katie is the best – a pure, incorruptible spirit who is everything joyful and great to work with. The day before we began shooting, I had a chat with the entire cast and at the end I casually added, ‘You’re all welcome to see the daily rushes.’ After the others left, Katie called me over and said, ‘Sidney, I’ve seen the rushes on almost every movie I’ve done, but I’m not going to see them on this one. I’ve got to do this movie honestly and if I see the rushes, all I’ll be looking for is this,’ she said, and she pulled at the flesh under her chin. ‘And this,’ she said, pulling at the flesh on her arm. ‘Sidney, I can’t waste my energy on things like that; I need all the energy I have to create this part.’ Well, I stood there and burst into tears."

Lumet’s love for actors is legendary. "Good work in movies involves personal exposure, personal risks, showing how you feel about something. The actor is infinitely more exposed than anyone else, and he’s exposed at the very moment of creativity. Actors are the infantry, the ones in the line of fire."

He knows how it is to be under fire. "When I was 5 years old, I was plopped down on stage by my father, Baruch Lumet. Acting was an economic necessity in our family during the depression, and for two years – 1931 and 1932 – I was on a weekly WEVD radio show, in Yiddish, called ‘The Rabbi From Brownsville.’ My father wrote and directed the show and acted the leading man and the grandfather. My mother was the leading lady, and I played the son. All together, our weekly salary came to $35."

During the thirties, Lumet distinguished himself as a member of a truly rare Broadway breed – the appealing child performer – and in 1935 he acted in Sidney Kingsley’s "Dead End." "I was 11 at the time and had already been in eight Jewish plays. But since I was always small for my age, I couldn’t play one of the Dead End Kids. So Sidney, who adored me, wrote a special bit into the play for me. We’ve remained friends all these years. In fact, the loft we used for the party scene in ‘Serpico’ was Sidney’s loft on Sixteenth Street. He was so excited the day we shot there."

"Dead End" was no thespian dead end for Lumet. Several shows followed, the most memorable being William Saroyan’s lovely and spirited "My Heart’s in the Highlands," which the Group Theater produced in 1939. Brooks Atkinson, writing in The Times, had warm words for nearly everything about the production, including "young Sidney Lumet playing the part of a boy with winning charm and manly technique."

That same year, Lumet took his one and only fling at being a movie star in "One Third of a Nation," a sudsy drama in which he played Sylvia Sidney’s crippled kid brother. "I hated acting in movies, and I’ve understood all about actors ever since. That glass has a psychic and spiritual thing about it. The third eye. It’s going to see something you don’t want seen. I knew then that I could never be a really good actor."

Yet acting is precisely what Lumet plugged away at for the next couple of years – until he was 17 and he enlisted in the wartime army, serving a five-year hitch that included some duty in China, Burma and India. "By the time I came back from the Army, however, I realized that I just couldn’t spend my life exposing myself every night in front of fifteen hundred strangers."

Was he bitter about his misspent youth behind the footlights?

"What do you mean, it kept me off the streets, didn’t it? Seriously, if somebody asked me if I would let my own children go into the arts, I’d say, ‘As a child I was exposed to Maxwell Anderson, to Kurt Weill and to Sidney Kingsley. Believe me, worse things can happen to a child.’ So what if you don’t get to see kids your own age – all that means is you don’t learn to pick your nose or scratch your butt the way they do. But to be taken by somebody you respect to see Chagall – first the paintings and then the man – which is what Philip Loeb did for me when we worked together in ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’…well, is that such a bad thing?"

Lumet’s childhood, like most, was full of both bad and good things. Apparently, the same had been true of his adulthood. His first marriage – to actress Rita Gam – ended in divorce, and the day after his divorce from his second wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, became final, he was rushed to the hospital, the apparent victim of an overdose of pills. "It was only seven vodkas, a Miltown and idiocy," Lumet declared a few days later.

A few years later, he is as mum about that hasty trip to St. Vincent’s emergency ward as he is about all the intimate regions of his life, past and present. It is perfectly obvious, however, that he takes enormous pride in his pretty wife Gail, whom he married shortly after his non-attempt at suicide in 1963. And he is equally delighted with his two daughters –- Jenny, a 9-year-old potential Picasso, and Amy, a seven-year-old charmer who shows definite signs of following in the footsteps of her super-talented grandmother, Lena Horne.

Lumet may very well be the model family man, but, in the end, family is family. He’s far more vocal about his other love –- the movies. Although he made his initial reputation as a director in the heyday of live television and he has been sidetracked from time to time to the legitimate theater, there has rarely been a day during the last 16 years when he has not been working on one movie project or another. And he’s a man who doesn’t waste time.

"That’s one thing about me – I guess it’s my metabolism. I never walk down a hall, I bounce down a hall. And when I make a movie, I work fast. It’s funny, but when I look at the directors whose work I like, the careers I most admire are the careers of quantity. When I look at George Cukor’s work, I see 15 or 16 pieces of first-class stuff. Thirty pieces of John Ford’s work are the toppest drawer, but of course he made 170 movies!"

Proof that Lumet isn’t kidding about quantity is the fact that "Lovin’ Molly," his new movie starring Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges, Blythe Danner and Susan Sarandon, is due to open next month, and any day now he will be off to London to film Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express."

"I believe in continuity. All I want to do is get better, and quantity can help me to solve my problems. I’m thrilled by the idea that I’m not even sure how many films I’ve done. If I don’t have a script I adore, I do one I like. If I don’t have one I like, I do one that has an actor I like or that presents some technical challenge. I did ‘That Kind of Woman’ because I was enchanted by Sophia Loren. I did one movie simply because I wanted to see what it would be like to do a dramatic story in color. Before that, I snobbishly thought you could only tell a serious story in black and white.

"I want to learn as much as I possibly can. I want in the worst way to find out about high comedy. Why is it I can create laughter in a realistic situation, but not in a high comedy? When I try, I flounder, I’m un-firm. ‘Bye Bye Braverman’ was almost marvelous, but it went off just enough to spoil it. And it was my fault."

It’s swell to experiment, but where does this supermarket approach leave the Personal Statement – the thing movie directing is supposed to be all about in the first place? "What constantly bothers me about these so-called personal movies is the lack of understanding of what personalization is. There is this simplistic notion that the more autobiographical a movie is, the more value it has. Nonsense! What’s important is that the artist make known his view of the way people on the screen behave.

"I know people who disguise their lives, and their disguises are more exciting and revealing than the lives of people who throw themselves at you naked. I mean, is there anything you don’t know about George Cukor from seeing his movies? Don’t you know what he feels about food, about art, about women? Don’t you know if he believes in God? I think Cukor is as personal as anyone telling you all about his childhood while the camera dollies in on a copy of Cahiers du Cinema.

"I hope someday it’s apparent that there is a lot of me in ‘Serpico,’ just as there is a lot of me in ‘The Seagull.’ They don’t have to be similar works for me to emerge. When I made ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ –- which I happen to think is a perfect movie –- I gave Katie that moment when Edmund says to her, ‘Mama, I’m going to die,’ and she hauls off and whacks him as hard as she can across the face. If you don’t understand something about me from that scene, then you just don’t understand."