Director Sidney Lumet died at the age of 86

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Old 11-Apr-2011
Director Sidney Lumet died at the age of 86

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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 on Saturday. He was 86.

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

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 fervour that would do credit to Woody Allen".

"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 receive 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 honoured 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.

Lumet 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.

"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.

Visual style

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

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."

Lumet's 1995 book Making Movies, a professional memoir and guide to filmmaking, has been called essential reading for would-be filmmakers.

Lumet was married four times: to actress Rita Gam, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, journalist and author Gail Jones (the daughter of singer Lena Horne and with whom he had two daughters, Amy and Jenny), and Mary Gimbel.

In addition to his wife and daughters, he is survived by his stepdaughter Leslie Gimbel; a stepson, Bailey Gimbel; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

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