Book Review: “Sidney Lumet: A Life” of directing “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict,” Twelve Angry Men” and “Network”

 

“Network” is one of those movies that I cannot channel surf past without stopping. If I’m lucky, I catch it from the very beginning because like all movies, it casts its spell in the opening moments, this one more than most.

I stumbled across it again the other night just as I was finishing the chapter on filming it in “Sidney Lumet: A Life,” Maura Spiegel’s new biography of this almost peerless “actor’s director,” one of the biggest names behind the camera in the ’60s on into the ’80s.

There aren’t a lot of filmmakers in the know who wouldn’t give their eye teeth to call Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” his last film, made when he was 83, their own. Going out on a high note. Not many get to pull that off.

He was a child actor on Broadway, making one film appearance in the 1930s, a struggling young stage director lured by Yul Brynner to dive into the then-budding medium of television, where he quickly made his mark.

Smart, a WWII vet whose assignment was teaching others how to use and field-repair the most complicated technology of its day — radar — and organized — he became famous for making live TV complicated and cinematically artful during the first “Golden Age of Television.”

He dropped into film with the minimalist classic “Twelve Angry Men” where those organizational skills and that acting background made him famous for generating Oscar-nominated performances and movies that always came in under budget — “The Pawnbroker,” The Anderson Tapes,” “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “The Hill.”

Spiegel had access to two invaluable resources when putting together “A Life” — Lumet’s definitive (for its day) “how to make a movie” manual, “Making Movies” (1995), Lumet’s unfinished and abandoned autobiography, and the memoirs of his womanizing father, Baruch, a Polish emigre and mainstay of New York’s Yiddish theater after coming to America.

Spiegel, a New York film academic, gets a little carried away with the post-mortem psychoanalysis of her subject, gets WAY off topic here and there, and seems a tad out of her comfort zone talking about early TV and how it worked.

But she never goes far wrong when leaning on Lumet’s own memories, the sometimes revealing interviews he gave over the decades and the “opening up” he almost did in the book he never finished.

And there are just enough anecdotes from the movies he made, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s empassioned pursuit of him to direct “Network,” and Lumet’s care in grooming Beatrice Strait’s one big scene in that movie — nine takes (Lumet rarely did more than a couple) that enshrined her supporting actress performance as the shortest (on screen) Oscar winning performance in Oscar history.

 

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His own acting history is little-known except by film buffs, and his various marriages (once, to Anderson Cooper’s mama, Gloria Vanderbilt) were not something I’d ever heard much about. His child-actor childhood wasn’t idyllic, his war experiences traumatic (even though he never saw combat) and his reputation as a New York Filmmaker never as great as Scorsese’s or Woody Allen’s.

Blame Pauline Kael for that. A major New York critic who guts your every movie with a review could ding a reputation, back in the day.

But the movies, with their spare artistry, intricate but never flashy compositions and career-defining performances, speak for themselves.

And Spiegel, breaking the highlights down, does a pretty good job of speaking up for them as well.

Sidney Lumet: A Life. St. Martin’s Press, 401 pages. $29.99.

 

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