At the ripe age of 80, when most of his contemporaries have long retired, director Sidney Lumet is hunkered down in a Manhattan studio editing Find Me Guilty, a dramedy starring Vin Diesel. It’s his 43rd feature in a five-decade career that has garnered him four Oscar nominations for directing, a fifth for writing, and now this year’s Honorary Award. What accounts for his longevity in life and art? ”I can’t tell you,” he replies. ”I work intensely, rest intensely. Other than my family, I really have no other interests. My energy really goes to the work.”
And what a body of work it is. A sampling of his ’50s and ’60s films — 12 Angry Men (for which he earned his first nod), The Fugitive Kind, the fearless three-hour adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the Cold War thriller Fail-Safe, and The Pawnbroker, with Rod Steiger as a haunted Holocaust survivor — shows an assured instinct for pungent, grown-up material and a gift for eliciting terrific performances from actors as disparate as Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn. And he only got better.
Serpico (1973) offers a riveting study of the moral and emotional consequences of conscience as played out by Al Pacino’s sad-eyed outcast cop. The enormously popular all-star romp Murder on the Orient Express was an odd follow-up, but Lumet credits it with loosening him for the surreal shadow and light of 1975’s exquisitely orchestrated and acted Dog Day Afternoon, for which he earned a second nomination. Network (1976) had the advantage of Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script, but it was Lumet who wrestled it onto film. ”The shooting was extremely complex…how to balance the laughter and drama so that it moved toward its dark conclusion in an uninterrupted way,” he recalls. Oscars went to Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, and Chayefsky — but nada for Lumet. In the ’80s, there were standouts such as Prince of the City, a rich deepening of Serpico‘s themes and arguably his best film; The Verdict, achingly somber and his last Oscar nod; and the heart-wrenching, radicals-on-the-run drama Running on Empty.
The director is uncharacteristically stumped when asked to define the Lumet-ness of his films. ”I’ve done so many different kinds of movies,” he says. ”To me it’s an exploration, and what I keep getting interested in exploring just varies.” Fair enough, but here’s a clue. When Judd Hirsch is told of his mother’s death in Running on Empty, rather than zoom in for a big-emotion close-up, Lumet keeps the camera at a distance. ”If you’re doing what you hope is an honest piece of work, you can’t exploit, you can’t sentimentalize it,” he says. ”It’s a question of trusting the audience to feel something instead of telling them what to feel.”
Honesty. Trust. Small words with big meaning. They are the heart of what Lumet does so well.