Sidney Lumet earned his first Best Director nomination for his debut feature, 1957’s 12 Angry Men. He received his fourth 25 years later for 1982’s The Verdict — a nice pair of bookends, even if those bookends aren’t gold statuettes. Aside from an Honorary Oscar in 2005, Lumet never won one.
In 2008, EW’s Chris Nashawaty sat down with the director to discuss the tricky art of catching lightning in a bottle and his string of unconsummated dates with that cruel little tease, Oscar. We bring it back now in tribute, following the film giant’s death on April 9, 2011.
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on 12 Angry Men
12 ANGRY MEN (1957)
Sidney Lumet was a director at CBS, helming episodes of TV shows such as Danger and You Are There, when he was tapped to make his feature debut on Henry Fonda’s jury-room drama. It received three nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director.
”Henry Fonda was critical to my career. I remember that he didn’t like to watch himself in dailies. But he sort of had to, since he was the producer. So, on the first day of dailies, after about 20 minutes, he leaned forward, squeezed my shoulder, and said, ‘It’s brilliant,’ and never came back again…. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t go to the Oscars that year. Talk about the arrogance of the young! I had fallen in love with a new girl and she couldn’t go. So we stayed in New York and watched it on TV at a party. Now I prefer to go. It’s a great rat f—. I’ve never thought I was going to win and so far I haven’t! And yet, when you get into the limo, on the ride over you’ve somehow convinced yourself that you have a chance. Even very sensible people get deeply hurt when they don’t win.”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on The Pawnbroker
THE PAWNBROKER (1965)
Lumet’s brutal drama about a Holocaust survivor-turned-Harlem shop owner earned Rod Steiger a Best Actor nod. It’s a powerhouse performance that Lumet admits easily could have been undermined by his leading man’s tendency to overact.
”Yes, he could overdo it. With Rod, you just had to tamp him down. It’s an easier problem than trying to get someone to act more. He knew that he could overdo it, but he put aside his ego. After we finished shooting, though, we were talking and I couldn’t believe it, he spoke for 15 minutes about how he made On the Waterfront with the famous scene in the back of the car! Marlon Brando didn’t exist for him! The ‘I coulda been a contender’ line didn’t exist for him! All he saw was himself in the back of that car!”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on Serpico
A gritty thriller about police corruption in New York City, Serpico marked the first collaboration between Lumet and one of his favorite leading men, Al Pacino, who received a nomination for Best Actor.
”I replaced John Avildsen four or five weeks before it was supposed to start shooting. We had to get going right away because Al was lined up to do The Godfather Part II afterwards. When he heard I wanted to do two weeks of rehearsals, he got excited, because he’s a theater guy. With Pacino, the talent is so extraordinary. But it breaks my heart. He’s one of those actors — Philip Seymour Hoffman is like this too — who, if the scene is about anger, he has to stay angry all day. I mean, off camera, over lunch, everything. You pay a price for that. But that’s what all of those actors in Al’s generation were like — De Niro, Dustin. It’s not their job to work the way I want; it’s my job to work the way they want. Because they’re the infantry.”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on Murder on the Orient Express
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Based on an Agatha Christie whodunit, this old-school all-star extravaganza earned six nominations, including ones for Albert Finney and Ingrid Bergman; the latter wound up winning Best Supporting Actress.
”It was the best plot I ever read. I thought it would be great if we cast big stars in all of the parts, but that would cost a lot of money. I had a good relationship with Sean Connery and he agreed to do it for $100,000 and a piece of the back end. And that became the template for everyone else. They all wound up getting paid because the film did very well. I originally wanted Ingrid Bergman for the role of Princess Dragomiroff, but when I went to see her in London, she told me she wanted to play the nurse instead. She was very film-knowledgeable. She’d worked with such masters. So when she saw that I didn’t do a reverse shot of Albert Finney in their big scene together and there would be no cutaways, she gave me a kiss on the mouth. I almost left my wife! [Laughs] I remember being pissed off that we got so many nominations and I didn’t get nominated.”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on Dog Day Afternoon
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
Lumet reteamed with Pacino for this ’70s masterpiece about a pair of desperate bank robbers, one of whom is trying to finance his male lover’s sex-change operation. Dog Day received six nominations, including Best Director and Best Actor, but the night belonged to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
”Everyone talks about the movies of the ’70s now like it was this golden age. We had no idea at the time. Al was terribly nervous about doing Dog Day Afternoon. I don’t think any major American star had played not only a gay guy but a gay guy who’s in love with a man getting an operation to be a woman! The night before we started rehearsals his hands were shaking. He was ready to quit. I was nervous that this thing would be showing in Brooklyn on a Saturday night and some guy would shout ”Fag!” at the screen. The only way to prevent that was to be so true to these characters that everybody couldn’t help but get swept up in the movie. I think it’s Al’s best performance. We lost to Cuckoo’s Nest. Damn good film. You can’t feel too bad about losing to that.”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on Network
The Paddy Chayefsky-scripted film, which earned 10 Oscar nominations, now seems like an amazingly dead-on dissection of where television was headed. But it wasn’t always so.
”People called Network a satire. And we would say, ‘No, it’s not a satire, it’s sheer reportage.’ Well, we haven’t killed anybody on the air yet. Yet! I thought it was important to get someone as close to Walter Cronkite as you could get to play Howard Beale. We thought about Gregory Peck. Then Peter Finch said he had gotten a copy of the script and wanted to do it. Paddy was delighted, but the foreignness of him bothered me. [Finch, who died two months before the 1977 Oscar ceremony, was a Brit.] Then Peter asked if I would send him a copy of The New York Times and he would read it into a tape recorder and send me the tape. It was perfect. There was no trace of an accent. It’s embarrassing that Rocky beat us out. Chayefsky was so prescient. Everyone was saying we were going to take it all. And on the flight out to L.A., he said, ‘Rocky‘s going to take Best Picture.’ And I said, ‘No, no, it’s a dopey little movie.’ And he said, ‘It’s just the sort of sentimental crap they love out there.’ And he was right.”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on The Wiz
THE WIZ (1978)
Lumet’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical remains one of the strangest films on his résumé. Starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, The Wiz was both a critical and commercial bomb. Nevertheless, it was nominated for four Oscars.
”It was a disaster. I had this idea that a great fantasy could be made out of New York — that I could make Oz out of reality. We could have the lion statue in front of the New York Public Library come to life and turn into the Cowardly Lion and things like that. But that didn’t happen because I didn’t know enough technically. Generally I’m pretty good about failure. I don’t go hog wild when things are going marvelously and I don’t go into despair when they’re not. That’s why I haven’t read a review of one of my films since The Sea Gull in 1968. All the reviews were bad and I thought I had done some of my best work on that movie. So I just figured, What’s the point?”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on Prince of the City
PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)
Like Serpico, Prince of the City is a sprawling morality play about NYPD corruption. Unlike Serpico, audiences didn’t show up. Still, Lumet and Jay Presson Allen earned an Adapted Screenplay nomination.
”I don’t consider myself a writer, but there are certain worlds I know. Cops, corruption, courtrooms. When you’re in a courtroom, you’ve already got your antagonist and your protagonist. You don’t even need any exposition. Also, especially in criminal trials, the stakes are so high! I knew I wouldn’t win that year. I knew an audience would walk in with a preconceived notion of what the movie was going to be and the complexity of it would come as a shock — maybe that terrible cop isn’t so terrible after all! It wasn’t a conventional enough script to win. It’s like the difference between Network and Rocky. Rocky is handed to you like a roast pig at a Christmas dinner. Network, and this, you have to work a little.”
NEXT: Sidney Lumet on The Verdict
THE VERDICT (1982)
Lumet had known Paul Newman from back in their TV days in the ’50s, but the two had never worked together until this gut-wrenching courtroom drama about an alcoholic Boston ambulance chaser. The film earned five nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. But it was Gandhi‘s night.
”I took three weeks of rehearsal because I thought the characters were complex and Newman had told me that he was beginning to have some trouble remembering his lines. At the end of the second week, we were driving home together and he said, ‘I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me.’ And I told him that I thought he was butting against a wall with the part, that there was something about this guy he didn’t want us to see. I subsequently found out that he had had a drinking problem as a young man and it was the booze that gave him trouble with the character. But Newman, to his credit, eventually said, ‘F— it, I’ll let it all show.’ The scene where he can’t pick up the shot glass because his hands are shaking, so he leans forward and sips the top of it — that’s a strong scene. I thought we might win that year. But I knew that Gandhi was the perfect Oscar movie — the big epic with the noble hero. [Lumet yawns dramatically.] It’s the kind of picture I would never go see because I already know it frame by frame before I even step inside the theater. That’s not the kind of film that interests me.”