Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet and the Art of Being Relevant

Sidney Lumet, a director of stage, tv, and especially film, died recently at the age of 86. He never made a TRANSFORMERS movie or dealt with terminators, aliens, or hobbits. Instead he explored life in cities, especially New York, life that invigorates, pushes, demoralizes, and kills. But Lumet infused his work with realism and occasionally sharp satire. He was especially interested in police corruption as seen in two of his best films: SERPICO(1973) with Al Pacino and PRINCE OF THE CITY(1981). Although he never won an Oscar as Best Director, he drew bravura performances from individual actors and group ensembles as well. Lumet could plumb the depths of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT(1962) with its harrowing portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family as seen in the ravaged faces of Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Jr. and Ralph Richardson. Or he could foresee the effects of the coming women's movements in his version of THE GROUP(1996), an entertaining take on Mary McCarthy's acid-laced satire.

On individual terms, Lumet's most memorable films concentrated on society's losers or victims, which he showed with compassion and unaffected irony. His first film, TWELVE ANGRY MEN(1957), skewers in-bred prejudices, as Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb brilliantly battle over the fate of a falsely accused Hispanic. A personal favorite is the electric drama DOG DAY AFTERNOON(1975), in which Al Pacino gives his finest performance as a married bi-sexual caught in a botched bank job. His character wants to pay for a sex-change operation for his boy friend. A series of tragi-comical events makes the robbery a media circus. Lumet handles all of this chaos with a caring and judicious hand, balancing comedy with pathos. His next film would be his most controversial and also one of his best: NETWORK. Perhaps the sharpest satirical comedy since DR. STRANGELOVE, this scathing comic drama seems even more prescient today than when it came out. Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar as the demented news anchor Howard Beale whose rant became part of the national discourse: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" He was matched with equally voracious and gutsy performances from Faye Dunaway (Oscar) as a career obsessed producer and William Holden (Oscar nominee) as her lover and victim. The film touches on racial unrest, world corporation control, and the decline of the media as a purveyor of facts, not propaganda. Nominated for Best Film of 1975, NETWORK lost to ROCKY, a bit of sentimental populist pap. But as the years advance, Lumet's reputation only grows in stature, and the directors of many "Best Films" are forgotten.

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