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Lumet an Actor’s Director From the Start

Casting the hot-blooded Italian star Anna Magnani opposite the self-indulgent and brooding American icon Marlon Brando should not have worked. But it did. The Fugitive Kind (1960), the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, gave us one of Brando’s most underappreciated and nuanced performances. The love story that evolves between Brando and Magnani hits all the right notes in otherwise extremely melodramatic circumstances.

Sidney Lumet knew how to handle actors. Mostly because he understood them (he was a child actor on Broadway). But more importantly, because he appreciated and valued their unique contributions.

“I love actors,” said Lumet. “I love them because they’re brave. The talent of acting is one in which the actor’s thoughts and feelings are instantly communicated to the audience. That’s not easy. In fact, quite often it’s painful.” 

Lumet died this past Saturday at age 86. His distinguished career spanned nearly six decades in Hollywood, culminating in the Directors Guild’s coveted D.W. Griffith Award. Nominated for five Oscars in his career (given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2005), his resume is significant: 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), The Verdict (1982), and Running On Empty (1998).

The list of notable actors Lumet worked with over the years is staggering. From his debut ensemble challenge of 12 Angry Men on, he earned the trust and collaborative generosity of the best of the best.

There is a scene in Running On Empty I turn to often to remind myself how powerful the simplicity of two actors sitting and listening to one another is. No tricky camera moves or gratuitous insert shots. Just alternating close-ups of two people sharing their emotional life.

Christine Lahti plays a fugitive who turns to her aging father for help. She wants him to take over custody of her high school aged son so that he can attend Julliard. Her father is played by the wonderful Steven Hill. The son was played by River Phoenix who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance.

The complex irony of the film is fully realized. The anarchist youth now all grown up and running from her past turning to her capitalist father to rescue her child. It’s enough to break your heart. And Lumet created the atmosphere and energy necessary for two gifted actors to sit quietly and let the scene unfold. The magic of storytelling through the simplicity of listening and responding.

“There’s a reason some directors can make first-rate movies and others never will,” Lumet said in his influential book Making Movies. “But all we can do is prepare the groundwork that allows for the ‘lucky accidents’ that make a first-rate movie happen.”

Well, lucky for us, Sidney Lumet had an incredibly prolific career and left behind a number of memorable films – might just watch Network tonight. But the mark he left was surely no accident. He dedicated himself to his craft and cared deeply about his work. What a concept.

2 thoughts on “Lumet an Actor’s Director From the Start

  1. Thank you Lars for your thoughts on Sidney Lumet. As you and I have discussed over the years his directorial film: ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ is my number one favorite film. But then, many of his films top my list. The reason: Lumet provided us with social issues and ethical considerations that should remain in our collective memories; from the Holocust, transgendered indiviuals, the Jury and \ Justice System (as it relates to minorities) as well the Cold War and Media Circus that we now live in.

    You are right, in that he allowed the actors he worked with the space they needed for their characters to impart their creative skills as well. Many of the scenes in “Dog Day” were improvised. By giving the actors the freedom to create their own characters “performance” they often won the Oscar’s that he so deserved.

    I will miss his new contribution to films. While he didn’t really think that they did much more than entertain, they certainly provided a moral compass for me as a teenager and young adult growing up in the 70’s and for that I am very greatful.

    I hope that other’s in the industry learn from his films and I wish there were more men & women willing, not only to entertain, but to bear witness to the historical circumstances of our daily lives and put them on the silver screen as Lumet did. RIP

    • As usual, Terry, your observations and analysis are outstanding and so appreciated. His films did take on enormous societal/political issues, I can easily see how he would have influenced you. I caught on to his work around The Verdict and then realized with Running On Empty that he was a director of significant substance. Then to go back and appreciate Dog Day Afternoon, Long Day’s Journey, and Network…a craftsman for sure. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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