Guest Post By William D. Jackson
Last Friday, I checked into my Facebook account and saw a post from a friend referring to Sidney Lumet, the renowned director of such movies as “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” I instantly knew he was being memorialized.
I was caught by surprise, actually; the same way I was surprised when Sidney Pollack died. They were both full of energy, even if they appeared worn around the edges. Mr. Lumet certainly appeared to have walked a long way to the stage he was currently sitting on when I attended the TriBeCa Film Fest preview of “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” in 2007. I was with a friend who’s a big Phillip Seymour Hoffman fan; he was there with Lumet and Ethan Hawke. My friend begged me to stand up and ask a question during the Q&A afterward, so I stood up and got noticed.
“I just wanted to say two things,” I said. “Mr. Hoffman, my friend here is a big fan of yours and wants to say hi” to which he and the audience laughed as she squirmed in her seat. “The other thing is, being that you shot most of this on location around the city, I wonder if you have any war stories to share concerning that experience.”
Hoffman talked about how while they were filming one scene inside a car with Marisa Tomei, they had to pipe in air because it was so hot inside, that after literally having a fan or an ac in the back seat out of frame that had broken down early on. Sidney spoke about how much give and take there is when you’re on location, but for the most part he loved it. His favorite shooting days were in Astoria, Queens. I sensed a reflective look from both of them, and Hoffman looked at me the whole time as if to say, “Ahh, I know you’re in the biz!”
That was a fun night.
It doesn’t take much to see that Sidney Lumet was a New Yorker; though born a few hours away in Philly, he loved filming here and most of his movies were shot on location in various neighborhoods around the Big Apple. Moreover, he embraced the identity of New York the same way Woody Allen does in his movies. In their movies the city becomes a character. Lumet, who began his career in television and led a whole generation of directors into the world of film, helped inspire not only a well-known genre of independent filmmaking, but also a class of well-known and emerging actors. He was New York. That means a lot to a beginning director like me, who values not only the quality of the picture on the screen, the composition of the frame and the mood set by the palettes of color and light, but also the performances from the actors. He evoked great work from the likes of Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Jon Cazale, Al Pacino and, believe it or not, Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson.
I did not make the connection early on that Sidney Lumet directed one of my favorite childhood movies, The Wiz. Not his best work, mind you. The movie was criticized as a mess, starting with the fact that its lead actress was too old for the part, but it did garner four Oscar nominations. Plus, Lumet got to direct Lena Horne, who also happened to be his mother-in-law at the time. When looking that movie now, it actually makes a lot of sense: the streets of New York real and imagined, dingy and colorful, cold and windblown, then steamy and evocative. Childlike visions of summer in the shared perceptions of The City by New Yorkers and the world alike, perceptions he helped to shape in his own work.
I have to learn to embrace my adopted hometown as much as he had. Yeah, that Sidney Lumet: he’ll be missed.