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Million Dollar Movie

On Sidney Lumet…over at A Shot in the Dark and Cinephilia and Beyond.

New York Minute

Alex Witchel profiled Bobby Cannavale in the magazine a few days ago:

Cannavale turned serious. “I don’t come from an intellectual family,” he said. “I fly them in for the opening night of whatever show I’m in, and it’s great, they love me, they’re proud of me.” He paused. “But we don’t ever talk about what the play is about. So I was always in search of people I could talk to. I guess you could pull apart psychologically why it’s always a guy this happens with. My father-in-law” — the director Sidney Lumet — “was like a dad to me, and we talked about this art form ad nauseam.”

That was another way his life changed because of “The Normal Heart.” Jenny Lumet saw the closing performance. “We met in July, got married in December and had Jake in May,” he said. “He was born two days before my 25th birthday.” The marriage lasted nearly a decade, though his relationship with her father lasted until his death, in 2011. Among the films Lumet directed were “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” both starring Pacino. For years, before a performance, Cannavale would psych himself up by saying, “Pacino’s coming tonight.”

It does boggle the mind to think of this Jersey boy suddenly hanging out with Sidney Lumet. Not to mention Jenny’s maternal grandmother, Lena Horne. “Sidney was the most down-to-earth guy you could meet,” Cannavale said. “He loved me because I didn’t have anything and he came from nothing. By the way, I didn’t know who she was,” he said of Horne. “But I think she liked that I was a little dirty.” He smiled. “She, like Sidney, would love to say around her friends, ‘Bobby, tell that story,’ and I’d tell some story they would all be charmed by.” His voice held no edge. “Nothing is more charming than poor folks.” He leaned back into the couch. “They were all great, but it was Sidney, that guy,” he said quietly. “To the end, he was like a dad to me.”

Million Dollar Movie

It’s Sidney Lumet Week at the Walter Reader Theater, guys. If you are around, check it out. If you’ve never seen “Q&A,” it’s worth it. Nolte at his best:

Million Dollar Movie

In less than a month, there will be a tasty Sidney Lumet Retrospective at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. Put it on your calendar. Netflix is fine but doesn’t replace seeing a movie on the big screen.

Here’s the line-up:

The Film Society of Lincoln Center – Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65 Street, between Broadway & Amsterdam (upper level)

Tuesday, July 19
1:30PM FAIL-SAFE (111min)
3:50PM THE VERDICT (129min)
6:30PM 12 ANGRY MEN (95min)
8:35PM THE PAWNBROKER (116min)

Wednesday, July 20
1:00PM SERPICO (130min)
3:45PM NETWORK (121min)
6:15PM FAIL-SAFE (111min)
8:45PM THE OFFENCE (112min)

Thursday, July 21
No Sidney Lumet screenings

Friday, July 22
1:15PM 12 ANGRY MEN (95min)
3:45PM THE PAWNBROKER (116min)
6:15PM NETWORK (121min)
8:45PM THE VERDICT (129min)

Saturday, July 23
10:30AM THE WIZ (133min) **Movies for Kids
1:15PM THE SEA GULL (141min)
4:00PM RUNNING ON EMPTY (116min)
9:00PM SERPICO (130min)

Sunday, July 24
4:00PM Q&A (132min)
7:00PM PRINCE OF THE CITY (167min)

Monday, July 25
3:30PM THE OFFENCE (112min)
6:00PM FIND ME GUILTY (124min)

Good Old Sidney: A Father’s Day Story

Drawing I did of my father, 1983

My father was an incorrigible name dropper. He called famous actors and directors by their first names, suggesting an intimacy that didn’t always exist. He had met a lot of celebrities when he worked as a unit production manager on The Tonight Show. One chance encounter with Richard Pryor and he was “Richie” forever. Dad reached the heights of chutzpah when he went to the theater with a friend one night and spotted the actress Gwen Verdon. He walked down to her, introduced himself, and kissed her on the cheek as if they’d known each other for years. Ms. Verdon was delighted. Dad’s friend was amazed.

I remember watching “12 Angry Men” with the old man when I was a kid. “It’s almost as good as the original,” he said, referring to the TV production. “You see how exciting a movie can be even if it takes place in one room?”

I was captivated and by the end, I felt intelligent, finally on the right side of the line that separates boys and men. It was directed by “Sidney,” Sidney Lumet. They had crossed paths once; Dad had wanted to turn “Fail Safe” into a movie, a project that Lumet eventually directed. The old man admired Lumet not just because he was a fellow New Yorker but also because they shared a similar aesthetic, a love of the theater and actors. Dad was an avid theatergoer starting in his early teens through his mid thirties when he became an independent documentary producer. He revered Lumet’s quick and efficient approach to shooting a movie.

“Sidney always comes in under budget and has it in his contract that he keeps the difference,” he told me, raising his eyebrows. “Now, that is a smart man.”

The Old Man with Senator Sam Ervin

Not long after my mother kicked him out, Dad saw “The Verdict” and raved about the performance Lumet got out of Paul Newman as a lawyer who became an alcoholic when he got screwed over, then sobered up when the chance for redemption arose. His clients got justice, he got back his self-respect, and I got squat because I was 11 and Dad said that was too young to watch the movie. The closest I got was the commercials on TV. Everything looked dark brown, courtrooms and bars alike, and Newman seemed so frail I didn’t even notice his famous blue eyes.

Dad holed up on his own in Weehawken, across the Hudson, after his next girlfriend gave him the boot as well. There were two things that he liked about New Jersey: the view of New York City from his bedroom window, and that the liquor store down the block opened before noon on Sundays.

I remember visiting him without my brother or sister one time in January 1983, shortly after “The Verdict” came out. It was a late Saturday afternoon, almost dark, and the sun reflected off the tall buildings overlooking 12th Avenue. The old man was lying on his bed in his underwear and t-shirt smoking a Pall Mall. The heating pipes clanged. The windows were sealed shut around the edges by duct tape but still rattled when it got windy. A glass of vodka sat next to the ashtray on his night table. I used to fantasize about emptying his Smirnoff bottle in the kitchen sink and filling it back up with water. But I never had the nerve.

Most of the time he’d make me entertain myself on the other side of the apartment, in the room without a view of the city. He didn’t want me reading comic books but I did anyway. Or I’d trace the movie ads from the Sunday paper. “The Verdict” was nominated for five Oscars including best actor and best picture. The movie ad showed Newman in a rumpled white shirt, tie loosened, his eyes half closed looking down. The light from a window washed over his face. He looked defeated. The text above read: “Frank Galvin Has One Last Chance at a Big Case.” I traced the movie poster and then drew it freehand. I felt the seriousness of the title “The Verdict.” I didn’t know what that term meant and didn’t ask.

Now I was content to sit next to Dad on his bed and look out the window at the orange light bouncing off the New York skyline. The view reminded us of how far we were from where we wanted to be.

There was a small black-and-white TV on the chest at the foot of the bed. An episode of M*A*S*H, the old man’s favorite show, ended. The familiar and mournful theme song, “Suicide is Painless” filled the room. Dad was talking about his girlfriend. He didn’t seem too bothered by their breakup. Leaving Manhattan was the bigger issue. With Mom, he was devastated. He still believed she was foolish to divorce him and was convinced that one day she’d come to her senses and have him back

Soon enough Dad returned to the subject of Sidney  because Lumet directed the Saturday Afternoon Movie. “He always comes in under budget, do you know why? Because Sidney is not stupid, that’s why.”

“Dog Day Afternoon” was on TV: an Al Pacino movie for grown-ups, but Dad let me watch it with him anyway. Maybe the vodka he was drinking softened his resolve. I knew enough not to question why. Pacino—Dad called him “Al”—played Sonny, a little guy who robbed a bank in Brooklyn. The movie was about what happened in the inside of the bank with Sonny and the hostages. It was tense but parts were funny and I laughed when Dad laughed.

During a commercial break, I saw that his eyes were closed. I studied him. His stomach inflated and deflated in short, hard spurts. Dad was forty-five, almost six years removed from a heart attack, and his deep, uneven breathing worried me. He flexed his right foot and his big toe cracked so I knew he wasn’t asleep. Maybe he was meditating. He opened his eyes and smiled at me, put his hand over mine and looked back at the TV. When he took it away, it was to reach for another cigarette. I stared at the movie until I heard him start to snore. So I slipped out of bed, moving like a cat on the branch of a tree, and butted out his cigarette in the ashtray sitting on a table covered with burn marks. Then I climbed back into bed, careful not to rouse him. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to the old man. He didn’t have a job and wasn’t in show business anymore. If only he would quit drinking.

I checked to see the progress of the light on the skyscrapers during the commercials. The orange glow began to fade as the sun set, turning softer, then pink as the sky darkened to a purplish blue. I thought of what Dad said when Channel Five ran the same public service announcement every night: “It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” He’d say, “No, I don’t know where they are. I know they are not with me and that makes me very sad.” He told me so himself.

In “Dog Day Afternoon,” things were only getting worse for Al. It was nighttime in Brooklyn in the middle of summer and the air conditioning in the bank was turned off. The cops brought his boyfriend, Leon, to speak with him on the phone. Al was robbing the bank so he could afford a sex-change operation for the guy. That made sense to me. It was the right thing to do.

At last, the cops agreed to give him an airplane to escape. I imagined what the inside of the plane looked like and where they were going to go. But when they got to the airport, the FBI nailed him, the hostages were freed, and the movie was over.

I put my hands behind my head, lay back and looked at a water stain on the ceiling. I thought about Al, pushed onto the hood of the car at the airport, the loud sounds of planes taking off and landing in the background. His eyes looked like they were going to bug out of his head and he was on his way to jail which didn’t seem fair even though he was a criminal. Then I imagined Paul Newman. I was happy the old man had let me be a grown-up with him for a little while.

The white lights of Manhattan were twinkling on the other side of the Hudson when he woke up and refreshed his drink. I didn’t want to say anything stupid so I kept my mouth shut. Another cigarette smoldered in the ashtray. He picked up the New York Times crossword puzzle and said,  “Good old Sidney. He never left New York.”

Highway to Hell

Last Sunday, there was a long piece in the Times about Paddy Chayefsky’s process writing the screenplay for “Network”:

Thirty-five years later, “Network” remains an incendiary if influential film, and its screenplay is still admired as much for its predictive accuracy as for its vehemence: a relentless sense of purpose that is even more palpable in the files Chayefsky left behind upon his death in 1981.

These papers were acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2001 but not examined much after their cataloging in the library’s Billy Rose Theater Division was completed in 2006. The rarely seen documents on “Network” speak loudly for their absent author, documenting the angst and animus that consumed him on this highly personal project.

Working in an era of paper, pencils and typewriters, Chayefsky seemingly committed to print every observation and self-criticism that he thought of. His “Network” archives provide a road map of the paths taken and not taken in its narrative, but they also reveal a visceral rawness that is scarce in today’s age of digital files and screenwriting by committee. They tell the story of an author’s struggles to determine what he wanted to say about a medium that would do anything for an audience’s attention.

Worth checking out.

[Pictures by Michael Rougier and Terry O’Neill]

Million Dollar Movie

In all the tributes over this past week to Sidney Lumet, many have cited Lumet’s strong track record of guiding his actors to exceptional, even iconic performances. While Al Pacino’s work in Lumet’s “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” may be the most famous examples of this, I don’t think any of Lumet’s lead actors was ever better than Paul Newman as a down and out alcoholic Boston lawyer in “The Verdict.”

“The Verdict’s” success is due to the remarkable collaboration between Lumet, Newman and David Mamet, who wrote the script. Mamet’s screenplay takes what could have been either a run of the mill redemption story or courtroom drama and finds those keen details that Lumet and his cast bring to life brilliantly. There are those little moments, like Frank Galvin (Newman) sipping his shot of whiskey off of the bar, too shaky to dare risk raising it to his lips that make the bigger ones, like his argument in chambers with a corrupt judge (Milo O’Shea), or his stunning summation really pay off.

Newman doesn’t just play a drunk; he captures a drunk’s self-loathing, his fear, his shame and ultimately, the slow rekindling of his pride and the attendant panic that it may be too late. The supporting cast around Newman, including Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling, Edward Binns, and particularly the great James Mason performs at the same high level.

Looking at the summation speech, I was struck by Lumet’s quiet but incredibly effective technique. The scene is one, long interrupted take. The camera holds the wide shot for a full two minutes, only moving when Newman approaches the jury box. Then slowly, it moves in on Newman, as his speech draws us in deeper, as if we are the jurors. Lumet’s decision to use one long take allows Newman to build up slowly, to really let Mamet’s words create the true force of their meaning. He finishes, and slumps back into his seat. We can sense the physical and emotional exhaustion of both the character and the actor.

Lumet, Newman and Mamet were all nominated for Academy Awards for “The Verdict.” None of them won.

Million Dollar Movie

Check out this appreciation of Lumet from my friend Mike Fox, a British cameraman who worked on the second unit of “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Lord Jim,” was was the camera operator on “Hope and Glory” and “Dangerous Liasons”:

I never had the privilege of working with Sidney Luemt, though close friends of mine did (on “The Deadly Affair”) when he was making films here. They liked him a lot.

I find it very difficult to place Lumet into any kind of genre, his films were so varied in content and technique. But his early brilliance was beyond the merest shadow of a doubt. “12 Angry Men” still stands even after all these years as the faultless paradigm for a one-set movie. (Hitchcock’s “Rope”, years before, failed miserably trying this.) How to analyse the success of “12 Angry Men”? God knows. Reginald Rose’s faultless screenplay; incredible casting; immaculate direction; atmospherics; credibility… I could go on. (One of the film’s many claims to distinction, according to Henry Fonda in various talk shows, was that it never returned its negative cost. In fact, I don’t believe this. United Artists – who bankrolled Woody Allen for years purely for the prestige it gave them – were one of the better regarded distributors, but they still used Hollywood’s notoriously bent accounting methods. On paper, distributors there could prove with ease, and did, that pictures like “Avatar” and “Titanic” actually lost them a great deal of money – thus relieving them of having to pay out contracted royalties to all and sundry.)

“Dog Day Afternoon” also broke new ground. Wonderfully made, and introducing Al Pacino as a young and remarkable actor (Marty Bregman’s protégée), whose performance was outstanding. (Pity he’s become a parody of himself, today much more a star than he was once an actor. It’s what Hollywood hype and big money does to talented actors.) And “Serpico” also deserves, at least, an honourable mention. But what always amazed me was “The Hill”. This subject was so British and Lumet’s direction so insightful, so perceptive, of all too typical British mores and class prejudices – embedded, double-distilled, into the British army – that I could barely believe that an American director could zero-in so accurately to their many British and very subtle dysfunctions. But Lumet did, and brilliantly so.

Having said all that: how can one pontificate on the work of a director who was so prolific; whose works were sometimes so great and sometimes so disappointing (“The Wiz”; “Gloria”–why a remake of a Cassavetes original done so well?; “Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots”). Of course, great creators must be allowed to fail. Even so, one always expected more and better from Lumet. And yet his better always tended to be of a type: New York, crime, cops, corruption, injustice, human weakness. So what. I know of directors pretending to greater talent who would give a kidney to have Lumet’s list of credits.

I guess if one had to sum up Sidney Lumet, one could do so by looking at the record: the film of his that was, run-away, the most deserving of 1958’s Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director was “12 Angry Men”. But it came up against David Lean and his “The Bridge On the River Kwai”, and they pissed it. Uncompromising art against hard-headed commercialism (gratuitously casting an almost redundant William Holden for American audiences). Lumet never ‘won’ and Academy Award, though he was honoured with one for his lifetime achievements.

It was great to have known Sidney Lumet – even if, personally, at second-hand. Without doubt, the movie industry was made a far better place for his presence.

[Picture by Gary Roberts]

Million Dollar Movie

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!”


Million Dollar Movie

Pauline Kael on “Dog Day Afternoon” (from “When The Lights Go Down”):

In “Dog Day Afternoon,” we don’t want any explanation of how it is that Sonny (Al Pacino) lives in both heterosexual and homosexual marriages. We accept the idea because we dont really believe in patterns of behavior anymore–only in behavior. Sonny, who is trapped in the middle of robbing a bank, with a crowd gathering in the street outside, is a working-class man who got into this mess by trying to raise money for Leon (Chris Sarandon) to have a sex-change operation, ye the audience doesn’t laugh. The most touching element in the film is Sonny’s inability to handle all the responsibilities he has assumed. Though he is half-crazed by his situation, he is trying to do the right thing by everybody–his wife and children, the suicidal Leon, the hostages in the bank. In the sequence in which Sonny dictates his will, we can see that inside this ludicrous bungling robber there’s a complicatedly unhappy man, operating out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

The structure of “Dog Day Afternoon” loosens in the last three-quarters of an hour, but that was the part I particularly cared for. This picture is one of the most satisfying of all the movies starring New York City because the director, Sidney Lumet, and the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, having established that Sonny’s grandstanding gets the street crowd on his side against the cops, and that even the tellers are on his side, let us move into the dark, confused areas of Sonny’s frustrations and don’t explain everything to us. They trust us to feel without our being told how to feel. They prepare us for a confrontation scene between Sonny and Leon, and it never comes, but even that is all right, because of the way that Pacino and Sarandon handle their contact by telephone; Sonny’s anxiety and Leon’s distress are so pure that there’s no appeal for sympathy–no star kitsch to separate us from the nakedness of the feelings on the screen.

Undercover of the Night

Sidney Lumet made some great movies and some decent ones and a bunch of clunkers. But he almost always got good performances from his actors. “Q&A” was a New York corrupt cop story, a Lumet specialty. It wasn’t a great movie but it featured a lot of solid performances–Armand Assante was never better–especially from the supporting cast, another Lumet trademark.

But it was Nick Nolte’s movie.

Man, when he’s on, Nolte is great.

New York Love

Sidney Lumet, one of the great directors to come out of television in the 1950s, has died. He was 86. A New York legend, he was the man behind the camera for classics like “12 Angry Men,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “The Verdict.”

Bow down.

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