Sid­ney Lumet: A Life

  • Review
By – June 19, 2020

Any­one who fre­quent­ed movie the­aters in the 1960s and 1970s will know Sid­ney Lumet’s work. He left an indeli­ble mark on pop­u­lar cul­ture in those years with such var­ied hits as Fail Safe, The Group, Ser­pi­co, Mur­der on the Ori­ent Express, Dog Day After­noon, Net­work, and The Wiz. Even before those great suc­cess­es he had pio­neered dra­ma on tele­vi­sion in the 1950s, and he con­tin­ued to make impor­tant movies until 2007, four years before his death.

Mau­ra Spiegel’s affec­tion­ate biog­ra­phy begins in Brook­lyn, where Sid­ney was pushed into show busi­ness at the age of four. His father, a some­time actor, brought Sid­ney into the cast of a local Yid­dish radio ser­i­al. At the age of eleven he appeared in the leg­endary opera-ora­to­rio of Jew­ish his­to­ry The Eter­nal Road, a col­lab­o­ra­tion by Euro­pean émi­grés Max Rein­hardt, Franz Wer­fel, and Kurt Weill seen by a mil­lion New York­ers in 1937.

After serv­ing in World War II, he starred in the Zion­ist pageant A Flag is Born, also with music by Kurt Weill. When Lumet moved to tele­vi­sion in 1952 as a direc­tor, he spe­cial­ized in dra­mas, includ­ing clas­sics of the Euro­pean and Amer­i­can stage. His biggest hit was the series You Are There, dra­ma­tiz­ing his­tor­i­cal events as if they were break­ing news sto­ries, with nar­ra­tion by Wal­ter Cronkite. A play he direct­ed for tele­vi­sion in 1957, Regi­nald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, remains a clas­sic today.

Anoth­er of his notable tele­vi­sion episodes was an adap­ta­tion of the Yid­dish play The Dyb­buk (1960). He would often return to Jew­ish themes in his motion pic­tures. His land­mark 1964 film The Pawn­bro­ker was one of the first to cen­ter around a Holo­caust sur­vivor. The com­e­dy Bye Bye Braver­man (1968) is unin­hib­it­ed­ly Jew­ish, though it has more shtick than sub­stance. The melo­dra­ma A Stranger Among Us (1992) is set in a Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty in Brooklyn.

Mau­ra Spiegel pro­vides a back­stage view of the mak­ing of each of his 43 films, describ­ing their ori­gins, cast­ing, and the response by audi­ences and crit­ics. Each one is dif­fer­ent, but tak­en togeth­er they illus­trate the pow­er­ful influ­ence of per­son­al rela­tion­ships in any col­lab­o­ra­tive project. It’s also a trea­sure chest of anec­dotes about the stars of the past.

Spiegel’s empa­thy for Lumet par­tic­u­lar­ly comes to the fore when she chron­i­cles each of his four mar­riages in close detail. Rather than tak­ing sides in domes­tic dif­fer­ences, she remains gen­er­ous to all con­cerned: hap­py for those in love, under­stand­ing when things don’t work out. It’s a refresh­ing con­trast to the some­times mali­cious tell-all” biogra­phies can haunt celebrities.

Some of the com­ments that Spiegel elicit­ed from her sources would not be out of place in a fan mag­a­zine: Sid­ney was the warmest, the most lov­ing per­son.” He’d nev­er get mad at any­body.” “[E. L.] Doc­torow said that he rec­og­nized Sid­ney was absolute­ly right.” That’s entire­ly under­stand­able; this book is clear­ly a labor of love.

Mau­ra Spiegel’s biog­ra­phy makes a strong case for Sid­ney Lumet’s impor­tance in film his­to­ry while cap­tur­ing the essence of his per­son­al­i­ty and his life.

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