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.