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The King of New York: Rolling Stone's 2008 Feature on Sidney Lumet

The director looks back at the movies and the streets that made him

April 9, 2011 2:55 PM ET

Eyes flashing, head up, he struts around Manhattan — all five feet six inches of him — like he owns the streets. And since he's Sidney Lumet, he damn near does. For half a century, this native New Yorker (OK, he was born in Philly, but like he says, "I got out in a year") has directed dozens of movies in and around the city's five boroughs, reveling in its diversity, catching the glamour, the grit, even the moral stench.

Lumet on Lumet: The Director Takes a Fresh Look at a Handful of the Film Classics That Made His Reputation

He has poked his camera into a jury room (12 Angry Men), the mind of a Holocaust survivor (The Pawnbroker), a bank heist (Dog Day Afternoon), a drug bust (Q&A), the power corridors of TV (Network) and the corrupt corners of the justice system (Serpico, Prince of the City). His latest, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, is a return to feisty form after a bumpy stretch that began in 1992 when he miscast Melanie Griffith as a cop infiltrating a sect of Hasidic Jews in A Stranger Among Us. Devil, shot on high-def video with the ballsy energy of a renegade a thbird Lumet's age, is the real deal. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play desperate brothers who plan to rob their parents' jewelry store in Westchester County, a safe bet that instead sparks a family tragedy out of Eugene O'Neill. How like Lumet. You sit down for a caper and get the emotional rug pulled out from under you.

This article appears in the February 7, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

We meet at his office on the top floor of the Ansonia, a historic building that once housed Enrico Caruso, Babe Ruth and the sex club Plato's Retreat. An eight-block walk from the West Side apartment where he lives with Mary Gimbel, his wife since 1980, the shoe box of an office looks like, well, shit. A peek through a tiny window reveals pigeons flying over the city he adores. Otherwise, it's a desk, two chairs and nothing on the white walls to suggest a life that accumulated four wives, two daughters, an Army stint in Burma and a reputation for social protest. And nothing about the career of a master who started as a child actor onstage, moved on to directing live TV and then movies that amassed five Academy Award nominations for him, seventeen nominations for the actors in them and an honorary Oscar in 2005 for life achievement. Lumet leaves the celebrating to others — he's still achieving.

Video: Peter Travers on Sidney Lumet's Film Career

I'll start by saying congratulations. It's been fifty years since you made your first movie, 12 Angry Men. Devil is your forty-fifth feature.
You're putting me on. I'm not, and you know it. Are these tributes getting to be a pain in the ass? In all honesty, I don't look at my movies. When they're over, they're over. If I run across one of them on the box, I might look in for five minutes. As for that honorary Oscar, I think maybe they're saying, "We're surprised you're still alive" [laughs]. You usually get these things a few months before you die. The last thing I know anything about is the thinking on the West Coast. They called me out there from New York when 12 Angry Men came out and got nominated. I was the hot thing, you know, the new flavor. They had this picture they wanted me to do with 5,000 battleships, the works. And I said to the studio head, "Look, all you see in my movie is twelve guys in a jury room. How do you know I can do this?" And he said, "We're looking for a young Lewis Milestone."

Q&A: Sidney Lumet is Still Mad As Hell

Didn't he win an Oscar for directing All Quiet on the Western Front?
Right. Lewis was in his early sixties, and I happened to know that he had developed a case of shingles because he couldn't get a fucking job. The irritation and frustration had mounted to such a degree that he was wearing white gloves to hide the rash. So I asked, "What's wrong with the old Lewis Milestone?" That broke up the meeting fast [laughs].

So you're saying ageism has always been a problem in Hollywood?
Yes, that sense of being nervous about older people. America is a country that throws away old things, and I guess that includes us directors. What surprises studios is that anybody as old as I am can still function well. On Devil, you wouldn't believe the number of reviews that have mentioned my age right away — eighty-three-year-old Sidney Lumet, da da da da da. It's a little silly.

You're not wearing white gloves, so I'm figuring your age didn't hurt in getting the financing for Devil?
It wasn't easy, but it wasn't grueling, either. There's a lot of private money in movies now. Devil is privately financed. It's a positive development, but it's also a two-edged sword. These people don't understand word one about film.

So what gets these financers interested? Profit? Their name onscreen?
They're interested in getting laid. To them, the girls involved in movies are all 36-D cup. I walked into the Beverly Hills Hotel years ago, and one of these guys was sitting in the Polo Lounge, smashed out of his mind, with an arm around a girl on his left and an arm around a girl on his right, groping for a tit on each side. That was as bold a thing as I'd ever seen then. And none of it's changed [laughs]. These are the constants in life.

Let's walk through a little history here. You've been nominated for an Oscar as Best Director four times. And you haven't won yet. Do you think there's still a shot?
As long as I'm alive.

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