Sidney Lumet: The King of New York
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.
You’re not pissed about not winning?
I hate to sound like a smart person [laughs]. But I’ve always had the perspective that it’s the work that matters. So that’s been where the concentration has gone. I didn’t even go out for the Oscar show when I was nominated on 12 Angry Men. It’s not out of nobility. I’m thrilled that they gave me an honorary one. I clutched it. You wouldn’t have been able to pull it out of my hand without killing me. One of the reasons is I love a hit. And the best thing about awards is that they can get me the money for three more flops. I’ve been a minority in terms of the establishment part of the business. I’m from New York.
Isn’t there a New York establishment?
I’ve never been aware of one. I don’t see Marty Scorsese socially, and there’s nobody’s work I admire more. Woody Allen? Never. [The artist] Julian Schnabel and I talk, but we were friends before he became a movie director. Maybe they just don’t include me. As far as I know, the New York film cabal doesn’t exist.
Let’s get to your latest New York movie: You open Devil with a hot sex scene, which is not in the Lumet tradition.
Right. I don’t do fucking scenes.
So why this time? The first thing we see is a naked Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei going at it in a hotel room in Brazil. Were you trying to make a “today” movie with a porn-Web-site vibe?
I don’t know what the fuck today is, any more than I know what a commercial movie is. The reason for the sex scene is simple. Andy, Hoffman’s character, is going to do some very unpleasant things during the body of this movie. It’s therefore important to know what it is he wants, what’s driving him. And he wants his idea of fancy sex — fancy only because he can’t really function unless he’s away from the city, away from his brother, from his parents. He’s one of those people who needs the cruise-ship mentality to function sexually.
Tomei naked, I get it. But Hoffman?
That’s the point. He’s overweight. He’s got a big ass. And to top it off, he’s looking at himself in the mirror. But you have to know what his character wants. So it was the first thing I added.
After you made them brothers.
Right. They were just friends in Kelly Masterson’s script. People often talk about the family dynamics in my movies, maybe because in 1962 I did Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Katharine Hepburn. That one says it all about family. But looking at my work that way would inhibit me. It’s like if I had to come up with some defense for each movie of mine that fails at the box office. I can’t. I don’t have enough ego to say, “That’s a good movie. Fuck you if you don’t know it.” But I know it. I don’t forget [laughs].
Was it easy casting the movie, getting Hoffman and Hawke?
Wonderfully easy. I sent the script first to Philip, one of the finest actors in the country, and I gave him the choice to play either brother: Hank or Andy. Then I sent it to Ethan. And Ethan said he wanted to play Hank. I was surprised, because Hank is a weak character, and most actors are afraid of that. But Ethan had this image of how to activate a weak man. He’s always in motion. I preferred Andy to be older, to be the influence on Hank, pushing him. So I called Philip back, and he said, “Great.” That simple. Marisa Tomei was my first choice to play Andy’s wife, who’s cheating on him with Hank. Marisa is wonderful after that sex scene, when sadness overwhelms her. I love that moment. I also love it when Albert Finney, as the father, walks down the hospital corridor at the end. There’s another scene in the script after that with Ethan and Marisa, but I didn’t use it. I knew the movie was over when Albert walked out. It doesn’t matter what happens after. Let the audience wonder.
You’ve made some movies — A Stranger Among Us, The Wiz, Family Business — that you’ve been hammered for. How does that make you feel?
It hurts. But what happens over time — maybe it’s because I started so early as an actor, four years old — there’s always been a leveling influence. I don’t plunge into despair. And when it works well, I don’t go wild with joy. Now maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’ve reduced the size of my life. I don’t think so. I think it’s the sensible way to work.
You were praised for your book Making Movies, in which you said, “I’ve done two movies because I needed the money. I’ve done three because I love to work and couldn’t wait anymore.” Do you know a movie will suck while you’re making it?
In one, I knew at the end of the second week of rehearsal. And the other one, I knew on the second day of shooting. And the terrible thing is there’s nobody I can talk to, because I’m the director [laughs]. I can’t tell the actors. They’ll go running to the hills and scream, and be totally useless. So I’m stuck with this knowledge. And now I’ve got to go through eight weeks, whatever the shooting schedule is. But you do know.
It must be a special kind of torture.
It is. What helps is that all of us have this never-ending talent for self-deception [laughs]. You need that self-deception just to go to work.
OK, let’s look at some Lumet classics from the 1970s. What’s your memory of Dog Day Afternoon, with Al Pacino as a bank robber who takes hostages? It’s the quintessential New York movie.
Well, my biggest memory of it is how high we were. I think we did that movie in, like, thirty-two days. And that’s 500 fucking people in the street all the time. Part of the exhilaration came from Al’s performance, because he was so screaming high. He was two octaves above C.
Was he living this part?
He was so terrified of it that the only way he could get through it was to turn himself into an obsessed actor, although he’s always obsessed, really. Do you know that the day before we started shooting, he quit?
You’re kidding, right?
He asked me and the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, to come up to his house for some cockamamie reason. It was preshooting terror. And we walked in. He was crawling around on all fours, barking like a dog. And I know Al’s not crazy. Nor is he a lunatic when he works. He’s got very solid technique, knows what he’s doing. I said, “Al, what the fuck is this?” He said, “I’m out of control. I can’t do this one.” At the time, I don’t think there’d ever been a major Hollywood star who had played a gay man, much less a gay man who wanted to marry another guy, much less steal to get the money for the guy’s sex-change operation. The terror for Al came in realizing what he had committed to. The Godfather had already opened, and he was at the top. Plus, he had a Godfather II start date waiting, a week after we finished. So it was all beginning for him.
How did you talk him off the ledge?
The only thing that worked was to get up on a ledge with him. There was no hint of analysis on my part, no attempt to say, “Al, calm down.” I just kept relating his present state of mind to the character and what the character must have felt like when he decided to rob the bank. I had such faith in him as an actor, having worked with him already in Serpico, that I knew way back in his head the actor part of him would be digesting all these feelings and saying, “Hey, I can use that in the performance.” It was no problem. He showed up the next day.
What about your state of mind on a movie set? Do you carry a whip to lay down the law? Are you a shouter?
Never shouting. Always calm, unless I’ve got a lunatic on the set. I work with great good humor, very close to the crew. It’s very relaxed. And one of the things I told Al, I said, “You’re a real pain in the ass.” Because at that time, he was one of those actors who had to stay in the state that the scene demanded. If the scene was in great anger, he’d be fucking angry all day — kicking things, speaking rudely to people. And I said, “Al, I’ve got to get you together with Albert Finney,” who I’d worked with in Murder on the Orient Express. “With him, you say, ‘Cut,’ and he steps out, stays quiet and thinks about the next scene. With you, when the character has a bad day, you give us a bad day.” He listened — it was good.
I’ve been on a Lumet set — you’re very affectionate with people, a toucher, a kisser.
The fastest kiss in the East [laughs]. Look, on a movie, we’re all giving each other something precious. No bullshit, I can’t think of a better job. It’s not a technique. I’m not a fool. I think I’m a talented man. But then there’s luck. I think there’s a reason luck doesn’t always happen to others. They don’t know how to prepare the groundwork for luck. I do.
How does one prepare for luck?
Work. It’s something that I’m so dependent on: work. Three of the worst moments generated from the outside — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when JFK was shot and 9/11 — in all three instances, I broke for lunch, and we came back an hour later and resumed work. There was no dwelling on it. We had our work to do. It absolutely had to go on, even if I could feel resentment from the crew.
On 9/11, you were shooting 100 Centre Street for cable TV.
Right. I arrived around 9:10 a.m., and coming over the Triborough Bridge, I saw Tower Two go down. And there was never a doubt in my mind that we should continue. I called everybody together, and I said, “If you’re worried about your families, go, please. But if there are enough of you left, I want to keep on working.” I had cots brought in so we could sleep at the studio. And then the following day, Wednesday, when we went back out on location, members of that crew came up and said, “Sidney, you were so right for us to keep working, because all we would have done is go home and watch the fucking box, same shots over and over, of everything falling.”
Speaking of the box brings us to Network. Peter Finch won the first posthumous Oscar, for playing a crazed TV anchor who’s mad as hell because TV will do anything for ratings, including film robberies and executions. This was in 1976. You and writer Paddy Chayefsky actually foresaw the birth of reality TV.
People would say to me and Paddy, “It’s a brilliant satire.” And we’d say, “What satire? It’s sheer reportage” [laughs]. We had the feeling while making Network that something special was happening. But it wasn’t totally joyful making it. I was so worried about my comedy skills. I was very good at making jokes. But here, working with Chayefsky, who was the modern Molière, the jokes were about the most serious things.
When you direct something like the “mad as hell” scene, are you aware it’s going to have an impact on the zeitgeist?
Not when I’m doing it. But I knew that “mad as hell” had to be done in total truthfulness. And it was such a sense of devotion and participation by Peter Finch on the first take. And I wanted to do another. “Start slower,” I said, “and let’s see what we get.” And we started Take Two, and Peter stopped in the middle. I didn’t know about his heart condition then. He wasn’t saying anything, because it would have made him uninsurable. He just stopped and said, “Sidney, I can’t go on.” I said, “OK, let’s not push it.” And what you see in the movie is that first half of the speech from Take Two, and the rest from Take One. He was dead a few months later.
You seem to have a genuine connection with actors. You’re probably the only director, living or dead, who has ever directed both Marlon Brando and Vin Diesel. Is it because you began your career as an actor?
I understand what they’re going through. The self-exposure, which is at the heart of all their work, is done using their own body. It’s their sexuality, their strength or weakness, their fear. And that’s extremely painful. And when they’re not doing it in their performance, they pull back. They get shy. Paul Newman, who I worked with on The Verdict, is one of the shyest men I’ve ever met. That’s why rehearsal is so important.
How long to rehearse on a movie?
Sometimes three weeks — Long Day’s Journey Into Night was four weeks. It depends on the complexity of the characters. That way the actors get confidence in what I see in them. Actors have told me, angrily, about directors who don’t see. That’s the reason Marlon Brando was a tester. He would test to see if the director understood what he was doing.
How did Brando test you?
He tested me the second day we were shooting The Fugitive Kind. He would do two takes. But in one, he was working from the inside. In the other, he was just what we call indicating it. Doing the same vocal pattern, the same physical pattern, but not really playing it. He watched to see which take I printed.
And what if you picked wrong?
Oh, you are fucked from there on in [laughs]. Because he is not going to pour it out for somebody who doesn’t see it.
What about your movie orphans, the ones no one takes home and gives careful attention, even on DVD?
Daniel is one because of my love for that script Edgar Doctorow did from his own book [a fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs and their execution for spying] and for the theme: the cost children pay for their parents’ passions. The failure of that movie got me to do two more movies, Running on Empty and the silly, bad Family Business, with the exact same theme. Crazy.
Let’s try an experiment: Pretend that you just got a script. And it’s called The Sidney Lumet Story.
I’m saying no right now [laughs].
Humor me. I want to know where the movie starts. Do you paint a rosy picture of your life as the child of Baruch Lumet, a star of the Yiddish theater? You have a father, and then you have this guy who’s also up on the stage. Is there a disconnect?
He was no father figure. He was only a father up on the stage. It’s the only time I liked him. He was a terrible man.
Did he lose his patience with you?
He didn’t have patience. He had a bad temper. He hit us. He was probably unfaithful to my mother all the time. I don’t know. But she sure complained about him. I could hear the fights. Nothing admirable about him, until he went to work. And then he was admirable.
And how was he when you started to get in his game and act?
Thrilled. This was during the Depression. So when I worked, we ate. He wasn’t working that often. The Yiddish theater was well past its great days. He was a very talented actor, but he had an accent — a heavy accent, Polish — so he never could work on Broadway. And eating was a problem for a long time, until I began working steadily on Broadway.
And your mom was what? Worried?
She was supportive. We ate regularly when I worked.
A sister, older, and I think she probably had some resentment because, among other things, I got all the attention.
Did you like it?
Loved it [laughs]! As Mel Brooks said, it’s fun to be the king.
You started acting onstage when you were four. At eleven, you made your Broadway debut in Dead End. I found a New York Times review of your stage performance in My Heart’s in the Highlands. It said, “Lumet, as the boy, was charming and showed a manly technique.” What manly things were you doing?
I was acting the part. One of the points of the play was that my father is a poet, and I’m the kid, thirteen, and I’m taking care of him, ’cause he can’t do squat about life. I’m the one who gets us through it.
Just like at home?
On to Hollywood: What was the first acting you did in front of the camera?
Just did it once: One Third of a Nation. I was fifteen.
How would you direct that scene in your movie biopic?
To show the terror. The director was maddening. And he knew nothing about actors, or working with them. The star was Sylvia Sidney, who, you’ll pardon me speaking badly of the dead, was a nasty old cunt. When it was time for my closeup, the director said, “Sylvia, please give him the lines, instead of the script girl.” She was so resentful of that, she sat there clicking her knitting needles. She was a great knitter. Not one look at me, just mumbling. She was terrible. The whole experience was lousy.
Acting’s loss, directing’s gain. How does it make you feel when you run into younger filmmakers, like George Clooney, who say, “Mr. Lumet, I admire your work so much that I’m stealing from it”?
I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. I don’t know what they’re stealing, because, to me, the style of every movie is determined by the script. As far as I can see, there is no Lumet style. I pour myself into it, but I don’t know what they’re extracting. I swear I don’t. I’m thrilled that a movie of mine has a resonance for somebody that I never intended, ’cause that means I did it well, but I never know what it is.
OK, weird last question: What was your first memory?
Hmm. I think . . . it’s at a very young age. I remember being in my carriage, and we lived on the Lower East Side then, and it was a rough place to live. And I remember somebody putting a snowball under my hat, next to my ear. And the cold, I swear I remember feeling it.
It’s tactile — like you, like your movies.
It’s a feeling. It has no judgment. I’m starting a new movie now, Getting Out. It’s a prison picture. I wrote it. And I have a feeling about that, too. A feeling, no judgment. Just off we go.
Lumet on Lumet: The Director Takes a Fresh Look at a Handful of the Film Classics That Made His Reputation
12 Angry Men, 1957 “Henry Fonda has to talk sense to the other jurors — Lee J. Cobb (above) played a racist. One room. People think the smaller a movie is, the simpler it is. Not so.” When I tell Lumet the fi lm is the fave of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), he smiles.
Serpico, 1973 “Al Pacino’s talent is just blinding. His Frank Serpico is a New York cop protesting cop corruption. Protesting is what mattered to him. That got to me. I was brought up Orthodox. The Jewish ethic is stern, moralistic. I thought like that very early.”
Network, 1976 “Peter Finch’s TV news anchor yelling ‘I’m mad as hell’ is a sane man yelling at an insane world. The writer, Paddy Chayefsky, was prescient. The only thing that hasn’t happened yet from that movie is a reality show where they shoot someone on the air.”
Prince of the City, 1981 “This was Treat Williams playing a cop who crosses the line. I remember we shot it all over the city, hundreds of locations. I have never paid so much attention directing a movie. New York always gives me back as much as I put into it.”
The Verdict, 1982 “Paul Newman’s lawyer, as David Mamet wrote him, is looking for salvation. It’s about the separation between the law and what justice actually is.” Lumet’s fast pace made Newman joke that Lumet “could doublepark in front of a whorehouse.”