Maura Spiegel’s recently published book, Sidney Lumet: A Life, is the definitive look at the Oscar-nominated filmmaker.
After getting his start as a child actor on the stage, Sidney Lumet would transition to directing. By the time he retired from filmmaking, he directed some 45 films in his career. Some would also go onto earn Oscar nominations. Others would be critically panned. In the mid-90s, Lumet would pen his own book in hopes of being added to the film school curriculum. Making Movies should be required reading for any aspiring filmmaker.
Lumet started his directorial career with 12 Angry Men. The 1957 film would earn three Oscar nominations, including Lumet for Best Director. The film would lose all three categories to The Bridge on the River Kwai. Regardless, it’s certainly considered one of the best courthouse dramas of all time. Lumet would go onto earn three more nominations as a director (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict) and one as a screenwriter (Prince of the City). Spiegel discusses some of these films at length. Dave Itzkoff already wrote the behind-the-scenes story on Network in his 2014 book, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.
Prior to reading the biography, I only knew Lumet for having made one of the best films of all time (Network). However, this is really about it. In reading Maura Spiegel’s book, it’s eye-opening. We’re able to really get into the themes of Lumet’s films and why he was attracted to certain stories. Moreover, Spiegel gets into Lumet’s Judaism and how it informed directorial choices. If you’re looking at Holocaust stories now, try exploring films telling stories less than 20 years afterwards!
One fascinating insight is how Lumet responded to McCarthyism. While other colleagues turned in names to HUAC, Lumet found loopholes. How many filmmakers would make this decision while careers were under threat?
Lumet used his position as a filmmaker to hire women in key positions outside of editor and script girl. He used his position as the showrunner of 100 Centre Street to actually do something about this. At the same time, Lumet planned “to have the Directors Guild of America fund an apprenticeship for up-and-coming women directors.” Among those who benefited from working on 100 Centre Street were Susanna Styron and Siobhan Byrne O’Connor. Sadly, the DGA was unable to come through with funding. Years before TIME’S UP, Lumet used his position to bring about change.
But for everything that we learn about Lumet through friends and family, there is still so much more we don’t know. While the multi-hyphenate started writing his own memoir in the 1990s, he reached a point in which he stopped. When you read about his childhood, you can certainly understand how he came to this decision. Baruch Lumet’s oral and written autobiography help to fill in the gaps. Even at that, there is some contradictory information. Unfortunate for sure but it is what it is.
In terms of Lumet telling his own story, we’re left with interviews with journalists and his own unfinished memoir. Aside from that, Sidney Lumet: A Life is a must-read for fans of classic film interested in learning more about his life.