Skip to main content

Sidney Lumet: A Life


Sidney Lumet: A Life

The directorial career of Sidney Lumet coincides neatly with the growth of movies as a fundamental cornerstone of the entertainment industry. Lumet’s five-decade career as the definitive New York film director began with the classic 12 Angry Men, and was followed by such landmark films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Find Me Guilty. You may not have seen the latter, but if gangster movies are your thing, I highly recommend it.

Maura Spiegel’s remarkable book, SIDNEY LUMET: A Life, is readable, insightful and entertaining. A great biography offers more than an understanding of its subject. It places that person in history by chronicling one life among many other lives, and one life experience among countless others that shape a generation. Lumet was fortunate to live and work in an era with actors, writers and fellow directors, including Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, James Dean and Rod Steiger. It is a who’s who of New York theater and Hollywood filmdom. Spiegel’s portrayal of one of cinema’s most socially aware filmmakers is for anyone who enjoys movies or simply wants to learn more about them.

"Spiegel’s attention to detail as she discusses each Lumet film creates new perspectives for readers and the opportunity to take another view of his classic work with fresh insights and understanding."

Spiegel had a vast array of material upon which to build her biography. In addition to Lumet’s own unfinished memoirs, many of his friends and colleagues are still available for interviews and reminiscences. Over the course of a 55-year career that included 43 movies and more than 75 television episodes, along with acting and military service during World War II, Lumet was always active and gleaned as many lessons as possible from a career replete with successes and failures. He measured his own life by how true he was to his characters, his craft and himself. All other barometers of success --- fame, wealth and awards --- were unreliable and only indirectly related to work.

Sidney Lumet was the son of Baruch Lumet, a Polish immigrant who would star in the Yiddish theater in New York. At the dawn of the 20th century, a ready audience thirsting for entertainment in their native language filled theaters that often seated 2,000 viewers. The “Yiddish Broadway,” also called the “Jewish Rialto,” was a community of costume houses, music and photography stores, restaurants and cafes. There were Yiddish versions of plays from Shakespeare to Chekhov. Plentiful work was available for actors, and a young Lumet served an early apprenticeship in the theater as an actor and a singer.

When the United States entered World War II, Lumet was only 17 years old. Although rejected for service because of poor eyesight, he found his way into the Signal Corps as a radar repairman. Military service profoundly impacted his life. He had grown up in a city surrounded by Jewish men. In the army, he experienced a culture shock that included regional as well as religious differences. In New York, 30% of Jewish men attended college; in the army, 30% could neither read nor write.

Returning to New York after the war, Lumet attended actors’ studios and began working in a new industry. In its infancy, television was live and demanded that every detail be considered prior to performances. Building upon his experience in the Signal Corps in radio transmission and electronics, Lumet thrived in this environment. One of his early achievements in TV was You Are There,” a popular and critical success that won Emmys and a Peabody Award.

Appropriately, Spiegel’s biography spends the majority of its time on Lumet’s movie direction. He was an actor’s director, and the roster of talent he worked with included stars such as Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren and Ralph Richardson, as well as young unknown performers, like Nick Nolte, Ali McGraw and Faye Dunaway. Spiegel’s attention to detail as she discusses each Lumet film creates new perspectives for readers and the opportunity to take another view of his classic work with fresh insights and understanding. This book is not to be missed.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 13, 2019

Sidney Lumet: A Life
by Maura Spiegel