When Sidney Lumet was awarded the lifetime achievement award at Sunday night’s Oscars, he was in a familiar position: Martin Scorsese’s shadow.
While Scorsese’s failed bid to capture his first Academy Award was the night’s primary source of drama, Sidney Lumet — the other New York director — was finally recognized. Moviegoers could be excused for shouts of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
The 80-year-old filmmaker has made over 40 films in his career, including “Network,” in which Peter Finch shouted that memorable rant. Though nominated for his direction in “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “12 Angry Men” and “The Verdict,” Lumet never took home a golden trophy — but that’s not to say he never planned his speech.
“I was a real smart-aleck and I thought I would say something like, ‘I don’t want to thank anybody, I did it alone.’ It wasn’t true, but I thought it would be a way of getting a little attention,” Lumet said when accepting the award.
After decades of making films, Lumet was left with a stockpile of names to thank, running off a list of directors (including Scorsese) who inspired him. Eventually, he eloquently summed up his gratitude: “I guess I’d like to thank the movies.”
The 74-year-old Clint Eastwood also mentioned his admiration for Lumet while accepting his best director Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby,” saying that compared to Lumet, “I’m just a kid.”
While Lumet has for years gone relatively underappreciated, actors have consistently turned in some of their most memorable performances under his stewardship. From Katharine Hepburn to Faye Dunaway, Henry Fonda to Paul Newman, Lumet was known as an actor’s director.
Introducing him, Al Pacino, who starred in Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico,” said, “If you prayed to inhabit a character Sidney was the priest who listened to your prayers, helped make them come true.”
The son of an actor and a dancer, Lumet was born in Philadelphia and began acting at New York’s Yiddish Art Theater at age four. After acting through the 1950s, Lumet took the directing chair for the first time in 1957 with “12 Angry Men,” the story of a divided jury.
Lumet would later adapt another play in 1962 with “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but his most remarkable work came in the ‘70s. Critic Pauline Kael called 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” the story of an ill-conceived bank heist, “one of the most satisfying of all the movies starring New York City.”
Lumet is still active, and recently finished shooting “Find Me Guilty,” which returns him to the familiar terrain of the courtroom. The movie stars Vin Diesel as mobster Giacomo “Fat Jack” DiNorscio, who successfully defended himself in a two-year-long trial in the mid-eighties.
During his introduction to the Academy’s post-9/11 tribute to New York movies in 2002, Woody Allen said with typical humility: “God, you can do much better than me. You might want to get Martin Scorsese or Mike Nichols or Spike Lee or Sidney Lumet.”
Well, the Academy finally got Lumet.