The Man Who Shot Too Much

What took octogenarian auteur Sidney Lumet so long to get an Oscar? He made too many movies.

I don't care if you subscribe to the auteur theory or not: Everyone who loves movies has a moment when he realizes that there's a single person behind this stuff--an organizing mind, the repetitious rhythm of one and only one sensibility. For me, that moment came at the age of nine, sitting in a second-run theater in Mount Prospect, Illinois, as the MGM lion gave way to four extremely loud, chattering TV news anchors: Cronkite, Chancellor, Reasoner, and a rather epicene-looking Peter Finch, all reading tired copy about Gerald Ford and stagflation...at the same time.

Over this image came the impossibly jaded narration of Lee Richardson: "This is the story of Howard Beale, who last year had a 10 share and a 46 rating..." We zoom in on Finch's face as Richardson spells out the sad details of Beale's downfall: bad ratings and worse, wife leaves, Beale turns to drink. In every sense, the man is canceled.

Sidney Lumet's Network (1976)--which, God bless him, he credited in the opening titles as "Network by Paddy Chayefsky" (the screenwriter)--kicks off with Beale announcing that he's about to blow his brains out on national TV. And yeah, that's where the Chayefsky-izing begins--those torrents of insanely florid monologue that somehow fuse theater and cinema into some magical third being. But it's this opening shot--I swear on my mother's eyes--that made me a movie addict.

Turning states: Sidney Lumet around the time of 'Prince in the City'
The Academy Library
Turning states: Sidney Lumet around the time of 'Prince in the City'

Why? Because of four lousy TVs and some snarky voiceover narration? No. The genius of the shot, the inspired element, is Lumet's radical fusion of hot and cold. I would like to make the case that this jarring yin-and-yang artist, this supercollider of disparate and nonnegotiable entities, is the most underrated director with a personal sensibility to emerge from the modern studio system. For decades, Lumet was popularly regarded as the thinking man's hack; how gratifying it is to see that the story of the soon-to-be-81-year-old artist, picking up a gold statuette for the first time on Sunday night (it's an honorary Oscar), has turned into a triumph of the idiosyncratic, a victory for individual feeling.

Take another Lumet masterpiece--the now-almost-completely-forgotten Prince of the City from 1981. I can't think of another movie that touches greatness despite such a disastrously miscast actor in the lead--an actor who, I might add, is in nearly every frame of the film. Treat Williams plays Detective Danny Ciello--a corruption-haunted New York cop who slides down a primrose path and informs on his partners--like he was Judd Nelson on a downbound train. Cast opposite New York's finest character actors and wholly authentic nonactors--deli-counter faces that Law and Order only prays it could conjure--Williams is a long, wide slab of phony baloney. But guess what? It doesn't matter. Lumet studied Kurosawa at length before shooting Prince of the City, and the eerie quietude of Kurosawa's contemporary genre pictures seeped into it. The sublimity of Prince comes, again, in a Lumetian melding of opposites. The director shot it documentary-style on real locations, with something like 200 speaking parts and almost as many scenes. Visually, the picture is crisp, even though the skies are overcast. And then the music: Lumet hired the classical composer Paul Chihara to create what big-time Prince foe Pauline Kael called an "existential fugue by Schubert." No matter: Watch Prince of the City and feel a tingle as Chihara's shrill violins and dreamy woodwinds abrade against Long Island hypernaturalism. The result: an AM-radio news bulletin that feels like a haiku.

Another peculiarly endearing Lumet quality is his utter lack of fear to deal with what they call "inside baseball," with material that might seem...how do you put it? Too New York Jewish? His magnificent Bye Bye Braverman (1968) has to be the movies' sole portrait of the kind of New York Jewish intellectual who, if he's lucky, appears for one minute as gag fodder in a Woody Allen film. In Lumet's Just Tell Me What You Want (1980)--a movie I could watch every single day, twice a day if I had the hours--Alan King plays a mogul, based on the producer Ray Stark, who tears at the world with big incisors. When dumped by the shiksa of his dreams (a smart and accomplished Ali McGraw), King falls to his knees and booms, "I'm a dead Jew!" He isn't, of course; in fact, he's more alive than ever. Just Tell Me What You Want is a movie about the New York that you dream about as a kid: a boutique of ambition, wisecracks, leathery old matrons with their eunuch-like "walkers," outta-sight department stores, and dinner at the Russian Tea Room with your teenage mistress. (That's Dr. Kissinger, honey! Wave hello to Henry!) It's a far juicier encapsulation of the uptown New York of the imagination than Allen's gentrified Manhattan, the movie that creamed it at the box office.

So what's Lumet's problem? What took him so long to walk down the Oscar aisle? Answer: He made too many movies. Sure, we can pretend to see genius in Hanna Schygulla sliding down a graffiti-strewn wall in the 18th handmade Fassbinder flick, but Lumet's profligacy hits closer to home: His just-tell-me-what-you-want-and-I'll-do-it period coincided with the advent of cable TV. Many of us have unfortunate memories associated with Melanie Griffith pretending to be a Hasidic Jew in Lumet's A Stranger Among Us (1992), or Richard Gere futzing up his consonants behind a Rupert Pupkin moustache in the director's Power (1986). Lumet took on a lot of material that was beneath his gifts: As a hustler from the Playhouse 90 period of TV, he may have learned not to be too choosy. Could we learn the same? Could we, as 21st-century film lovers, afford to forgive? Look: There's no pressing need to watch Lumet's Garbo Talks (1984) again. Instead, I recommend taking a weekend to polish off a quartet of the director's late-'70s/early-'80s masterworks: Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Just Tell Me What You Want, and Prince of the City. Surely there's a filmmaker working today who could have made a movie as good as any one of those--who could, in fact, have made any one of them himself. But is there another soul alive who could have made all of them?

 
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