Lumet, Sidney: Position among Hollywood Directors–Part 3

Despite nultiple Academy nominations and numerous directorial achievements, formal recognition for Lumet’s talent came late and was not universal.  He had never won a competitven Directing Oscar Award, though the Academy later bestowedon Lumet an Honorary Oscar, perhaps as a compensation.

Some say his Oscar hopes may have been blocked after 33 years of directing movies by the rivalry between East Coast and West Coast filmmakers. “Sidney’s never around,” is one frequent complaint against Lumet in Hollywood.  California’s community is also aware of his critical views of the film industry.

His reputation among critics has wavered with many of his films.  He is generally accepted as a sensitive and intelligent director of considerably good taste and gift for handling actors.  At the same time, he has been criticized for lacking a personal style and covering up this lack with pretentious themes and flashy photography and editing techniques.

Sarris Auteurism an Lumet

In “The American Cinema,” Andrew Sarris, the noted critic for the Village Voice and a major proponent of the auteur theory, does not include Lumet in the highest categories of filmmakers, a place reserved for John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and their likes.

Lumet is classified in a category labeled “Strained Seriousness,” along with Richard Brooks, Norman Jewison, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Rossen, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, and Robert Wise.  According to Sarris, “these are talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness.  Their ambitious projects tend to inflate rather than expand.”

At its best, Sarris holds, Lumet’s direction is efficient but impersonal.  “Unfortunately, Lumet shows no signs of ever rising above the middle-brow aspirations of his projects to become the master rather than the mimic of the current trend away from Hollywood.”  In his defense, Lumet has claimed: “Your vision comes in your selection of material; your frame is only there to serve the material.  So, for me, the frames are always going to be different.”

Lumet believed that he could work very quickly, “because I can retain millions of detail…..maybe it’s sheer metabolism.”Hopkins, who worked for Lumet as an assistant director, once noted: “It’s awesome how fast his mind is.  He directs at the speed he thinks.”  Lumet is also willing to admit that “every once in a while there’s something sloppy in my work because of my pace.”

One problem in evaluating Lumet’s art derives from the fact that he had neither been the author of his material (like John Cassavetes or Robert Rossen), nor the producer of most of his films (like Richard Brooks or Stanley Kubrick).  Lumet’s career and status as a director bear strong resemblance to Martin Ritt, another underrated Jewish-American director.  Like Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae), Lumet believed in faithfully transposing to the screen the works of other writers and dramatists–a great quality which, unfortunately, is held against them.  And like Ritt, Lumet’s self-effacement–which stand in diametric opposition to the self-aggrandizement of today’s directors–deprived him of the reputation he undoubtedly earned.