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The dramatic life of Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet


Chris Nashawaty is a former critic at Entertainment Weekly. His most recent book is “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story.”

If you’ve never spent much time in New York, there’s a decent chance that the image of it in your head comes from one of the more than 40 movies directed by Sidney Lumet. The sweat and the noise, the ambition and the corruption, the blue-collar beat cops and the sea of yellow taxis driven by mouthy, outer-borough cabbies — these were the vibrant daubs of paint that made up Lumet’s palette. And it’s fair to say that no other filmmaker employed those colors as vividly as Lumet did on the big screen during the latter half of the 20th century, from his 1957 debut, “12 Angry Men,” through such modern classics as “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “Prince of the City.” He completed his final feature, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” in 2007 and died at age 86 in 2011. Even Martin Scorsese, no stranger to the very same mean streets that Lumet walked and worked, called him the quintessential New York director.

The son of Polish immigrants, steeped in the thriving Yiddish theater scene of the Lower East Side in the 1920s and ’30s, Lumet would go on to become the ultimate “actor’s director.” His films, teeming with both conflict and a crusading sense of social conscience, would end up earning 18 Oscar nominations for his stars — a feat in no small part due to a hardscrabble, Dickensian youth spent onstage as a precocious child actor (he made his Broadway debut at 11). Lumet understood in his marrow the men and women who pretended for a living, both their vanities and neuroses, as only a fellow performer could. And yet, despite a career filled with both professional triumphs and personal disappointments (he was married four times and never did win the best-director statuette he so ached for), Lumet has never gotten the biography treatment. Until now.

There was certainly enough dramatic sturm und drang in Lumet’s life to fill a dozen such cradle-to-grave volumes: his formative years onstage and in the Far East with the Army’s signal corps during World War II; his involvement with the revolutionary Group Theatre; cutting his teeth behind the camera during the birth of live television in the 1950s; the ritzy, social swirl of his odd-couple marriage to tabloid heiress Gloria Vanderbilt; his close friendships with Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, to name but a few. Unfortunately, the first biography to hit bookstore shelves delivers few new insights into the director’s films.

Maura Spiegel, a teacher of literature and film at Columbia University, conducted more than 30 interviews for “Sidney Lumet: A Life.” Some of the anecdotes she extracts from her subjects provide revealing glimpses of a man who seemed to be a mystery to even himself. But readers may wish that Spiegel spent a little more time on his movies.

The book’s greatest strength is its first half, thanks no doubt to Spiegel’s access to Lumet’s unfinished memoir. The director abandoned his autobiography as the story line reached his 20s. As a result, in Spiegel’s book, Lumet’s early years, before his movie career kicks off, are chronicled with a gripping degree of detail — his estranged relationship with his distant, narcissistic actor father, the primal pain of losing his mentally unstable mother when he was 15, the seeds of his lifelong commitment to social justice. But Spiegel struggles to find anything new (or particularly deep) to say about his body of work as a director. As a result, the second half of “Sidney Lumet” too often feels as if the author is sprinting to meet a deadline . . . or catch a bus.

One can certainly understand the need to give only cursory treatment to some of the prolific director’s lesser films — there were plenty of misfires, such as 1978’s “The Wiz” and 1992’s “A Stranger Among Us,” along with the masterpieces. But Spiegel shortchanges too many of Lumet’s most influential projects, offering little or no context or critical insight to flesh them out. “The Pawnbroker,” for example, is dispatched in three pages; “The Verdict” in four. Spiegel gives us two sentences on 1969’s “The Appointment,” starring Omar Sharif, one of which mentions that the film was never distributed in the United States. Surely, there has to be a juicy story there, but none is forthcoming. Other films, like 1965’s underrated war drama “The Hill,” starring Sean Connery, are dispatched in half a page without so much as a plot description.

Spiegel reveals that during the making of 1959’s “That Kind of Woman,” Lumet fell in love with his leading lady, Sophia Loren, but then the author moves on (wait, more please!). It’s hard not to come away feeling cheated by these drive-bys if you’re a film buff looking for insight and illumination. Even Lumet’s miraculous three-year run during the 1970s — his most inspired decade — when he cranked out “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network,” is over and done with before you know it. In her brief snippet on that last film, Spiegel writes that the star of the media satire, Faye Dunaway, “would prove inordinately troublesome as the filming progressed,” then fails to offer a simple example of how. This isn’t just a disservice, it’s derelict.

Ironically, as anyone who’s interviewed Lumet (or has watched Nancy Buirski’s far more insightful documentary, “By Sidney Lumet”) knows, he was one of the chattiest and most unvarnished evaluators of his own work to ever yell “Action” and “Cut.” He was a seductive, natural-born storyteller with a self-lacerating wit, often unspooling stories with a frisky, Cheshire-cat grin. Sadly, too little of those qualities come across in this ultimately superficial biography, where Lumet remains an enigma and his life’s work an afterthought. Hopefully, a deeper, richer tribute awaits.

A Life

By Maura Spiegel

St. Martin’s.
401 pp. $29.99