Published last year, Maura Spiegel’s Sidney Lumet: A Life is an absolutely first-rate biography. It is probably the strongest single director biography I’ve ever read and definitely one of the best showbiz biographies I’ve come across. The book is heavily researched, provides astute analysis of Lumet’s work and personal life, and Spiegel does a fine job of illustrating Lumet’s influence on more recent films and television programs.
I knew quite a bit about Lumet going into Spiegel’s biography, but I learned so much more through her enjoyable and accessible 363 pages. I was unaware that Lumet had grown up a stage and screen actor with deep Yiddish roots in 1930s New York. Through Spiegel’s book I also learned that Lumet had served in the American military in World War II, and had experienced Anti-Semitism as well as pervasive humiliation there (Lumet remarked on the humiliation of having to use toilets without stalls while serving). Racial prejudice and the sterility and messiness of institutions would appear again and again in his work.
Film critics often describe Lumet as being workmanlike in his aesthetic and output. This generalization often came from Lumet’s early work in television in the 1950s. What Spiegel’s book makes clear and what I’ve known for a long time is that Lumet was very much an auteur. Lumet was famous, maybe even infamous, for mainly shooting in his hometown New York City, and rarely filming outside of New York and Europe. He repeatedly returned to his theme that justice is fragile in films including 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and that institutional bureaucracy will always protect itself over individuals in his films Serpico, Prince of the City, and Dog Day Afternoon.
Spiegel really does fine work noting how Lumet’s films have influenced more recent projects by younger filmmakers. She points out the aesthetic influence of Lumet’s Prince of the City on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. I’d add that Lumet’s The Verdict and its depiction of the little guy fighting the big institution for justice certainly bears its influence in Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action and Stephen Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich. The sad and weary cynicism of Prince of City is painted all over David Simon’s series The Wire.
Spiegel also presents a clear understanding of Lumet as a man based on her research into his book on filmmaking, his unpublished memoir, as well as interviews she conducted with his friends and relatives. Lumet had a philandering father and an unstable mother who died while he was young, and his work as a child actor provided for his father and sister growing up. So Lumet was always working and always seeing someone. He was married four times in his life, and he is consistently remembered by his wives and friends as a kind, thoughtful, and generous person. This assessment also comes through how actors speak about him: as warm, caring, and patient.
Lumet seems to be getting a reappraisal among film critics and programmers, and Spiegel’s recent book attests to this movement. Hopefully we’ll continue to see this late legend get the recognition he’s long earned.