Meticulous, engaging, and crisply insightful—while still holding its subject at something of a reverent remove—Maura Spiegel’s robust biography of filmmaker Sidney Lumet offers an encyclopedic journey through the acclaimed filmmaker’s life. The author’s approach simultaneously favors the intimate and the sensational, painting a portrait of America’s most unassuming cinematic auteur that emphasizes both his workaday normalcy and the rarified place he occupies in the nation’s artistic and cultural landscape. It is an unabashedly hagiographic work. The key impression it leaves is one of glowing admiration for Lumet’s talent as a filmmaker and his generosity as a collaborative artist. Spiegel makes the case that while the man’s staggering body of work—over fifty feature films—made him noteworthy, it was his reputation as a mensch that made him beloved, particularly among a certain circle of New York film and theater professionals.
A senior lecturer in English and comparative literature at Columbia University—as well as a founder and co-director of the CU Irving Medical Center’s Program in Narrative Medicine—Spiegel takes an enthusiastic yet detail-oriented approach in marshaling her source material. She generally relies on a vigorous blend of original and existing documentation, although she is often obliged to fall back to a few keystone sources with respect to certain subjects. Establishing the details of Lumet’s childhood, for example, often requires Spiegel to awkwardly resolve the dueling narratives provided by the aborted manuscript to the filmmaker’s memoir and the often-self-serving recollections of his father, the Yiddish theater performer Baruch. The book’s most substantial body of original research consists of an impressive number of new interviews Spiegel was able to obtain with Lumet’s family, friends, and professional collaborators. These conversations are consistently glowing and wistful as Spiegel conveys them, full of fond recollections, misty-eyed admiration, and charming anecdotes. (Even Lumet’s three ex-wives seem broadly affectionate and conciliatory when discussing the man.) It is these interviews that definitively establish the book’s warm, flattering tone.
Spiegel makes the case that while the man’s staggering body of work—over fifty feature films—made him noteworthy, it was his reputation as a mensch that made him beloved, particularly among a certain circle of New York film and theater professionals.
This is not to say that Spiegel is averse to diving into the murkier aspects of Lumet’s life. Indeed, her prose is liveliest—and her insights sharpest—when discussing her subject’s youth, a tumultuous period to which she devotes a substantial chunk of her book’s length. Some of this is doubtlessly attributable to the rich material that the author draws on for this period, which includes primary and secondary sources regarding the history of New York theater in the 1930s and 40s. More essential to Spiegel’s explanatory framework, however, are the autobiographical narratives provided by Lumet and his father, imperfect though those histories might be. Spiegel paints a vivid, often heartbreaking picture of a childhood characterized by perpetual upheaval, uncertainty, and emotional neglect.
For young Sidney, the theater provided both a source of wonder and belonging—but also a suffocating sense of obligation. As a child actor on the Yiddish stage and later on Broadway, he quickly eclipsed his father’s professional successes and replaced him as the family’s chief breadwinner. Spiegel returns repeatedly to the inconsistencies in Sidney’s and Baruch’s remembrances of these years, emphasizing the shamelessly self-absorbed and self-pitying character of the latter’s framing. The author generally treats the ugly family drama with a light touch, preferring to allow Baruch to hang himself with his own heedless, narcissistic words. All the same, Spiegel cannot resist engaging in a bit of armchair psychoanalysis at times, a perhaps understandable indulgence given that the fraught father-son relationship presents such a tempting target. Infrequently, this leads to thinly supported overreach. Was Lumet’s big-kid playfulness with his children and grandchildren compensation for his arduous showbiz childhood? Perhaps, but these and similar stray insights feel like so much conjecture. Conversely, the book’s central thesis vis-à-vis its subject’s formative years feels like an eminently sound one. Namely, Lumet’s heartfelt embrace of a sprawling found family on the New York stage—and later, similar clans in television and film—likely constitutes a reaction to his emotionally undernourished home life.
The picture that emerges is that of a director who inspired unusual trust, devotion, and fondness in his collaborators, especially actors. Lumet established a reputation as a tireless, hyper-efficient mastermind, one whose attentiveness to rehearsal and planning allowed shoots to proceed at a breathless pace.
Some aspects of Lumet’s early years remain somewhat resistant to Spiegel’s inquiries, including the specifics of his mother’s mental health struggles, his years-long estrangement from Baruch, and his eventual falling out with his sister Faye. The fact that these and other areas remain hazy is disappointing from a completist’s perspective, but Spiegel’s book is most concerned with the development of the filmmaker Lumet would become. She illuminates the lessons a precocious young Sidney learned from the populist, moralist, and occasionally artistically daring world of Yiddish theater. She draws a line from Lumet’s time with the innovative, left-leaning Group Theatre—a Stanislavki-influenced collective that would count an astounding number of acclaimed actors, directors, and playwrights as alumni—to the sort of characters and stories that would perennially fascinate him as a director. From his WWII service as an Army radar repairman and instructor, Spiegel sees the genesis of the engineering acumen and dirty-fingernail problem-solving that served Lumet well in the Wild West world of live television where he first made his name as a director. Despite the diverse array of subjects and genres Lumet ultimately tackled during his career as a filmmaker—not to mention his own collaboration-minded resistance to auteur theory—Spiegel clearly illustrates how key aspects of his artistic approach are rooted in his early experiences.
Once Spiegel alights on Lumet’s first theatrical feature—the 1957 jury-room drama 12 Angry Men, which is in some ways the archetypal urgent, liberal-minded, character-driven “Sidney Lumet film”—the book’s pace quickens somewhat. Thereafter, the author proceeds through the director’s sizeable filmography and four marriages at a steady clip, tarrying here and there to allow her interview subjects to inform Lumet’s career and personal life with their close-to-the-throne perspectives. Every work that Lumet directed between 12 Angry Men and 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (his final feature) is discussed at least briefly, and many of his films receive a much deeper treatment, as Spiegel delves into production histories and critical receptions. Lumet’s 1995 book Making Movies is a key source here, as are interviews (both existing and original) with cast and crew members. The picture that emerges is that of a director who inspired unusual trust, devotion, and fondness in his collaborators, especially actors. Over the course of some fifty-odd feature films, Lumet established a reputation as a tireless, hyper-efficient mastermind, one whose attentiveness to rehearsal and planning allowed shoots to proceed at a breathless pace. (Irrespective of box office returns, studios appreciated his talent for consistently finishing early and under budget.)
Siegel intercuts this cavalcade of professional achievements (and occasional flops) with interludes regarding Lumet’s consecutive failed marriages to Rita Gam, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Gail Jones—and his final, lasting union with Mary Bailey Gimbel. One gets the impression, perhaps deliberate, of two separate lives proceeding on parallel tracks. Despite the loving, even sentimental, demeanor that Lumet often exhibited in his family life, his work always seemed to come first. Even at their most sanguine, Lumet’s ex-wives are clear-eyed about their dissatisfactions. Ultimately, Lumet comes off less as a domestic villain than a well-intentioned but negligent workaholic, his at-times retrograde expectations about married life obliviously bouncing off his wives’ unfulfilled needs and wants. That said, Lumet’s gooey love notes and cartoon doodles to Vanderbilt, which Spiegel excerpts, are one of the book’s singular, humanizing delights.
When acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa expressed admiration for Lumet’s epic police corruption drama Prince of the City (1981), the praise moved the latter man to tears. This need for adulation from the filmmaking community is consistent with the primacy of found families in Lumet’s life.
Spiegel is not especially concerned with resolving these two aspects of Lumet’s story—the professional and the domestic—into some sort of dubious grand unified theory about the man. This is perhaps for the best, given that family life often seemed like a secondary concern to Lumet himself. However, much like his film sets, Lumet’s private life was often a who’s who of the famous and influential: actors, producers, writers, intellectuals, and all manner of New York cultural and social luminaries. Lumet himself might have been a decidedly unshowy figure, but he was always surrounded by beautiful, intelligent, and important people. In Spiegel’s account, gatherings at the Lumet household vibrated with ideas, opinions, and the kind of incongruous episodes that could only result when the leading lights of twentieth-century New York were crammed into one buzzing, smoke-filled space. One indelible incident, in which Lumet and Bob Fosse sparred over the correct placement of plates and cutlery in a dishwasher, was later adapted and immortalized by Lumet’s daughter Jenny in her screenplay for Jonathan Demme’s fictional 2008 film Rachel Getting Married.
In such scenes, Lumet never played the part of the maverick artist trailing his obsequious entourage. As Spiegel emphasizes, the filmmaker was an authentically beloved figure, a man whose animated personality, light-speed intellect, and unpretentious warmth won over numerous lifelong friends. Indeed, while Lumet was apparently ambivalent regarding praise from strangers, he craved the approval of his peers with a kind of hungry desperation. He was the sort of person who would exhibit frank anguish over the fact that he never won a competitive Best Director Oscar—although he did eventually receive a lifetime achievement award. When acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa expressed admiration for Lumet’s epic police corruption drama Prince of the City (1981), the praise moved the latter man to tears. This need for adulation from the filmmaking community is consistent with the primacy of found families in Lumet’s life. Spiegel refrains from leaning on this point excessively, but it is omnipresent, murmuring underneath the surface of the narrative. While the author often demurs when touching on Lumet’s critical and commercial failures—indeed, the book includes only sparing assessments of his films as art objects—the director’s ability to weather such disappointments seems to have hinged on his durable reputation among the people who mattered to him: his professional colleagues.
This has the unfortunate effect of at times giving Spiegel’s work the sensibility of a celebrity gossip book, full of juicy name-dropping and glamourous scene-setting. Occasionally, Lumet’s life feels less like the proximal subject of interest than a vehicle for anecdotes about the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, Albert Finney, and Jane Fonda. While this is a testament to the breadth of talent that Lumet worked with over the decades, it is plain that the book is somewhat besotted with the glittering parade of celebrities, artists, writers, and industry power-players who regard the filmmaker as one of their favorite people. In this respect Sidney Lumet: A Life, often feels like an extended testimonial in which a murderer’s row of recognizable names affirm the director’s greatness over and over.
In Spiegel’s account, gatherings at the Lumet household vibrated with ideas, opinions, and the kind of incongruous episodes that could only result when the leading lights of twentieth-century New York were crammed into one buzzing, smoke-filled space.
This would not be quite so frustrating if this effusive praise were not used to compensate for the fuzzier sections in the narrative of Lumet’s life. While Spiegel is blunt about the filmmaker’s personal tribulations, a vagueness obfuscates many of the details. The author’s interview subjects are frequently elusive where the messy particulars of Lumet’s familial estrangements and failed marriages are concerned, and one gets the sense that Spiegel was reluctant to risk the congenial tone of these exchanges by pressing too insistently. While this is a reasonable approach, it results in deferential fogginess where objective precision would have been preferable. For example, although Spiegel devotes a substantial number of words to Lumet’s marriages, most readers will likely find it difficult to summarize what exactly went wrong in the three unions that ended in divorce.
Notwithstanding such flaws, however, Spiegel’s book remains a satisfyingly comprehensive treatment of Lumet’s life, particularly with respect to its dense exploration of the filmmaker’s childhood and young adulthood. For long-time admirers of the director’s work, Sidney Lumet: A Life presents an illuminating, in-depth treatment of the man behind one of the most impressive filmographies of all time. For those who are perhaps less familiar with that work, Spiegel provides a wide-ranging and textured—if overwhelmingly complimentary—picture of a fascinating American original, one that will, it is hoped, convince the reader to seek out the films that established his enduring reputation.