Remembering Sidney Lumet – 2011 LAFF

When you have the oeuvre like Sidney Lumet, it stands to reason that any type of catch-all look-back at his career would pale in comparison to his actual body of work. And from the lackluster five-minute opening montage of his greatest hits, it was apparent that reason won out. Sadly, Tuesday night’s conversation panel honoring the renowned director ended up being the most underwhelming event I’d yet been to at the LA Film Festival.

To be fair: the panel was called “Remembering Sidney Lumet,” so when the event consisted of past collaborators Andy Garcia, Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones reminiscing haphazardly and telling Lumet stories with some moderation by LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised. And I wasn’t. At least not by the overall structure of the event, rather the lack of substance that the speakers were able to provide. Aside from a couple interesting anecdotes, they provided way more insight about themselves rather than anything else. Mildly entertaining, but we weren’t there to hear Andy Garcia’s inside jokes about how many takes he watched a fellow actor receive compared to how many Lumet gave him.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh because not only did the panel’s venue get changed at the last minute and subsequently started a half-hour late, so it started off on the wrong foot and then didn’t do much to make up for it.  What we did learn of Lumet’s character and directing style reinforced what many already know, that he was an incredibly hands-on and gracious actors’ director who spent nearly as much time rehearsing for his films as most did for plays. Lumet was always more concerned about what the film was about and what it was trying to say than to quibble over specific lines of dialogue, which made him appealing to work with as a writer. They all remembered him as unpretentious and affectionate, showing up to the set in blue jeans – sort of the anti-Hitchcock in that sense. And that he spent more time listening to his actors than telling them what to do. It was clear that they all loved him both as a filmmaker and as a person, their memories holding fond places in their hearts for the late Lumet.

But the best story, that I hadn’t heard before but maybe I just missed it over the years, was when Pierson talked about how Al Pacino threatened to quit Dog Day Afternoon, which at the time was called The Boys in the Bank and was much more of a sex comedy, unless it was changed to be more like what we see in the finished film now. Pierson said that it was the best notes he’d ever received from an actor, and considered it so indicative of who Lumet was as a director that he would go along with such massive changes to a film that he’d already spent months preparing. It makes sense since Lumet respected his actors and their ideas so much and understood that filmmaking was a collaborative effort.

And while the panel didn’t quite live up to the hype, the outstanding talent of Lumet still shone through, even in the stories that fell flat. Which should be no surprise at all to anyone who has seen his films.