Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Sidney Lumet, who died this past weekend, was one of my primary influences as a director and this was mostly due to two movies of his: "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network". I watched both over and over--they were practically on a loop--on the early LA based new movie cable station known as "The Z Channel". Between the ages of ten (when we first subscribed) and fourteen, I was exposed to many new films that probably wouldn't have been typical theater going experiences for most kids that age. I saw all of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes films, Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky", "Last Tango in Paris", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", Paul Mazursky's wonderful "Next Stop Greenwich Village" and Woody Allen in Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein's riveting blacklist dramedy "The Front". (There were also the cheerful duds of the era which I have a retrospective fondness for largely because I watched them so many times--the lousy Billy Wilder remake of "The Front Page" and the now much better than it seemed at the time Robert Redford/George Roy Hill vehicle "The Great Waldo Pepper". Other losers of the time that the Z Channel brought to my attention included "Mother Jugs and Speed", "The Prisoner of Second Avenue", "11 Harrowhouse" and DePalma's woeful "Obsession".)
But I digress. Sidney Lumet's movies--and the energy he clearly infused into them--were exciting to me in a way that made me feel that I understood what his particular touch was--and what a director could really bring to a good piece of writing. Oddly he was the second director to truly make me see the role of the director, the first being Frank Capra. Though I didn't put it together at the time, I now see that the two had in common their sense of pace--of relentless forward motion, as well as a love and relish of actors--or performance--that somehow transmuted itself to the screen. There was a no-nonsense briskness to their storytelling that I found clear, forceful and inspiring. They were both short guys too. Whatever.
Cut to New York City, 1980. I am sixteen years old and its the beginning of a hot summer in the city. I hear that Lumet is preparing to shoot a big cop movie. What better summer job for me than as some sort of assistant to the great director? I have no resume to speak of so instead I compose a letter. In it I discuss his work, dissect what I most enjoy about it and offer my services. I find his office address--it was on West 56th Street as I recall--and send it off. No response is forthcoming. Being a self-confident youth (and I have to wonder at this late date--where did all that self-confidence go?) I assume that he simply didn't receive the letter. I write out another one and go to the office to hand-deliver it. There is nobody there when I ring the bell at the shabby little building from where the director operates. (I remember liking that Lumet--a proletariet sort of character--chose to have an office in a crap building). So what to do?
What else? I stalked him. Like Chapman waiting for Lennon, I lurked in a nearby doorway awaiting the object of my fascinations arrival, letter in hand. I remember the humidity, the smell of the nearby Sabrette stand, the odd feeling of sort-of knowing that what I was doing was sort-of not normal. But I wanted to make movies, wanted to make movies in New York, wanted to make movies like "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network"--and so what better thing to do then stalk Sidney Lumet?
After a couple of hours of inactivity, I was suddenly suprised to see a small blur coming toward me. It was Lumet. He walked fast, was talking faster and was accompanied by somebody who was trying to jot down what he was saying on a pad. Lumet was short, wore glasses and was smoking a cigarette. His pace was so determined, so forward-moving, that I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to stop him, interrupt him, and make my pitch. As he slammed open the front door of the building that housed his office (taking no notice of me whatsover) I heard him say the following words:
"See, that was George Segal and his death fantasy, nothing else, just bullshit, and I didn't buy it."
And then he was gone. I have puzzled over that random sentence for thirty years now and have never been able to find a context for it. What was he talking about--a script that George Segal wrote or wanted to make? A choice that he made as an actor that Lumet disliked? An argument or a late night conversation the two men had in a house in Easthampton, Long Island?
I never did give him the letter and didn't get to work on the movie, which proved to be "Prince Of The City". In a sense it didn't really matter. The view of him striding along, a reporter (so I surmised) tailing him, jabbering away, dropping a famous (at that time) actor's name and heading into the shabby confines of his midtown sanctuary was, I suppose, enough. Certainly the memory of that day is startlingly fresh to me still. So it must have been all I was truly looking for--a glimpse of what somebody whom I admired actually was like, of who they were in the flesh. Not much of a story, I'm afraid. Oh the hell with it. It's my memory, my blog, and I'll stick by it.
My next (and last) encounter with Sidney was more direct and much more satisfying. It took place twenty some years later and this time I behaved like something resembling a normal human being. Tune in on Friday for "Me and Sidney Part Deux." Meanwhile:
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 1:35 PM