Graceful Lumet charms Dartmouth audience during tribute
Sidney Lumet is one of the last great lions of the Golden Age of Film, a cinematic giant whose work has left its mark on both the history of the movies and the fabric of American life. Last night, Lumet also left his mark on the Dartmouth community, when he stood before the campus and accepted the Dartmouth Film Award before a packed theater of fans and film enthusiasts. In an illuminating, moving and occasionally hilarious evening, the audience witnessed a montage displaying Lumet's talent and caught a privileged glimpse of the man behind the masterpieces.
When Bill Pence opened the evening by introducing Sidney Lumet as one of the last great American filmmakers, I was struck by the dualism of the term; Lumet is not just an American auteur but a maker of films that are themselves distinctly American. In a career that has spanned nearly half a century, he has captured America on the silver screen, and his portraits have always been honest, thoughtful and heartfelt. Yet as I watched the spellbinding montage of Lumet's best work, I was struck by his apparent invisibility as a director; his observant, unobtrusive style made the clips from his films seem not like scenes from a movie but rather moments plucked out of real life.
The compilation opened with a scene from one of Lumet's first and best films, the undisputed classic "12 Angry Men." For five unbroken minutes, the audience sat mesmerized as Henry Fonda's beleaguered juror tried desperately to convince his colleagues of a young boy's innocence in a murder trial. The scene crackled with a quiet, seething energy that characterized the entire montage.
All the clips were carefully edited together to create a tribute that allowed Lumet's magnificent body of work to speak for itself -- and what work it was! Subtle scenes of limitless emotional depth were punctuated by the searing stabs of social commentary for which Lumet is so known. After moving clips from "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Pawnbroker," the screen was lit up by the fiery presence of a young Al Pacino, whose illustrious career was born from the two Lumet films "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon."
As I watched Pacino shaping what would eventually become the screen persona that would guide his career, I was reminded of Bill Pence referring to Lumet earlier in the evening as "an actor's director." I am always suspicious of the term -- what is a director if not a director of actors? -- but as I watched the clips, I began to understand its meaning. What, besides Lumet's subtle touch, could provoke that tired glare from Paul Newman in "The Verdict," or that magnetic iciness from Nick Nolte in "Q & A"? All these clips were eclipsed, however, by Peter Finch's monologue from "Network," a seething rant about America so relevant even today that it made my eyes water.
After seeing the magnficent compilation, the audience needed little convincing to rise to its feet and enthusiastically welcome Lumet himself to the stage. A small man with laughter in his voice and a wise twinkle in his eye, Lumet carried himself with the same quiet grace that characterizes his films.
In a candid discussion with Chris Robinson '86, he shed light on his life and work. While most directors work from a canned set of responses and jokes, Lumet seemed surprisingly open, even self-effacing, as he spoke to the audience. Touching on everything from his early career in television to his directorial method to his upcoming projects, Lumet was warm, conversational and occasionally very funny. ("How did I wind up with Vin Diesel?" he begged, referring to his upcoming film "Find Me Guilty.") The conversation was filled with illuminating revelations; at one point, Lumet speculated that his trademark social conscience had grown out of his impoverished New York City upbringing.
Being an enormous fan of Lumet's work, I had been looking forward to this event for weeks. I had expected an enjoyable compilation of film clips followed by the standard celebrity interview (and cookies at the reception). Instead, I was treated to a magnificent film montage, a fascinating and honest conversation and one of the most exciting handshakes of my life. That Sidney Lumet was willing to visit the Dartmouth campus was an honor and a privelege. That he turned out to be interesting, compelling and fun as well turned out to be the real treat.