Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Sidney Lumet, Political Jew

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Sidney Lumet, Political Jew

Article excerpt

Jews have been drawn disproportionately to progressive political and cultural movements-whether as a "substitute for religion," an extension of it, or a self-interested and empathetic response to oppression-since gaining entry into Western mainstream society in the late eighteenth century.1 Expressing this activist orientation in the United States, Jewish-American filmmakers also have played a seminal role in movies that deal with social issues: whether forthrightly, as in social problem pictures, or more obliquely, as in film noir. Regarding the former, Brian Neve's study of the "social tradition" in American film focuses on six politically oriented directors from the classical Hollywood period (1930s-1950s): Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Abraham Polonsky, Robert Rossen, Joseph Losey, and Jules Dassin, of whom only Welles and Kazan were not Jewish.2 Jewish émigrés played a similarly predominant role in classical film noir (1940s-1950s), as I have detailed in Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir, and as Alain Silver affirmed in his selection of the "ten best" noirs: "I did have one rule: a single movie per director, otherwise [Jewish émigrés] Siodmak, Lang, Wilder, and Ophuls might have overwhelmed the field and made it an all-émigré list."3

In the post-classical period (1960s on), Jewish neo-noir and politically oriented directors have continued to "overwhelm the field"-and Sidney Lumet has figured prominently in both groups. 4 Indeed, with the possible exception of three other Jewish directors-Stanley Kramer (whose last film was released in 1979), Fred Zinnemann (whose last was released in 1982), and Martin Ritt (whose last was released in 1990)-no American filmmaker has been more closely aligned than Lumet with a cinema dominated by "a deep and abiding commitment to social justice."5

From an ideological angle alone, then, Lumet deserves "to be recognized," as David Desser and Lester Friedman unequivocally do, "as a major American filmmaker whose perspective is decidedly American Jewish."6 Moreover, the distinction is only magnified when his unsurpassed number of Jewish-themed films-The Pawnbroker (1965), Bye Bye Braverman (1968), Just Tell Me What You Want (1979), Daniel (1983), Garbo Talks (1984), Running on Empty (1988), and A Stranger Among Us (1992)-is considered. Ultimately, among (post)modern American directors, only Woody Allen can claim as prolific and consistent an association with Jewish characters and themes in his filmmaking career. That Allen has attained this distinction through a more personal and philosophical, less socio-political approach does not reduce his pertinence to this study. Indeed, it obliges us to begin with a comparison of these two foremost American Jewish auteurs.7

Woody's Dark Double

Critical, popular, and film industry plaudits notwithstanding, both Allen's and Lumet's auteurist credentials have been impugned, throughout their careers, for lack of originality: Allen's for his "Xeroxing" of Bergman and Fellini, among others; Lumet's for his "translations" of noted playwrights (Anton Chekov, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams) and novelists (Jay Presson Allen, E. L. Doctorow, Wallace Markfield, Mary McCarthy).8 Their genre proclivities mirrored each other also, but in reverse, with Allen's atypical "WASP-woman trilogy" of serious dramas (Interiors [1978], September [1987], and Another Woman [1988]) presenting a perfect (mis)match with Lumet's change-of-pace trio of New York Jewish comedies (Bye Bye Braverman, Just Tell Me What You Want, and Garbo Talks).9 Although both directors are locationally (and residentially) linked to New York City (each grew up, lived most of his life, and has set three-fourths of his films there), Allen has tended to romanticize the Big Apple, while Lumet has probed its problematic core.

"Part of what makes [Allen's Manhattan] so 'attractive,'" Jonathan Rosenbaum observes, "is the nearly total absence of blacks and Hispanics," or any hint of racial conflict. …

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