The Contender: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Number of Nominations: 6 - Picture, Actor (Al Pacino), Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Director (Sidney Lumet), Original Screenplay (Frank Pierson), Film Editing (Dede Allen)
Number of Wins: 1 (Original Screenplay)
When Sidney Lumet died back in 2011, there was a sense among the online film community that the filmmaker had never quite received the recognition he deserved. While many of his greatest successes came from the 1970s, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese, Coppola, and other greats from the decade.
In large part, this is simply because Lumet wasn’t of that generation. He’d been working steadily in the business since the '50s, making his feature film debut with 12 Angry Men in 1957. Lumet was of the generation that produced such filmmakers as Robert Altman and Blake Edwards who crossed over from television into features. But Lumet was not the fierce iconoclast that Altman was. And while Edwards dabbled in multiple genres early on, he eventually became synonymous with comedy. Lumet could never quite be pigeonholed in that way.
Sidney Lumet was an active filmmaker virtually right up until his death. His final film, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, was released in 2007. His work was never as flashy as many of his contemporaries and there are those who would argue that he wasn’t as consistent. But at his best, Lumet was able to sink his teeth into the meat of a story, grounding his films in reality and getting some of the all-time best performances from the biggest actors in the world.
Dog Day Afternoon re-teamed Lumet with Al Pacino, the star of his 1973 cop drama Serpico. Inspired by a true story, Dog Day Afternoon must have been a risky choice for Pacino. He hadn’t been a leading man for long and now he was playing a bumbling, bisexual criminal robbing a bank to get money for his lover’s sex change operation. It was a risk that paid off handsomely.
The film allowed Pacino to show a lighter, more vulnerable side. One of the great pleasures of the movie is how unexpectedly funny it is. But Lumet refuses to simply turn the movie into a comedy of errors. As the robbery spins out of control, the events are both funny and fraught with tension. Pacino’s nervous energy is both dangerous and touching. It’s a brilliant performance and one I always turn to when I need to be reminded of how great an actor Pacino can be.
The other nominated performance in the film belongs to Chris Sarandon as Pacino’s lover, Leon. Sarandon is undeniably excellent but the movie’s real chemistry is between Pacino and John Cazale as Sonny’s partner-in-crime, Sal. Cazale made just a handful of films before his death in 1978 but made a huge impression in each. Remarkably, Cazale was never nominated for an Oscar, despite his unforgettable work in the first two Godfather films and The Deer Hunter. Not to take anything away from Sarandon, but Cazale surely deserved recognition as well.
On Oscar night, Dog Day Afternoon ran into the unstoppable juggernaut of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Ironically, the movie’s only trophy went to Frank Pierson for his screenplay, a script which had really just provided a structure for the actors to improvise upon. It wasn’t the first time one of Lumet’s films had been an Oscar bridesmaid and it wouldn’t be the last.
Lumet had been nominated for Best Director for his very first film, 12 Angry Men. He’d be nominated in the category twice more, in 1976 for Network and 1982 for The Verdict, but the only award he received was an honorary Oscar in 2005. But over the course of his career, Lumet directed an amazing 17 actors to Oscar-nominated performances, from Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night to River Phoenix in Running On Empty.
Today, Dog Day Afternoon is remembered as one of the undisputed classics of the 1970s. Sidney Lumet left behind a rich film legacy ripe for rediscovery, from acknowledged masterworks like Network to underrated gems like Prince Of The City. His work wasn’t consistently brilliant but it was rarely less than interesting. Lumet is a filmmaker who truly earned his honorary Oscar, a well-deserved tribute to a director who had been overlooked for too long.
Dog Day Afternoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video. Also available and highly recommended is Sidney Lumet’s 1996 memoir, Making Movies.
- Adam Jahnke