The Guardian (06/Jul/1999) - Obituary: Sylvia Sidney
(c) The Guardian (06/Jul/1999)
- keywords: Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, New York City, New York, Paramount Pictures, Rebecca (1940), Sabotage (1936), Sylvia Sidney
Fine actress cast as victim until she saved the world from Martians
Few actresses suffered more beautifully on screen than Sylvia Sidney, who has died aged 88. Although her film career began with the coming of sound, she had many of the intense, vulnerable, waiflike qualities of great silent screen stars like Lillian Gish. Her petite figure, heart-shaped face and sad, saucer eyes made her the prototype of the downtrodden Depression heroine.
Sylvia Sidney, who once said she was "paid by the tear", was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx. Because she was a shy child, with a stammer, her Jewish immigrant father, Victor, and her Romanian-born mother, Rebecca, encouraged their daughter to take up acting. She trained at the Theatre Guild School with Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, changing her name to Sylvia Sidney when her mother married a dentist, Dr Sigmund Sidney.
She made her professional debut at 16 in Washington, and had her first leading role in Crime, on Broadway, in 1927. It was while appearing in New York, in Bad Girl (1930), that she was spotted by Paramount boss BP Schulberg, who offered her a contract - and became her lover.
Sylvia was rushed into Mamoulian's groundbreaking City Streets (1931) when Clara Bow, Schulberg's earlier discovery, was having one of her nervous break downs. As a sensitive girl, who takes the blame for a murder her father has committed, Sidney immediately became a star. One of the key scenes is when she is visited by her young racketeer lover, Gary Cooper, who tries to embrace her through the wire mesh of her cell.
As a result Sidney became a victim of her victim persona, typecast throughout the 1930s. She was painfully poignant as the factory worker made pregnant by her social-climbing boyfriend in An American Tragedy, in Street Scene she was tenement-dweller Rose Moran, whose adulterous mother is shot by her father; in Ladies Of The Big House, she was back behind bars again, and in Merrily We Go To Hell, Fredric March's drinking and womanising drives her to despair. Abandoned by Cary Grant's Pinkerton, she was a delicately graceful Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly - after which performance condoms were referred to by the US servicemen in the Far East as "Sylvia Sidneys".
Madame Butterfly was directed by the Russian-born Marion Gering, who made six of Sidney's pictures, including Jennie Gerhardt (1932), in which she played another pathetic heroine ruined by poverty and pregnancy. At MGM, in Fritz Lang's first American film, Fury (1936), Sidney was cast as Spencer Tracy's supportive fiancée, helplessly witnessing a mob's attempts to lynch him. Lang directed her again the following year as Henry Fonda's faithful wife in You Only Live Once.
She also worked for Alfred Hitchcock in England in Sabotage (1936), in which she knifes her husband. In 1937, she made Dead End for William Wyler, playing the concerned sister of a juvenile delinquent. But good films and good directors failed to prevent her becoming fed up with her typecasting, and the lack of a chance to demonstrate her versatility as an actress in a different kind of role.
Ironically, Sylvia Sidney was a witty, warm and fun-loving woman. After leaving Schulberg, she was briefly married to the publisher Bennett A Cerf, who commented, "One should never legalise a hot romance." Her second husband was the actor Luther Adler (with whom she had a son, who died in 1987), and then the producer Carleton W Alsop. She wrote The Sylvia Sidney Needlepoint Book and bred pug dogs.
By the early 1940s, she was devoting more time to the stage than films. "I never adjusted," she remarked. "If I made a movie, they called me a stage actress. If I was in a play they called me a movie actress." Touring in stock, she played Eliza Doolittle and Jane Eyre, while in the movies she was the fortune-teller smitten by Humphrey Bogart in The Wagons Roll At Night (1941), James Cagney's Eurasian girlfriend in Blood In The Sun (1945) and Fantine in Les Miserables (1953).
She spent most of the 1960s in touring productions, notably in The Trojan Women, as Regina in The Little Foxes and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She played across America in Aunt Mame and created Mrs Kolowicz, a caricatural Jewish momma, in Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing on Broadway.
After a 17-year hiatus away from films, in 1973 Sidney returned as Joanna Woodward's mother in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams - a performance nominated for an Oscar. Damien: Omen II introduced her to a new generation of cinemagoers, after which she played in Wim Wenders's Hammett (1982) and appeared as a ghost in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988).
Burton then cast her as the wheelchair-bound heroine of Mars Attacks (1997). With her stuffed cat for company in an old-age home, she sits listening to Slim Whitman's Indian Love Call, the sound of which ultimately destroys the invading creatures. Whatever the merits of the film, it was heartening to see an actress celebrated for her interpretation of forlorn characters thoroughly enjoying herself on screen.
Sylvia Sidney (Sophia Kosow), actress, born August 8, 1910; died July 2, 1999