The Several Stages of Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney (Sophia Kosow, 1910-1999) was born on this day. I’m an enormous fan of this Hollywood screen actress in all her phases (which we’ll describe), but first, her surprising background.

Perhaps because of the strong impression she makes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), which I first saw when I was pretty young (13 or 14), I’d always formed an idea of Sidney as pretty Anglo, subconsciously anyway. And there are some parallels in her career arc with Bette Davis (see below), who was as Anglo as it gets. But Sidney was in fact the Bronx born daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. As a teenager she began to take acting classes at the Theatre Guild to deal with her shyness. That quality of shyness, sweetness, and apparent modesty was later be a major component of her screen character, something she shared with Olivia de Havilland and Ruby Keeler. If anything, Sidney had it to an even greater degree, even if, off-camera, she could be quite a terror. Her later marriage to Yiddish theatre scion Luther Adler from 1938 to 1946 further points to her origins, as do some of her later screen roles, as in Raid on Entebbe (1976).

Sidney’s professional stage and screen debuts happened simultaneously. In 1927 she was in the Broadway revue Crime (for which she got excellent reviews) and that same year she was also an extra, along with the unknown Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sothern, in the film Broadway Nights. She was a constant presence on Broadway through 1930. After that, she continued to return to the stage sporadically over the rest of her career. Her last Broadway role was in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre (1977).

By the early 30s Sidney was already a movie star, with the apparent help of her benefactor (and lover) B.P. Schulberg. She stepped in as the replacement for Clara Bow in City Streets (1931), which made her a star; other notable pictures of the early years included An American Tragedy (1931); Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1931); Thirty Day Princess (1934), penned by Preston Sturges; the Technicolor western The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the aforementioned Sabotage and Fritz Lang’s Fury (both 1936), and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1937).

Sidney’s beauty was of the rarest type; her enormous eyes were both “innocent” and sensuous; her bee-stung lips reinforced the latter impression even as her tremulous voice conveyed the sentiments of a damsel in distress. These traits promised the sort of stardom she’d enjoyed in the 30s far into the future. But she developed a well earned reputation for being “difficult”. She was smart, finicky, and temperamental, and given to passionate outbursts, even given to throwing things at her colleagues. She lost the affections and patronage of Schulberg, who’d lost his stature in the industry anyway. In 1935 she married Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, but the marriage only lasted three months. She starred in only 5 films during the 1940s (contrast this with the single year of 1931, when she appeared in 4).

Starting in the 1950s her main jam was dramatic television, and she was working A LOT. In fact she worked constantly from that point until her death. And this resulted in a very strange phenomenon. Late career Sylvia Sydney was an extremely familiar face to tv and movie watchers: guest shots on prominent tv shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, roles in schlocky horror films like Snowbeast (1977) and Damien: Omen II (1978) (which is why I compared her to Bette Davis above). Tim Burton loved her so much he put her in both Beetlejuice (1988) and Mars Attacks! (1996). I knew her face well, but I never paid particular attention to her name. Thus…it took me years — decades, actually — to match the Sylvia Sidney of the 1930s, whose work I knew well, with the Sylvia Sidney of the 70s, 80s and 90s, whose work I also knew well! And then one day, a few years ago, it dawned on me while watching a film of the later period, “Wait a minute! That’s Sylvia Sidney. THAT Sylvia Sidney!” Isn’t that strange?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, unlike late Bette Davis, she didn’t get star billing in these later performances; she was usually a supporting player in an ensemble. So her name is buried in the credits. And yes, the years had changed her appearance. But also her screen character had changed quite a lot in the intervening years. Once the sweet, innocent damsel, she was now a crusty old, short tempered dame with a husky smoker’s voice. (Ruby Keeler had made a similar evolution). Making the leap would be easier, I gather, by looking at performances from her middle period of the 40s and 50s, when she worked on changing her image to something a bit naughtier, but I remained (and still remain) deficient in seeing her work from this period.

Mid-period, transitional Sidney

Ironically, in light of the hilarious sight gag Tim Burton had employed in Beetlejuice (where she smoked through a hole in her neck), Sidney died of cancer of the esophagus at age 89.

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