Sylvia Sidney (1910 – 1999):
“I’d be the girl of the gangster, then the sister who was bringing up the gangster, then the mother of the gangster… and they always had me ironing somebody’s shirt.”
Her vulnerable, yet spunky persona helped make her a perfect female actor of realistic films. She had wide, soulful eyes, high cheekbones and pouty lips, an ideal hero for the Depression, usually playing working-class girls who are stoically dealing with their problems, or a girlfriend or the sister of a gangster. She brought innocence and vulnerability to her work, though she tried to break out of the type casting as doe-eyed sufferer.
Sidney spent much of her film career at Paramount, where she was the mistress of Bud Schulberg the studio’s married production head to the disapproval of some of her co-workers. She did not possess the type of glamour that was equal with the studio’s four biggest stars: Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert. When she left Paramount, her career lost steam, but she made a comeback in the 1970s as a great character actor.
Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in The Bronx. As a kid she stammered, so her parents enrolled her in elocution and dancing lessons and at 15 years old she started studies at the Theatre Guild School. She made her professional debut at 16, and at 17 years old she made her Broadway debut in a play titled The Squall.
In her first film job, she plays a chorus girl in Broadway Nights (1927) with an equally unknown Barbara Stanwyck making her own her screen debut. Sidney’s first major role was in Through Different Eyes (1929), playing a murderer.
On Broadway the next year, she won rave reviews in Gods Of The Lightning, Maxwell Anderson‘s drama about the controversial Sacco-Vanzetti trial in which, foreshadowing her future film roles, she plays the sweetheart of one of the condemned men, ending the play in hysterics after learning of her lover’s execution.
She did three more Broadway plays that required her to sob, including Bad Girl (1930) when she was spotted by Schulberg, who offered her a contract. Sidney later wrote that two things made her accept: her attraction to Schulberg and the promise he made her that she would play the lead in the screen version of Theodore Dreiser‘s An American Tragedy to be directed by Josef von Sternberg.
But first, Sidney replaced Clara Bow in City Streets (1930), a Pre-Code film noir directed by Rouben Mamoulian opposite Gary Cooper. Mamoulian gives Sidney a memorable opening close-up with one eye mysteriously closed. The camera pulls back to reveal that she is at a side-show shooting booth.
The film was a bust, but Sidney’s performance as the factory worker who becomes pregnant and is drowned by her social-climbing lover (Phillips Holmes) brought her a lot of attention. It is much better than the 1951 remake with Shelley Winters in the role.
In the film version of Elmer Rice‘s play Street Scene (1931), which takes place during 24 hours on the stoop of a Hell’s Kitchen tenement, a microcosm of the American melting pot, during a summer heatwave, she plays a young woman on the Lower East Side whose adulterous mother is killed by her father. She gives a persuasive performance and her nontraditional beauty only intensifies the pathos of her character. She gets to have moist eyes, a specialty.
Off-screen Sidney’s life was anything but bad luck and hard times. She lived in a Beverly Hills mansion and a Malibu beach house, and Schulberg, estranged from his wife, was her constant companion.
She protested, yet the studio continued to cast her in those suffering roles. In Ladies Of The Big House (1932), she goes to prison after being framed for murder; in The Miracle Man (1932), she plays a crook redeemed by a faith healer; in Merrily We Go To Hell (1932), by lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, she marries a drunk and has a stillborn baby, and in Madame Butterfly (1932) plays the poor Cho-Cho-San with Cary Grant as Pinkerton. This was a time when white actors played Asians.
Sidney’s performances were praised by the critics, but she gained a reputation for being “difficult” on the set, probably because of her relationship with Schulberg. A decade later, another Paramount star, Betty Hutton, was in a similar position because of her relationship with the studio head, Buddy DeSylva. Sidney:
“I was inclined to be impatient with some of the trimmings surrounding stardom. I liked my independence and wanted to live my own life and not be at the mercy of fan magazines, columnists and studio press agents. I was discontented with the shoddiness of some of my movies.“
When Sidney was cast in a musical, The Way To Love, she protested about her role and walked out. The studio labelled her claims of being sick as “professional anarchy” and Schulberg was demoted. Sidney told the press:
“The studio physicians treated me like a nobody, although I am a somebody.”
She and Schulberg moved to New York City, but she soon returned to Paramount where she made a rare comedy, Thirty Day Princess (1934), playing two roles, a princess and the actor hired to impersonate her. In the meantime, Schulberg announced to the press that his relationship with Sidney over, and the following month he reconciled with his wife.
Sidney’s contract with Paramount ended in 1935. She became an independent actor, and for former Paramount producer Walter Wanger, she made Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), where she loves a gangster, is wrongfully accused of criminal activity and goes to prison.
In 1935 Sidney married Bennet Cerf, president of Random House publishers, but they separated three months later and were divorced after eight years. Cerf: “One should never legalize a hot romance.”
In Trail Of The Lonesome Pine (1936), she plays a hillbilly who is killed in a family feud. It was the first film to be shot outdoors using the new Technicolor process and it was a big hit.
Fritz Lang‘s Fury (1936), his first American film, is a study of mob violence, with Sidney as the girlfriend of a man falsely accused of kidnapping by a mob of townsfolk who form a lynch mob. She does a lot of sobbing.
Alfred Hitchcock‘s Sabotage (1937), made in England, has Sidney as the wife of a theatre owner who is secretly a saboteur. In a memorable climax, Sidney takes a carving knife from the dinner table and stabs her husband. She gets to cry.
In Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) she plays the wife of a petty crook framed on a murder charge who gradually loses her faith in justice and commits murder herself. But, not before giving us some tears.
One of my favorites from her first decade in films is also one of her strangest, You For Me (1938), directed by Lang and co-starring George Raft. It is a tale of a department store staffed by ex-criminals. With expressionistic camerawork, and with Kurt Weill songs, it is a nutty mixture of comedy, music and melodrama.
In One Third Of A Nation (1939) Sidney again played a shopgirl who persuades a landlord to pull down his slum dwellings, but it is a smaller role, and then after an even smaller part in The Wagons Roll At Night (1941), possibly Humphry Bogart‘s worst film, she admitted to having alienated co-workers:
“I used to fight. Yes, it’s true. I even used to throw telephone books and anything else I could get to at the time. Everything that didn’t go smoothly annoyed me terribly. And I flew off the handle and got myself terribly disliked. But now – well, now I keep my mouth shut, and my hands busy with knitting needles.“
Tired from all that crying, Sidney returned to Manhattan, and married actor/teacher Luther Adler and joined the Group Theatre with Elia Kazan. She concentrated on stage work, mainly in touring productions. She divorced Adler, a notorious ladies’ man, in 1946, and in 1947 married a publicist, Carlton W. Alsop. They were divorced in 1951 and in 1952 Sidney returned to films as Fantine in Lewis Milestone‘s version of Les Miserables, the best version in my humble opinion.
She occasionally worked in television, until the 1970s, when she played Joanne Woodward‘s mother in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1975), which brought her an Academy Award nomination. There was also Damien: Omen II (1978), Hammett (1982) and Beetlejuice (1988) as a chain-smoking ghoul, a role and a director (Tim Burton) she said she loved. She was still working in the 1990s. Her final film was Mars Attacks! (1996) for Burton.
A lifelong Democrat, Sidney was politically active, plus she published two books about needlepoint and raised pugs. A smoker since childhood, Sidney was taken by esophageal cancer a month before her 89th birthday.
Among Sidney’s many roles were acclaimed performances playing compassionate grandmothers of AIDS patients in An Early Frost (1985) and Andre’s Mother (1990).