Obituary: Sylvia Sidney
Wednesday 21 July 1999
She spent much of her film career at Paramount, where the fact that she was the mistress of the studio's production head sat uneasily with some of her co-workers, though she did not possess the type of glamour to equal the studio's four other reigning queens, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert. When she left the studio her career faltered despite a vigorous effort to recast her image, but she made a comeback in the Seventies as a fine character actress.
She was born Sophia Kosow in 1910 in the Bronx, New York, to a Romanian father and Russian mother, but shortly afterwards her parents divorced and her mother married a dentist, Dr Sigmund Sidney, who legally adopted Sylvia. She was a shy, introverted child who stammered, so her parents enrolled her for elocution and dancing lessons and at 15 she entered the Theatre Guild School.
The school's graduation play was attended by critics, and The New York Times praised Sidney's qualities of "charm and wistfulness". She made her professional debut at the age of 16 in a Washington production of The Challenge of Youth and at 17 made her Broadway debut when she took over the leading role in a play called The Squall.
Her first film appearance was a fleeting one as a chorus girl in Broadway Nights (1927), in which an equally unknown Barbara Stanwyck also made her screen debut as a fan dancer, but Sidney's first major screen role was in Through Different Eyes (1929) in which she played a murderess.
Back on Broadway she won praise in Gods of the Lightning, Maxwell Anderson's drama based on the controversial Sacco-Vanzetti trial in which, foreshadowing the film roles to come, she played the sweetheart of one of the condemned men, ending the play hysterical after learning of her lover's execution. The New York Times praised her "unadorned poignancy" and Percy Hammond in the Herald Tribune wrote, "I enjoyed the way they ended it, with Miss Sidney employing all the difficult pyrotechnics of hysteria as the curtain fell. She sent us homeward bubbling with pity and agitation."
Several plays later, one critic was to write of her performance in Many- a-Slip (1930), "Miss Sidney has her usual quota of sobbing to do, and is made to appear thoroughly miserable throughout the play". Sidney was acting in Bad Girl (1930) when she was spotted by Paramount's head of production, B.P. Schulberg, who offered her a contract. Sidney later said that two things made her accept - her attraction to Schulberg and the promise he made her that she would play Roberta Alden in the screen version of Dreiser's An American Tragedy to be directed by Josef von Sternberg.
While that film was being prepared, Sidney replaced an ailing Clara Bow in Mamoulian's City Streets (1930) opposite Gary Cooper. The director gave 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. Variety reported: "From a histrionic standpoint Sylvia Sidney is the whole works." Though An American Tragedy (1931) proved a commercial and critical failure, Sidney's performance as the factory worker who becomes pregnant and is drowned by her social-climbing lover (Phillips Holmes) won praise. (Today the film is regarded more highly than the 1951 remake with Shelley Winters in Sidney's role.)
The actress was then borrowed by Sam Goldwyn to star in his film version of Elmer Rice's play Street Scene (1931). As slum-dweller Rosa Maurrant, whose adulterous mother is killed by her father, Sidney's credible portrayal of oppression prompted Variety to give an astute appraisal of her appeal:
She gives a persuasive performance in a role for which she is particularly fitted, typifying, as she somehow does here, the tragedy of budding girlhood cramped by sordid surroundings. Even her lack of formal beauty intensifies the pathos of her character.
Off-screen Sidney's life style was in total contrast to her screen image. She had acquired a Beverly Hills mansion and a Malibu beach house, and B.P. Schulberg, who was now estranged from his wife, was her constant companion.
Though she frequently protested at her screen image, she continued to be cast in suffering roles. In Ladies of the Big House (1932), she and her boyfriend were sent to prison after being framed on a murder charge, in The Miracle Man (1932) she was a crook redeemed by a faith healer, in Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) she was a discontented debutante who marries an alcoholic and has a stillborn baby, and in Madame Butterfly (1932) she was the ill-fated Cho-Cho-San with Cary Grant her Pinkerton. "With a face like mine, of slightly Oriental cast," said Sidney, "I always dreamed of playing an Oriental character."
Sidney's moving performance was praised, but the film was not and is never revived. The actress was gaining a reputation for being "difficult" and some attributed this to her relationship with Schulberg - a decade later another Paramount star, Betty Hutton, was in a similar position because of her relationship with the studio's then head, Buddy DeSylva. Sidney confessed,
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.
Sidney and Schulberg had planned to star her in a version of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, but when Schulberg was demoted in boardroom manoeuvres the project was cancelled. Sidney was instead cast in a Maurice Chevalier musical, The Way To Love, but rebelled at her role of a lady knife-thrower and walked out, being replaced by Ann Dvorak. The studio labelled her claims of illness "professional anarchy" while Sidney told the press, "The studio physicians treated me like a nobody, although I am a somebody."
She and Schulberg went to New York, but later she returned to Paramount where her films included a rare comedy, Thirty Day Princess (1934), in which she played the dual role of a princess and the actress hired to impersonate her. In October 1934 Schulberg announced to the press that his relationship with Sidney was at an end, and the following month he reconciled with his wife.
When Sidney's contract with Paramount ended in 1935 it was not renewed and she signed instead with the independent producer Walter Wanger, who announced that he was planning to star her as Rebecca in Ivanhoe with Gary Cooper, and in the title role of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Instead her first picture with him was Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935) in which she loves a gangster, is wrongfully accused of criminal activity and is sentenced to prison. The Evening Journal said, "No one on the screen has a gloomier time than Sylvia Sidney . . . a pathetic little figure buffeted about by circumstances beyond her control." The New York Times considered that she was "too abject in her whining helplessness".
In October 1935 Sidney married Bennet Cerf, president of the publishers Random House, but they separated three months later and were divorced after eight. Cerf said, "One should never legalise a hot romance."
Sidney's next film, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), in which she was a backwoods girl whose brother is killed in a family feud, had the distinction of being the first movie to be filmed outdoors using the new three-strip Technicolor process and was a big hit.
Her next four films, though less successful commercially, were among her most distinguished. Fritz Lang's Fury (1936), the director's first American film, was a powerful study of mob violence with Sidney the fiancee of a man falsely accused of kidnapping by a mob of townsfolk who form a lynch mob.
Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1937), based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, was made in England and cast Sidney as the wife of a cinema owner who is secretly a saboteur. In a memorable climax, Sidney takes a carving knife from the dinner table and stabs her husband. Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that he was not entirely happy with the actress: "I found it rather difficult to get any shading into Sylvia Sidney's face, yet on the other hand she has nice understatement."
In Fritz Lang's relentlessly grim saga of social injustice You Only Live Once (1937) she played the wife of a petty crook framed on a murder charge and eventually driven by society to commit murder himself. In this celebrated movie Sidney gave a fine performance, the Herald Tribune lauding her
splendid understanding and emotional depth. Her stout-hearted secretary, who gradually loses her faith in justice, gives the needed note of poignancy to a stark chronicle.
Sidney's role in William Wyler's Dead End (1937) was similar to the one she had in the earlier Street Scene, and she again movingly portrayed a hard-working tenement dweller. After returning to Broadway in Ben Hecht's short-lived political play To Quinto and Back (1937) with Leslie Banks, Sidney was cast in one of her strangest films, You For Me (1938), directed by Fritz Lang and co-starring George Raft in a tale of a department store staffed by ex-criminals. Filmed with expressionistic camera-work and punctuated with Kurt Weill songs, it was an off-beat mixture of comedy, music and melodrama.
When Walter Wanger offered Sidney the part of the kasbah girl in Algiers she refused, realising the role would be secondary to that of Hedy Lamarr (it was taken by Sigrid Gurie), and she bought up the rest of her contract. Sadly, it meant that Wanger's proposed version of Wuthering Heights with Charles Boyer and Sidney was never filmed.
The actress returned to New York, where she married the actor Luther Adler and starred in the Group Theatre production of Irwin Shaw's The Gentle People (1939) with Elia Kazan, who was later to write ungraciously,
I had a love scene with Sylvia Sidney, one I didn't enjoy playing, possibly because the lady didn't interest me that way . . . I remember hearing that Sylvia had been the beauty who'd broken up the
home of movie tycoon B.P. Schulberg. Even this didn't arouse my curiosity. She wasn't taken with me either; when we had to kiss, she'd leap at me and bite me on the lips. I soon began to pull back when she came for me, and this didn't endear me to her.
In the film version of the play One Third of a Nation (1939) Sidney repeated the role she had played on stage as a shopgirl who persuades a landlord to pull down his slum dwellings - Sidney Lumet, later a director, played her brother killed in a tenement fire. Her film career now seemed virtually over - she had a small part in one of Bogart's poorest films, The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) - and she admitted to having alienated former 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.
In 1945, hoping to create a new image, Sidney startled Hollywood by hiring the publicist Russell Birdwell:
I knew about this script, Blood on the Sun. A friend of mine said, "James Cagney wants Merle Oberon but Merle won't play it. She doesn't want to play half-caste type stuff." So I hired Birdwell and one morning I picked up the Los Angeles Times and there had been a meeting of artists at some institute in Chicago and they'd named the 10 most beautiful women in the world. The first was Lana Turner; the second was Sylvia Sidney - and it carried my photograph. In a couple of days I got a call from Cagney.
Set in 1929, with Cagney playing a newspaperman who uncovers the Tanaka Plan, said to have been the blueprint for Japanese world conquest (though in reality it may never have existed), the film was a fast-paced adventure yarn in which Sidney was a Eurasian spy who helps the hero, but it failed to revitalise Sidney's film career. William Dieterle's film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Searching Wind (1946) should have been a prestigious vehicle, but Sidney's role as an idealistic newspaperwoman who loves a diplomat whose appeasing ways help lead to the Second World War was not convincingly developed and the script failed to clarify its viewpoint.
After a mild version of Agatha Christie's Love from a Stranger (1947) Sidney concentrated on stage work, mainly in touring productions. She had divorced Adler, a notorious ladies' man, in 1946, and in 1947 married a publicist, Carlton W. Alsop. They were divorced in 1951 and the following year Sidney returned to the screen as Fantine in Lewis Milestone's effective version of Les Miserables.
Her theatre work included a tour with Miriam Hopkins in The Old Maid (1957) and the starring role in a revival of Auntie Mame (1958). She was active in television drama, and in 1962 was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in a two-part episode of The Defenders (she lost to another veteran actress, Glenda Farrell).
Sidney starred with Myrna Loy, Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick in a television movie, Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971) and the following year returned to the cinema screen as Joanne Woodward's mother in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, for which she won an Oscar nomination. Occasional films followed, including Damien: Omen II (1978), Hammett (1982) and Beetlejuice (1988), and her telefilms included one of the first to deal with Aids, An Early Frost (1985), in which she played a tolerant grandmother.
In 1990 Sidney was awarded a Life Achievement Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Though acting into the Nineties, she spent a lot of her time breeding pug dogs and perfecting her talent for needlepoint - in 1968 she had written a successful book, The Sylvia Sidney Needlepoint Book, and a few years later she opened a needlecraft boutique near her home in Connecticut. Talking of her career, she said, "Being a movie star never meant much to me, but being an actress did."
Sophia Kosow (Sylvia Sidney), actress: born New York 8 August 1910; married 1935 Bennet Cerf (marriage dissolved 1936), 1938 Luther Adler (one son; marriage dissolved 1946), 1947 Carlton W. Alsop (marriage dissolved 1951); died New York 1 July 1999.
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