Sunday, August 08, 2010
Centennial Tributes: Sylvia Sidney
By Richard von Busack
There’s a 1998 interview with Sylvia Sidney, born 100 years ago today, that seems a cautionary tale about what can happen when interviewing an aged movie star. Entertainment Weekly reporter Shawna Malcom apparently expected a sweet old duckling when she phone up, and got instead a hard-boiled octogenarian.
The piece is still online. Malcom called Sidney about the revival of TV’s Fantasy Island in 1998. The reporter asked the actress thought of the role. "For Christ's sake, don't call it a role… It's a part…A role is Lady Macbeth. A role is Juliet. A part is a part. It's a job." It went downhill from there, as the reporter was waved off specificities.
"You want me to remember 50 years ago? I was lucky. I worked with a lot of important directors, and I became a very happy actress for a time."
Born Sophia Kosow, she grew up in a divorced home when that still had some stigma. Her mother remarried, and Sylvia grew up in the Bronx. She was urged into acting to conquer her chronic shyness. She was a success on stage from her adolescence on, and the longevity of her career testifies to just how much appeal she had.
You could bracket Sylvia Sidney’s career between suicides: she had the tight nerves and the ethereal face to play women not at home in this world. In the 1932 Madame Butterfly, Sidney is in Asian makeup, with a not-quite-there-yet Cary Grant as her faithless Lt. Pinkerton. Not having the Rossini music to carry the story, Sidney holds the tragedy in the delicacy of her expression, and the Asian makeup doesn’t hold you back. When the end of the game comes, you choke on cue. This film, made just a few years after the advent of sound, still has the freight of silent tragedy.
Fifty-seven years later in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1989) a hipster fritillary at a party (Glenn Shadix) makes a sub-Oscar Wilde joke about how suicides are punished by being made to labor as civil servants for eternity. Later, in the movie’s purgatory, a woman with a face as gnarled as an oak tree upbraids the two foolish new arrivals (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) who have just added to her workload. Sidney’s Juno glares at them and expels a cloud of cigarette smoke…some of it seeps from the slash in her self-cut throat. Sidney wasn’t used much for light-heartedness, even though Burton gave her a last screen role as a half-gaga granny in 1996’s Mars Attacks! — the one whose Slim Whitman record saves the world.
In the 1930s, she was one of the most delicate tragediennes on the screen: she worked for Fritz Lang in You Only Live Once, for King Vidor in Street Scene, as the lover of a man (Gary Cooper) marked for death in Mamoulian’s City Streets, for von Sternberg as doomed Roberta Alden in the first version of An American Tragedy — the version joked about by Groucho in Horse Feathers.
She worked for pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner in Merrily We Go To Hell, where Sidney plays a grade-A doormat married to a drunk. It was a cavalcade of lost-women roles that made her say later, “Paramount paid me by the tear.”
Tears weren’t the source for her salt; she had enough strength to demand Fritz Lang as her director in three 1930s pictures. Sidney told Lang’s biographer Patrick McGilligan “I turned down many, many pictures for twice the money because I preferred to do Fury with Spencer Tracy and Fritz Lang…Fritz was one of a kind.” Lang was notorious as a rough man on actors, but Sidney kept his picture on her wall until the end of her life.
The third of their movies, You and Me, is an oddity: a Kurt Weill musical directed by one of the least musical-comedy prone directors in Hollywood. “An out and out stinker,” decides McGilligan, but its very slightness denies it even that kind of stature.
Fury, by contrast, is a masterpiece of raging filmmaking, based on California’s last lynching Nov. 27, 1933, in San Jose. Sidney plays the wife of a wrongly arrested man (Spencer Tracy) who is nearly burned alive in jail. Made at MGM, a studio that specialized in escapism, it’s a dose of old-world haunting the new Depression; it’s obviously the work of the person who made Metropolis and M. No matter how many collaborators Lang had (and hid in later interviews). Sidney is a vision of feminine mercy in a film full of vicious men.
In You Only Live Once, Sidney is the hunted one. Facing conviction under the early version of the three-strikes law, the hard-luck-ridden Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is about to marry Sidney, who plays the secretary of his public defender. The two go on honeymoon, but the world won't leave them alone. "The last romantic couple in the world," Jean-Luc Godard called these characters in Pierrot le Fou; Sidney and Fonda are primal version of the doomed lovers fleeing the law in so many movies since.
She worked with the actor Oscar Holmolka in Sabotage, Hitchcock’s version of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent (1936) is a movie about a London saboteur who bungles his assignments and accidentally becomes a kind of terrorist. Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with Sidney — that she couldn’t keep things neutral enough for him in the tragedy’s climax: “on the other hand she had nice understatement.” Truffaut then says something insightful about Sidney:
“I think she’s quite beautiful. Still — and it isn’t kind to say this about a woman — she looks a little like Peter Lorre, perhaps because of her eyes.”
To people who think of Lorre as a Famous Monsters of Filmland, a career creep, Truffaut’s comment seems insulting. But to those who remember Lorre before he became typecast in monster movies, this is a keen summing up of Sidney’s talent.
In the 1930s, then-film critic Graham Greene was describing Lorre (as of Mad Love) as the best actor since Chaplin. Like Lorre, Sidney was small and frail, at home in the slums. Like him, she was rooted in the Germanic theater of the teens and 1920s, a theater of moral seriousness and life or death matters. Like Lorre she was at home in the realm of the macabre. Like Lorre she became a type as she grew old. Tough moms of sensitive middle-agers for example, as in her comeback in the long-forgotten, once-prestigious Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1972). Sidney was given a sentimental Oscar nomination for playing the tough old broad mother of a brooding middle-age housewife (Joanne Woodward).
She was beautiful, even exotic, and she could play anyone from east of the Danube. And she was a terror: Elia Kazan claimed he recoiled from her during performances they shared a stage in 1939 because she tried to bite him during love scenes. In private life, Sidney lived cozily in Connecticut; she had a rage for needlepoint, which led her to write two books on sewing. There was hardship in her life; her only child perished at age 40 from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1985, and she was divorced three times.
A hard-working actress, she performed up until the end in 1999, when the cigarettes finally caught up with her. In an industry known for self-delusion, she was nobody’s fool.
Richard von Busack is the longtime film critic for Metro Newspapers. His book The Art of Megamind will be published this October.