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Sidney, Sylvialocked

(08 August 1910–02 July 1999)
  • James Ross Moore

Sylvia Sidney.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sidney, Sylvia (08 August 1910–02 July 1999), actress, was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, New York, to Victor Kosow, a Jewish immigrant, and Rebecca Saperstein Kosow, who was of Romanian extraction. After her parents' divorce, Sophia Kosow was adopted by her mother's second husband, Dr. Sigmund Sidney, a dental surgeon. Sidney dropped out of New York's Washington Irving High School to attend the Theater Guild School in Manhattan.

Sidney's professional debut came in 1926 in a Washington, D.C., production of The Challenge of Youth. This was followed by The Squall (1926), a long-running Broadway play about Gypsies, seduction, and special effects, and by leading roles in Crime (1927), a gangland melodrama, and Gods of the Lightning (1928), a Maxwell Anderson–Harold Hickerson polemic on social injustice suggested by the Sacco and Vanzetti case. After a small role in a crime film for Fox (Through Different Eyes) and a season with George Cukor's stock company in Rochester, New York, Sidney returned to Broadway. Among her four plays in 1929–1930 was Bad Girl. Her role as a pregnant unmarried mother impressed Benjamin P. Schulberg, the production head of Paramount Pictures. Schulberg's novelist son Budd has written that it was his mother Adeline who brought Sidney to her husband's attention.

After replacing Clara Bow opposite Gary Cooper in Paramount's City Streets (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, her mentor at the Theater Guild School, the dark, petite Sidney found herself a star at the age of twenty. By now the lover of Schulberg, she was cast in “prestige” films adapted from literary masterworks and guided by Paramount's best directors. According to Ephraim Katz, “There was an intense, vulnerable, waiflike quality about her that made her the perfect screen heroine of the Depression era…” (Film Encyclopedia, 2d ed., p. 1249).

Directed by Josef Von Sternberg, Sidney played the doomed, pregnant factory worker Roberta Alden in the first screen version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1931). In playwright Elmer Rice's Street Scene (1931) she was a slum-trapped adulterous mother shot by her husband. She was a nonsinging Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly (1932), a film that apparently led to a brand of Japanese condoms being named “Sylvia Sidneys.” Once more essaying a Dreiser adaptation, Sidney “suffered beautifully” as another fallen woman in the naturalistic Jennie Gerhardt (1933). During these years, she ranked at Paramount alongside Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert.

Sidney was freed from her Paramount contract in 1935 as well as from Schulberg; in that year she was married to publisher Bennett Cerf for eight months. Nevertheless, she continued to work with the best. Her only British film appearance was in Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), based on Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. The expatriate German director Fritz Lang specifically requested Sidney for his first (and favorite) American film, Fury (1936), an expressionistic study of the self-destructive legacy of revenge in which she starred opposite Spencer Tracy. In Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), a nightmarish contemporary tale of doomed, flawed innocents on the run from injustice, Sidney portrayed the wife of a petty criminal (Henry Fonda). At Sidney's request, Lang directed You and Me (1938), a sardonic film interspersed with chanted “songs” by Kurt Weill, in which she was cast alongside George Raft in an odd tale of two paroled ex-convicts. Henry Hathaway's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) put Sidney in the middle of a mountain feud, and for William Wyler she was the long-suffering sister of a juvenile delinquent in the 1937 film version of Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End.

After quitting Hollywood—because she was unhappy with herself, she later said—Sidney gradually left behind her iconic status as Depression victim. Returning to the stage, she was rarely out of work. Her Broadway return as “the other woman” in the Theater Guild's production of Ben Hecht's To Quito And Back (1937) did not redeem an overwritten play. In 1938 she married the Group Theater actor Luther Adler. They had one child and were divorced in 1946. In 1939 Sidney performed with Franchot Tone and Elia Kazan in the Group Theater's production of Irwin Shaw's melodramatic The Gentle People. For many months in 1941–1942, as a replacement for Judith Evelyn of the original cast, she played a wife driven to the edge of madness in Angel Street, the popular Patrick Hamilton drama otherwise known as Gaslight. Briefly back in Hollywood, she appeared in another social drama, The Wagons Roll at Night (1941). After further touring, she played the Eurasian girlfriend of the James Cagney character in the anti-Japanese film Blood on the Sun (1945). In 1947 Sidney married publicist-producer Carleton Alsop; this childless marriage also ended in divorce.

In the1950s and 1960s Sidney, no longer a waif, found a home in touring versions of classic plays, including The Trojan Women, The Little Foxes, The Importance of Being Earnest (as Lady Bracknell), The Rivals (as Mrs. Malaprop), She Stoops to Conquer, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Cabaret (as Fräulein Schneider). A rare film role came as Fantine in Les Misérables (1953). The golden age of American television drama afforded a number of roles. These included “The Helen Morgan Story” for “Playhouse 90” and Paddy Chayevsky's “Catch My Boy on Sunday” for “The Philco Playhouse.” In 1962 she was nominated for an Emmy for “Madman,” an episode of the liberal law series “The Defenders.” A humorous, witty person finally freed to be funny onstage, Sidney in 1963 portrayed Mrs. Kolowicz, mother of the stagestruck klutz played by Alan Arkin, in the Broadway adaptation of Carl Reiner's novel Enter Laughing.

During the early 1960s Sidney became interested in needlepoint and wrote The Sylvia Sidney Needlepoint Book (1968) and Question and Answer Book on Needlepoint (1974). She appeared in more television and in 1973 resumed her film career opposite Joanne Woodward as the mother (with a voice of “velvet sandpaper”) in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, a tale of mid- and late-life truth telling. The role earned Sidney a National Board of Review award and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. In 1977 she had a supporting role in the film I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and returned to Broadway as the tenacious, vengeful landlady, Mrs. Wire, in Tennessee Williams's autobiographical Vieux Carré.

In 1978 Sidney received the Festival of Americas lifetime achievement award and in 1979 a special award (for a “long and distinguished career”) from the Chicago Art Institute. In 1985 she won raves in a revival of Moss Hart's comedy of 1930s Hollywood, Light Up the Sky. Her supporting role in the television AIDS drama “An Early Frost” won a Golden Globe Award in 1986. After the death of her son from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Sidney served as an ALS volunteer.

In her later years Sidney demonstrated a gleeful, knowing talent for histrionics in such films as Damien: Omen II (1978), Hammett (1982), and two Tim Burton films, Beetlejuice (1988, as the guardian of the gates of Purgatory) and Mars Attacks (1997, as a crusty, wheelchair-bound social worker). In 1998 she signed a five-year contract to play Clia, a flaky travel agent, in a new version of the television series “Fantasy Island.” An inveterate smoker, Sidney died of throat cancer in New York.


Budd Schulberg, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince (1981), gives a colorful and impressionistic account of Sidney's involvement with his father. Sidney's Broadway career is generally chronicled in Gerald Bordman, American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1914–1930 (1995) and American Theater: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930–1969 (1996). The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films: 1931–1940 (1993) goes well beyond listing her films. Excellent discussions (by Fritz Lang and various critics) of Fury are in Don Whittemore and Philip Alan Cecchettini, Passport to Hollywood: Film Immigrants Anthology (1976). Among many obituaries of Sidney perhaps the most eloquent is Ronald Bergan's in the (London) Guardian, 6 July 1999.