Sylvia Sidney: A Star in 7 Decades

This soft-toned portrait of 21-year-old rising movie star Sylvia Sidney was made by Edward Steichen in 1931, the same year Sidney appeared in her breakthrough role of Rose Murrant in Street Scene. Directed by King Vidor, adapted from Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and photographed by George Barnes (with a young Gregg Toland), Street Scene was an audacious attempt to break the confines of the single Manhattan-brownstone set, situating a dynamic urban drama in a residential block that was constructed in toto on the studio backlot. Many of the Broadway cast of Street Scene, which ran for 601 performances, returned for the movie. Sidney, a Broadway veteran from her teen years, was not in the play but completely made the movie her own.

By the late 1930s, Sidney had become a formidable movie star. Between 1936 and 1938, she worked with directors Fritz Lang (FuryYou Only Live Once and You and Me), Alfred Hitchcock (Sabotage), William Wyler (Dead End) and Henry Hathaway (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, only the second feature filmed in 3-strip Technicolor).

Many of the great glamour photographers of Hollywood’s golden era, such as George Hurrell, Eugene Robert Richee, George Platt Lynes and Robert Coburn, had their own crews and darkrooms under studio contracts. Their sensitive, elaborate chiaroscuro portraits rivaled those of great cinematographers such as William Daniels, George Barnes and Gregg Toland. What is so fascinating about the Steichen portrait of Sidney is its seemingly casual, candid feel. It was one of the very first photographs that my wife, Carol, and I acquired in the 1970s, and today it is one of the very few celebrity photographs we possess. Even before I knew much about Sidney’s seven-decade career, this single image of her haunted me. Recently, after watching Street Scene on TCM, I decided to investigate this most unique face from Hollywood’s golden age.

Though Sidney did not seem to rise to the level of glamourous goddesses Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and Louise Brooks, she was clearly a favorite subject of many of Hollywood’s most gifted photographers. This tribute video includes production portraits and studio sessions:

What is it about Steichen's portrait and so many others of Sidney that distinguishes them from other dream-factory publicity photographs?

I think there is a clue in this next, rather simple photograph:

I don’t know who the photographer was, but this image, like Steichen’s, reveals the unusual landscape of Sidney’s face. In both photographs, her very large, wide-spaced and somewhat sad eyes are closed. In many of her publicity portraits, her eyes are so large, luminous and riveting that when they are open, staring straight into camera, they distract the viewer from the otherwise unusual balance of her face. Sidney often wore a center hair part, which led a sightline down her broad forehead, down her nose and mouth to a delicate, very rounded chin. The lower part of her face in its sensitivity seems then to lead the viewer’s eye right back up to her eyes and brow.

If this seems to be an unusual focus on her features, remember that we cinematographers, in reality, spend little of our time lighting the set; most of our effort is focused on close-up portraits of the human face in its many moods and guises. Any cinematographer not obsessed preeminently with the wondrous variety of the human visage is no more than a photographer of landscapes, buildings and furniture.

Sidney’s career is documented here in a video that intercuts production stills, promotional one-sheets, lobby cards and informal “candid” portraits. It’s a mix of films that illustrate the breadth of her career. 

Although she is most closely associated with her major studio features of the 1930s, Sidney also had a flourishing career in television from 1952 (Lux Video Theatre) to 1998 (Fantasy Island), the year before her death at 88.

In 1986, a weathered Sidney (a lifelong chain smoker) won a Golden Globe for her performance in the television movie An Early Frost. In this clip, you can see her stub out her cigarette before going onstage to receive the award.

She thanks her producer and director for sticking with her during a “bad time.” What that “bad time” might have been is a guess, but her movie career stumbled badly in the 1940s; she had only six feature credits between 1939 and 1952. (Many accounts claim that she was, in that catchall rubric, “difficult to work with.”) Beginning in 1952, television work sustained her for 20 years, until she starred as Joanne Woodward’s mother in the Gil Cates-directed 1973 feature Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, which led to her sole Oscar nomination.

Shortly before her death on July 1, 1999, Sidney sat for a filmed interview in her home with graphic artist and designer Mel Odom. Still smoking, she was undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer. After a very erratic start, the camerawork settles down, only to have Sidney’s dog, Malcolm, start to bark. Finally, Sidney gets out of her chair and, with the camera running on the empty chair, gives the dog some biscuits. The entire interview is a bit unhinged but mesmerizing. Sidney’s recall is uncanny as she talks about Street Scene, which Odom had seen just the night before. She recalls her early stage career, the move to Hollywood, and working with Rouben Mamoulian and Gary Cooper on City Streets. (She claims Mamoulian was the first director to use a moving camera in the sound era.) She remembers how Mamoulian decided to cast her when it became clear that Clara Bow, originally set to play the lead role of Nan Cooley, constantly froze up at the sight of the microphone.

Sidney is commanding, maybe even a touch imperious, in the interview, a fair indication of what her behavioral challenges might have been when she worked in the studio system. The interview may be uneven technically, but Sidney’s recollections are precise and detailed. She names Sam Goldwyn as the greatest producer ever, one not sufficiently recognized in his day — or today. She also recalls how movie mogul Jesse Lasky referred to her heart-shaped face, labeling her “the ugly kid.” When the interview ends abruptly just as she begins to talk about working with Hitchcock on Sabotage, you cry out for it to continue. A second part must exist somewhere?

You will find answers to many of the unanswered questions of Sidney’s career in Scott O’Brien’s highly regarded biography Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear.

And if you happen to be a needlepoint connoisseur, you might want to dip into one of her books on the subject.

And, finally, this short video gives thumbnail biographical notes along with a list of Sidney's iconic male co-stars. It leaves you wondering why this extraordinary actress, who created so many strong characters even in the company of strong men, isn’t recognized as one of the greats.

Next:

Los Alamos at the Met: William Eggleston

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