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SYLVIA SIDNEY: HUMAN CONUNDRUM

In Uncategorized on August 9, 2012 at 4:33 am
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yesterday was the birthday of Sylvia Sidney, here photographed by Edward Steichen, who always knew how to take THE definitive portrait. She was one of Hollywood’s greatest, yet strangely under-appreciated actresses. She was only nominated for an Oscar once, and in the supporting category, late in her life (for SUMMER WISHES, WINTER DREAMS, in which you BELIEVE she has an actual heart attack). Her real life persona was strangely at odds with her universally known limpid image as the wistful down-trodden Depression proletariat heroine par excellence.”Redoubtable” only began to describe her: a fan approached her once at Bloomingdale’s to tell her he had hundreds of pictures of her. Her reply: “You must be fucking crazy! Your house must be a mess!” Of her films, she once said: “Burn ’em! Burn ’em all!” She played Auntie Mame on the stage, but it was maybe more Auntie Mean.

 
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Portrait by Fletcher Martin

She did earn the respect of an actress who was surely as redoubtable as she, Bette Davis. Watching the Golden Globe Awards on TV one night, she commented that Sidney’s win was the most deserved of the evening.

 
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Dressed by Howard Greer, for THIRTY DAY PRINCESS (1934)

I met her thru her greatest fan, publicist John Springer and she liked me well enough to tell me her biggest regret was not playing Cathy in WUTHERING HEIGHTS with Charles Boyer, due to Walter Wanger’s anger with her for refusing to be in ALGIERS (not wanting to compete with Hedy Lamarr’s beauty). A shame, because that role might have revealed more of her true range and possessed more real Bronte-esque madness than gorgeous but prim Merle Oberon was able to instill. Paramount’s great designer Travis Banton never liked working with her “as my chest was too big. I got Howard Greer to do my clothes and he was wonderful.” Greer dressed her beautifully in my personal favorite movie of hers, THIRTY DAY PRINCESS. With its Preston Sturges script, she showed what a delightful quicksilver comedienne she could be when removed from tenement dreariness.

 
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Her best dramatic role was in Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, in which she plays a definitive, heartbreaking version of Bonnie Barrow, just a few years after that gun moll’s actual death. She’s also superbly moving in Josef von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, playing the same sad role Shelley Winters later did in A PLACE IN THE SUN, but in a way that makes you feel her death was tragic, not deserved.
 

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At a NY Public Library appearance, she was devastatingly dramatic in a real life way, recounting the tragic death of her son, something from which she never recovered and might account for the way she was. On the way out, another fan approached her with a super-rare lobby card from her MADAME BUTTERFLY for her to sign. “Can I have it?” she asked.
Photo: yesterday was the birthday of Sylvia Sidney, one of Hollywood’s greatest, yet strangely under-appreciated actresses. She was only nominated for an Oscar once, and in the supporting category, late in her life (for SUMMER WISHES, WINTER DREAMS, in which you BELIEVE she has an actual heart attack). Her real life persona was strangely at odds with her universally known limpid image as the wistful down-trodden Depression proletariat heroine par excellence.”Redoubtable” only began to describe her: a fan approached her once at Bloomingdale’s to tell her he had hundreds of pictures of her. Her reply: “You must be fucking crazy! Your house must be a mess!” Of her films, she once said: “Burn ’em! Burn ’em all!” She played Auntie Mame on the stage, but it was maybe more Auntie Mean. I met her thru her greatest fan, publicist John Springer and she liked me well enough to tell me her biggest regret was not playing Cathy in WUTHERING HEIGHTS with Charles Boyer, due to Walter Wanger’s anger with her for refusing to be in ALGIERS (not wanting to compete with Hedy Lamarr’s beauty). A shame, because that role might have revealed more of her true range and possessed more real Bronte-esque madness than gorgeous but prim Merle Oberon was able to instill. Paramount’s great designer Travis Banton never liked working with her “as my chest was too big. I got Howard Greer to do my clothes and he was wonderful.” Greer dressed her beautifully in my personal favorite movie of hers, THIRTY DAY PRINCESS. With its Preston Sturges script, she showed what a delightful quicksilver comedienne she could be when removed from tenement dreariness. Her best dramatic role was in Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, in which she plays a definitive, heartbreaking version of Bonnie Barrow, just a few years after that gun moll’s actual death. She’s also superbly moving in Josef von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, playing the same sad role Shelley Winters later did in A PLACE IN THE SUN, but in a way that makes you feel her death was tragic, not deserved. At a NY Public Library appearance, she was devastatingly dramatic in a real life way, recounting the tragic death of her son, something from which she never recovered and might account for the way she was. On the way out, another fan approached her with a super-rare lobby card from her MADAME BUTTERFLY for her to sign. “Can I have it?” she asked, redoubtable as ever.

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  1. Actually, I played Young Pat to her magnificent Auntie Mame. Her interpretaiton was anything but mean! Patrcik Dennis and others thought her portrayal was most as PD intended.

    • That is fascinating to hear! And happy to learn that her talent extended to this role. Undoubtedly she was one of the greatest American actresses, so underrated and with such range. She never got to do enough comedy so I am sure she dazzled as Mame as she did in her wonderful Preston Sturges-penned film THIRTY DAY PRINCESS. Would love to hear more about working with her

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