Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Sylvia Sidney in the 1930s
Who is the delicate looking girl at left with the brimming eyes and the heart-shaped face, who once described show business as "the world's roughest gamble"? In her own way, Sylvia Sidney (1910-1999) rolled the dice against the house and managed to stay in the game for seven decades. Why don't more people know her?
Well, they do, but contemporary viewers may be familiar with only a small portion of her graceful talent. Sylvia Sidney may be best remembered as the ancient woman who still smokes like a chimney in the afterlife, as she appeared as the brashly amusing ghoulish bureaucrat in Beetle Juice (1988) or in Mars Attacks (1996), as the Slim Whitman-loving granny who saves the world in those imaginatively surreal Tim Burton movies. With only a few of her movies available to contemporary viewers, her finely drawn portraits of earlier decades may be increasingly unfamiliar. Perhaps a small nod her way will encourage more of us to seek out her memorable gallery of characters from long ago.
I first became aware of Sylvia Sidney as a kid when I encountered her somewhat hapless good girl moll in Mary Burns, Fugitive(1935) on one of those channels that broadcast old movies repeatedly in the '60s and '70s. She won my heart playing a plucky, almost fatally naïve hash slinger in a rural diner whose boyfriend (Alan Baxter) turns out to be a very bad apple. Caught up in the media frenzy over her gunsel paramour, Mary Burns soon lands in the pokey, and only becomes liberated from society's narrow expectations and her poisonous honey when she plugs him.
The movie, which is a hybrid of the "woman's picture" and the socially aware "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" flick, limns the downfall and rise of a person whose unexamined life is turned on its head by chance and by the coldness of the justice system. The gradual assertion of this overwhelmed young woman's will to survive was more riveting for me because of the petite Sylvia Sidney's ability to convey such a highly feminine blend of fear, outrage, and her growing understanding of the thinness of civilization's veneer...more