Sylvia Sidney, 80, Takes Film Honor in Stride


Barking. Dogs are barking. Two black pugs.

“Petey! Malcolm!” their owner, Sylvia Sidney, calls out. “Quiet! You be quiet in there!” The barking, heard from the bedroom of her hotel suite, quickly fades.

Animals hardly intimidate an actress who faced down football players in “Beetlejuice.” Sidney is 80 years old, a tiny woman built to last. Last spring, she caught pneumonia and was hospitalized for several weeks, but she gets around quite well now, not needing a cane.

Luck and “excellent medical care” are the secrets, she insists. Also a strong mind. Sidney has no use for sentimentality. She doesn’t gush about her old movies and shrugs off a tribute being given by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Friday, joking, “If they don’t get to it now, God knows what is going to happen.”


“Ugh, God,” she groans as she remembers Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” a 1936 thriller in which Sidney murders her husband (Oscar Homolka) after discovering he’s a saboteur.

“If you did not know I was already an established fine actress, if you had never heard of me, had never heard of Homolka, you would have looked at it and said, ‘What are those people doing?’

“It was all Hitchcock. It had nothing to do with people acting. It was carefully timed. It was easy to indulge in the ego, ‘My performance,’ but it was because of Hitchcock. He was a cinema man.”

She’s equally dry-eyed about today’s movies. Most young directors don’t impress her. “I think I’m too tough for Spielberg,” she snaps. Tim Burton of “Beetlejuice” is an exception.

“I turned it down so many times because I couldn’t understand the script,” says Sidney, who played a cranky social worker from the great beyond. “I finally had a long conversation with them, and they said, ‘Read the script again.’ I said you’ll have to send another one because I threw the other one away. So they sent me one again.

“I had never heard of Tim Burton. He met me the morning I arrived in California. We had breakfast together. We had lunch together, and I was in love . . . his sensitivity, how he thought about scenes.”


Sidney, a descendant of Russian Jews, was born Sophia Kosow in New York City in 1910. Her parents were divorced when she was young, and her mother took another husband, Dr. Sigmund Sidney, a dental surgeon.

She began taking dancing lessons at age 10 and was a teen-ager when she made her stage debut, appearing in the title role of the Theatre Guild’s production of “Prunella” in 1926. After breaking into films in the late ‘20s, Sidney became one of Paramount’s five leading actresses along with Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Miriam Hopkins and Carole Lombard.

The others were tough and sharp-witted, the way Sidney is. But her specialty, ironically, was playing victims: the slum girl who loses her boyfriend to a socialite in “An American Tragedy” (Shelley Winters had the same role in the 1951 remake, “A Place in the Sun”), the nice girlfriend of racketeer Gary Cooper in “City Streets,” the nice girlfriend of falsely accused murderer Spencer Tracy in “Fury.”

In 1973, she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams,” in which she played Joanne Woodward’s mother. She won a Golden Globe in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy for “An Early Frost.”

She married three times, all ending in divorce, and had one child, Jacob, who died in the mid-1980s of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sidney has done extensive work for the National ALS Foundation.

Now living in Danbury, Conn., Sidney’s hobbies include gardening and needlepoint, about which she has written two books. She also makes occasional trips to Manhattan.


Her illness changed her priorities, she says, and she plans to leave all her money to charities such as Covenant House, anything to do with children.

“I plan to die without a nickel,” she notes calmly. “I will be penniless, but not a pauper. It will all be gone, at least what’s in cash. The rest will be disseminated among my friends.”