Sylvia Sidney Not the Retiring Type : Movies: The feisty 82-year-old actress steals ‘Used People,’ but admits that family movies aren’t her cup of tea.


Sylvia Sidney, one of the grand dames of the cinema, has no intention of retiring.

“As long as I have got a brain and I can remember the lines and they pay me well, I will do it,” quipped the 82-year-old actress in a recent interview over the phone from her home in Danbury, Conn.

The diminutive but feisty Sidney’s latest film is the acclaimed comedy-drama, “Used People.” Though the film heavily advertises the fact it boasts the talents of three Oscar-winning actresses--Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates--Sidney effortlessly steals every scene she’s in as the acerbic Becky, the lifelong friend of Tandy who is always complaining about her aches and pains.

When asked if she had a great time doing “Used People,” Sidney, who was born Sophia Kosow in New York City, sharply replied: “What’s fun about it? That’s my job. I act. I work. I haven’t seen the picture, so I don’t know how they cut it or how I fit in.”


A descendant of Russian Jews, Sidney made her stage debut in 1926 in the Theatre Guild’s production of “Prunella.” She broke into films in the late ‘20s, and was one of Paramount Pictures’ top leading ladies in the ‘30s. During her heyday, Sidney worked with such great directors as Rouben Mamoulian (“City Streets”), Fritz Lang (“Fury,” “You Only Live Once”), William Wyler (“Dead End”), Alfred Hitchcock (“Sabotage”) and Josef von Sternberg (“An American Tragedy”).

The actress, though, does not dwell on the past. ‘I have to get through today and tomorrow and hopefully a few more days,” Sidney said with a laugh.

Sidney said she first met with the film’s young British director, Beeban Kidron, about doing the movie “sometime in the summer, long long before we started shooting.” Sidney found Kidron, who directed last year’s acclaimed comedy, “Antonia & Jane,” “very, very easy to work with.”

She also has high praise for Tim Burton, who directed her in “Beetlejuice,” in which she played a grumpy social worker from the great beyond. “Oh, I adore him,” Sidney said. “I think he is one of the most extraordinary talents. I wish he would stop making crazy movies and really make something like ‘Used People.’ I think he has that kind of talent for character. He’s incredibly sensitive and nice.”

Sidney finds filmmaking radically different today than it was 60 years ago. “I think we took more care then than we do now,” Sidney said. “The whole way of working was different. You were under contract to a studio as an actor or as a director or even as a writer. You were given your material. Depending on what the movie was (the shooting schedule) was either four weeks or if was a big one, it would maybe be 10 or 12 weeks.”

She received her one and only Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for 1973’s “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams,” in which she played Joanne Woodward’s mother. “My beautiful Joanne,” Sidney said. “She is one of the dearest human beings that ever was born. She is a real lady.”


Sidney also won a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination six years ago for her role as Aidan Quinn’s grandmother in the NBC AIDS drama “An Early Frost. Married and divorced three times--Bennett Cerf and Luther Adler were among her husbands--her only child, Jacob, died in the mid-’80s of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sidney said she doesn’t know if she’ll get ever get around to see “Used People.” She said it’s not because she doesn’t like watching herself. “I hate to say this,” Sidney said, laughing, “but if I weren’t in it, I don’t think it is the kind of movie I would want to see. I don’t know. Things about families, they don’t get to me.”

So what type of movie does she like?

“ ‘JFK,’ ” she said. “It was a gorgeous movie.”