“I plan to die without a nickel,” actress Sylvia Sidney told the LA Times in a 1990 interview. The acerbic 80-year-old star had just stolen the show as Juno the otherworldly caseworker in Tim Burton’s runaway weirdo hit Beetlejuice. Heading into her 7th decade in the industry, Sidney had always been as unfiltered and raw as the chain-smoking Juno, although she almost turned down the role that defined the twilight years of her career.
Director Burton had been a fan of the actress and wanted her for the role so badly he continued to pursue her despite the many, many times she turned it down, saying she didn’t understand the script. When the two did meet for breakfast and then lunch, Sidney recalled in that same interview, “I was in love . . . his sensitivity, how he thought about scenes.” Sidney won a Saturn Award for her performance in the film, and Burton wrote the role of cranky Grandma Florence, whose Slim Whitman records eventually conquer the Martians in his 1996 cult classic Mars Attacks!, specifically for her.
But what was it about Sidney that drew the director, and many others, to her for decades? James Baldwin wrote in his seminal work on cinema, The Devil Finds Work, that Sidney was “the only American film actress who reminded me of reality.” In tracing her life and career, from her early work on the stage, her rise to fame at Paramount in the 1930s, her Oscar-nominated turn in a 1970s family drama, her turn to television movies in the 1970s and 1980s, and finally to her iconic partnership with Burton, Sidney proves to be a chain of fascinating contradictions. Although she was massively talented, throughout her career she remained ambivalent about her own artistry.
Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx in 1910 to Romanian and Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her parents later divorced and Sidney was adopted by her mother’s second husband, later using his last name for her stage name. Thus Sylvia Sidney the actress was born. She first turned to theater to conquer her shyness but found she could make a good living at it, making her Broadway debut at age of 15. Her performance in the play Bad Girl impressed Paramount’s Head of Production B.P. Schulberg so much that he signed her straight away. Nicknamed “The Ugly Kid” by the studio, Sidney often joked that she was “paid by the tear” because her roles often saw her as a good girl grieving over the trauma of loved ones.
Yet, even in the most clichéd roles, Sidney’s unique energy shone through, often stealing the spotlight from her more established co-stars. Taking over a role intended for Clara Bow, Sidney’s first big break was opposite Gary Cooper in City Streets, a pre-code crime film from a story by Dashiell Hammett. In their 1931 review Variety said, the “picture is lifted from mediocrity through the intelligent acting and appeal of Sylvia Sidney.” She would bring this intelligence to similar roles in films like An American Tragedy, and Street Scene that same year.
In 1932, Sidney partnered with Dorothy Arzner—the one female director working within the studio system at the time—on Merrily We Go To Hell. The drama had Sidney play an heiress named Joan who was hopelessly in love with alcoholic playwright Jerry (Fredric March). Not only does the film give Sidney a meaty role in Joan—who decides if her husband can tomcat around, so can she—but Arzner’s direction often places the camera in Joan’s point of view, further heightening the modernity Sidney brings to the role.
Although her Paramount contract saw her making dozens of films below her talents, every once in a while she’d find another director who could elevate the material along with her. In the late-30s she made three films with German director Fritz Lang: Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1937), and You and Me (1938). In all three films, Sidney plays ordinary women fighting against a system stacked against them. Graham Greene wrote of her performance in his review of Fury for The Spectator, “she has never more deeply conveyed the pain and inarticulacy of tenderness. . .it is ordinary, recognizable agony, life as one knows it is lived.”
In 1936, she also starred as wife who suspects her husband is a terrorist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, a film in which the Master of Suspense ramped out tension through possibly the most perverse use of a bus, a child, a dog, a bomb, and a canister of nitrate film ever put to celluloid. Still working in England at the time, Hitchcock specifically requested Sidney for the film. In an interview with Turner Classic Movies, she said she loved working with him because, “He was a great director, obviously.” Although Sidney would later attribute her performance in this film solely to Hitchcock’s controlling direction, many reviews called specific attention to her “authentic intensity.”
As her career began to wane at the end of the decade, Sidney starred in a handful of films with Humphrey Bogart, including Dead End and The Wagons Roll at Night. Although she was great friends with Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, according to her biographer Scott O’Brien, after a night of heavy drinking Bogart issued an anti-Semitic remark toward Sidney that ended with her throwing her drink—and her glass—in his face, cutting his eye. Bacall reportedly said he deserved it, while Bogart was impressed, telling Sidney, “Didn’t know you had that kind of fire.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, Sidney only made a handful of films, instead focusing on the growing medium of television. She didn’t return to the movies until 1973’s Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams starring opposite Joanne Woodward as her cantankerous mother. Sidney received widespread critical acclaim for her brief appearance in the film and even garnered her one and only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.
Sidney spent much of the 1970s and 1980s breeding pugs and writing books on needlepoint — even claiming she made more money from the books than she ever made in films. She also starred in numerous TV movies, earning a Golden Globe award and Emmy nomination for her role in the pioneering 1985 AIDS drama An Early Frost opposite Aidan Quinn, Gena Rowlands, and Ben Gazzara. The first feature-length film about the epidemic, Sidney brought her signature realism to the role, tapping into her own experience nursing her son after his ALS diagnosis. She told The Washington Post at the time that the movie was “about the education of people [about dread, complex diseases]” and “supporting victims during the most difficult time of their lives.”
In what would become arguably her most iconic role as overworked afterlife caseworker Juno in Beetlejuice, Sidney taps into her own cranky reputation, frustratedly barking orders at her clients, including the recently deceased Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis). Her work with Burton also allowed her comic timing to show, as when in Mars Attacks! she proclaims, “They blew up congress!” and then cackles in delight. While both films received tepid reviews upon their releases, they’ve since grown in their reputation, in no small part due to Sidney’s nimble character work.
Along with her duo of Tim Burton films, Sidney also starred in the romantic comedy Used People from director Beeban Kidron. Although the film boasted a star-studded cast that included Shirley MacLaine, Marcello Mastroianni, Kathy Bates, Marcia Gay Harden, Doris Roberts, Joe Pantoliano, and Jessica Tandy, it was mostly a critical flop. Sidney herself said in a 1992 interview that, “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.”
Ultimately, her comedic, pivotal role in Mars Attacks! would prove to be her last. She died at the age of 88 from throat cancer, just over a month shy of her 89th birthday. When asked if there was ever a role she wished she could have played but didn’t, she blithely replied that she “made too much money to care.”
A practical spirit until the day she died, Sidney left behind a singular body of work that continues to touch new audiences with her incomparable authenticity and fierce originality.