Sylvia (1965) is much more than the story of a "prostitute with a heart of gold." This plot is one of few out there which does not define a lady of the evening exclusively in terms of that profession. In fact, the title character's quest is to have others not define her in that way. The movie does not portray Sylvia as a prostitute as much as it presents her as a human being on a mission with a few detours here and there. A totally refreshing take on a well-known type of character.
Macklin follows every little rabbit trail of information to discover Sylvia's secrets. In doing so he speaks to former work colleagues, former clients and friends and discovers that Sylvia has worked as a prostitute many times over. This information could ruin her chances of "respectability." Sylvia has longed to be accepted by society ever since her poverty-stricken and abusive childhood.
Her journey to the point of being "above reproach" is long and arduous and filled with desperation and more abuse. Sylvia's body is in the room enduring the ugliness of her situation, but her mind is elsewhere, on something beautiful. Her best friend recalls that in between clients Sylvia was always reading. She'd do the job then pick up the book again.
There are many scenes of the character with her books, silently reading and absorbing information. Sylvia's insatiable appetite for knowledge (when many of the other ladies despise her for reading), her desire to be around something else, her devouring a collection of books, could have been portrayed with obnoxious behavior, arrogance or as an attempt at conspicuous consumption. But it's not. Sylvia isn't after material goods, per say, nor to showcase her great intellectual capacities. She's not commenting on anything, not trying to impress anyone, she's just learning.
Sylvia is not only on a quest for information; she's not only after respectability; the lady is also after freedom - freedom from the bondage of madams and one night stands; financial freedom to go whenever she wants without a sugar daddy's fat wallet tethering her body and soul. Freedom to be "owned" by no one. Self-education, investing her money and creating passive income by writing a book are her tickets to liberation.
Ultimately, it is a pleasure to see our heroine enjoying the fruits of her labor as an author in a lovely house where she's all alone but not lonely. She's still reading, of course. She barely looks up from her book when Macklin comes in to wrap up the film.
Watch for a beautifully-moderated performance from Joanne Dru as Jane, Sylvia's best friend and former prostitute, who now leads a life as the wife of a wealthy investor. The story makes it clear that Jane is not deceiving anyone or hiding, that she and her husband have a mutual understanding and face the consequences of her past as a team.
In the present, like Jane, Sylvia has vowed never to return to the business. A few years prior, she tries to stay away from prostitution by working any side job that she can get, including a position as a cashier at an arcade. Her colleague at the arcade is Mrs. Argona, played with the humor, brilliance and gravity that only Ann Sothern can bring. Mrs. Argona is a lady of a certain age who supplements her income by being a sugar baby. She's given up hope of being able to do anything else. She is very impressed with Sylvia's drive and ambition, but thinks it's futile. Mrs. Argona's present is Sylvia's future if she doesn't change course.
Another character that you can't help but keep your eye on, because he is in so many scenes, is Macklin. Maharis plays Macklin with understated strength and decisiveness who, as he gets to know Sylvia's story, mulls over whether he should he tell his client, Summers, everything about Sylvia's past.
The parallels between the private detective and the prostitute are shown but not overstated. She feels that she's sold almost everything; he refers to himself as "Frederick Summers' boy. Bought and paid for." She relentlessly muses over her options, is never content to settle, is always driven, as is he in his drive for information about her. They are both voracious readers- an interest that will recommend them to one another as kindred spirits.
They are two of a kind. So when Macklin catches up with her, he quietly listens to her talk and is gentle. You think, "Finally! Someone who understands Sylvia and appreciates her, not as a commodity or a prize or that odd duck in the corner, but just as a human being!"
The movie leaves you with a question, in a way. As Macklin and Sylvia discuss her new life as a successful author and traveler, he exclaims that she's doing everything she's ever dreamed of. She asks, "Am I doing what I want?" That question is never answered. You get the feeling Sylvia will always search out that next horizon.
Have you seen Sylvia? What do you think about it?
- For more movies which weave together episodes from the past to create a character's full story, view Citizen Kane, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, What a Way to Go!, Lydia, A Letter to Three Wives,The Three Faces of Eve and Letter from an Unknown Woman.
- Compare film locations for Sylvia then and now at Dear Old Hollywood.