Sylvia Syms, an English actress who found a place in British film history playing the wife of a closeted barrister in “Victim,” a 1961 movie that depicted homosexuality with a degree of compassion at a time when same-sex relationships were criminalized, died Jan. 27 in London. She was 89.
In a career spanning six decades, Ms. Syms amassed credits on the London stage and in Hollywood. She appeared in dozens of movies alongside stars such as Omar Sharif and Julie Andrews in the Cold War drama “The Tamarind Seed” (1974) and with Oscar winner Helen Mirren in “The Queen” (2006) in which Ms. Syms played the Queen Mother.
In Britain, “Victim” was a modest box office success, but it became a reference point for public and political debate over anti-gay laws. In one scene in the film, a police officer reminds a colleague that “there was a time” when it was against the law to be a Puritan in Britain.
The film’s influence was widely credited with helping build support for Britain’s Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 that decriminalized same-sex relationships. (In 2003, the Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, invalidated sodomy law across the United States.)
“A lot of actresses turned the part down because of the subject matter,” Ms. Syms told the Financial Times in 2017. “I was interested in the subject, and I wanted the law to change.”
Ms. Syms played the wife who gradually comes to terms with her husband’s sexuality as he investigates a blackmail plot against him.
“Victim,” starring Dirk Bogarde as the husband, was among the first major English-language films in wide release to deal openly with gay issues at a time when many countries, including Britain and the United States, outlawed same-sex relations. (In real life, Bogarde had a longtime relationship with a man, but he maintained a public facade as straight during his career.)
A 1962 review in the New York Times described the noir-style “Victim” as “rather shoddily constructed” but hailed its courage. “As frank and deliberate exposition of the well-known presence and plight of the tacit homosexual in modern society it is certainly unprecedented and intellectually bold,” wrote film critic Bosley Crowther.
Two years after “Victim,” Ms. Syms played a nightclub hostess romantically involved with another woman in “The World Ten Times Over” (1963), which was called “Pussycat Alley” in its release in the United States.
Ms. Syms took pride, however, in being seen as an actress willing to give any role a try. She was a sultry chorus girl in the beatnik-era musical “Expresso Bongo” (1959) starring rock singer Cliff Richard, played part of a love triangle in the romantic drama “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960) and, until 2010, had a recurring part as a dressmaker in the BBC series “Eastenders.” In 1991, she portrayed former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in “Thatcher: The Final Days.”
When an interviewer once asked if she considered herself a national treasure, Ms. Syms shot back: “A living great? I don’t think so!”
She added: “I don’t think anyone . . . thinks ‘Sylvia Syms, my God!’ I’m too ordinary. They just think, ‘She will do.’”
Sylvia May Laura Syms was born Jan. 6, 1934, in London, where her father was a trade union leader and passed along to her a lifelong loyalty to the Labour Party and the rights of workers.
As a child, Ms. Syms and her siblings were evacuated from London during the German airstrikes in World War II. Her mother stayed behind in the city as an auxiliary nurse and suffered a head injury during a bombing raid. She died in 1946, leaving Ms. Syms emotionally scarred and “near breakdown,” by her own account.
In 1953, Ms. Syms graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts with a special award that paved the way for immediate stage and screen work. In her London theater debut, George Bernard Shaw’s “The Apple Cart,” she had a small role in 1954 alongside star Noel Coward. He once asked her to lunch at the Savoy Hotel because, she said, he liked her hat. “It was the first posh restaurant I have ever been to,” Ms. Syms recalled.
Her cinematic breakthrough came in the gritty World War II drama “Ice Cold in Alex” (1958). She was cast as a resourceful nurse with a group of British military personnel trying to reach the safety of Alexandria, Egypt, while driving an ambulance across North African desert battlefields. The title of the film, also starring John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews, refers to their plans of enjoying an “ice cold lager” once they make it to Alexandria.
The bar scene was used in a television ad by the Danish beer maker Carlsberg and was a welcome payday for Ms. Syms. She recounted that she was paid 30 pounds a week while shooting the film, or about 800 pounds, or $990, in purchasing power today. “I made a lot more when they turned it into an advert for Carlsberg,” she said.
“It was horrible but a wonderful experience,” she said of filming in the Libyan desert. “There were holes in the ground for lavatories and so many flies. We used DDT as hair spray. I am amazed we did not all die shortly afterward.”
Ms. Syms became a fixture in British cinema and television in roles such as the wife of a condemned man in “The Quare Fellow” (1962), a headmistress in the 1989 romantic comedy “Shirley Valentine” and a pensioner in “Is Anybody There?” (2008) along with Michael Caine and Anne-Marie Duff. Her Hollywood films included back-to-back roles in 1969 in the coming-of-age drama “Run Wild, Run Free” and the Western “The Desperadoes.”
From 2013 to 2019, Ms. Syms narrated the BBC Two series “Talking Pictures,” examining the lives of performers. She was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2007. Her marriage to director Alan Edney ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Beatie, and a son, Benjamin, who are both actors.
Ms. Syms was always quick to deflect accolades with reminders that acting was just a job. “I am a hard-working actress, not a star,” she said. The trick, she added, was to keep pressing ahead even as interesting roles became harder to find as she grew older.
“Don’t you dare make me sound as if I am full of whining complaints,” she said in 1997 during an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “Good teachers are out of work, good nurses are out of work, and I have a roof over my head and no mortgage. I have always thought of myself as Scarlett O’Hara, really. I will worry about tomorrow when it comes along.”