Saturday 29 June 2019

In memoriam: Sylvia Miles (Telegraph 23/06/19)

Sylvia Miles, who has died aged 94, was an actress, socialite and camp icon who emerged amid the adventurous American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, giving vivid, lusty life to characters of a certain age.

She earned the first of her two Oscar nominations for her role in Midnight Cowboy (1969) as Cass, the bottle-blonde, no-nonsense working girl who takes in Jon Voight’s Joe Buck upon his arrival in New York. Miles was on screen for less than ten minutes, yet she established a dramatic contrast between the battle-hardened streetwalker and her lodger’s doughy malleability, before tearing into a tremendous, defiant monologue: “Who do you think you’re dealing with?... In case you didn’t happen to notice it, you big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one hell of a gorgeous chick!”

That envelope-pushing film’s success bestowed a curious form of celebrity upon her. Miles’ most substantial role of the Seventies came in Heat (1972), Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s knowingly trashy riff on Sunset Boulevard, in which she played an ageing actress seducing Joe Dallesandro’s former child star. (She appeared unabashedly topless on European posters.)

A second Oscar nomination came her way for bringing a melancholy faded glamour to a five-minute scene in Dick Richards’ adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely (1975), where her booze-sodden widow Mrs. Florian informed Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlowe “When I like a guy, the ceiling’s the limit.” It was, as the New York Times reviewer observed, “a role that seems an overdone cliché, until you realise [Miles] is doing it with such subtlety that her lost beauty keeps flickering back”.

She had been born Sylvia Lee in Greenwich Village, New York on September 9, 1924, the daughter of furniture maker Reuben Scheinwald and his wife Bella (née Feldman). After studying at Washington Irving High School and the Pratt Institute, she signed up at the Actors Studio, then entering its late Forties heyday. The Method training she received there was one factor in her career longevity: unlike such essentially decorous, passive Warhol discoveries as Dallesandro and Edie Sedgwick, Miles knew how to act.

She began on the stage, quickly drawing eyes to an emergent off-Broadway scene. After making her debut in a 1954 production of Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher alongside future Producers star Zero Mostel, Miles was cast in generally seamy roles: as the prostitute Margie in 1957’s fabled Jason Robards production of The Iceman Cometh, as the brothel thief in 1960’s Obie-winning staging of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, as a witch in 1962’s An Anton Chekhov Sketchbook.

Miles made her film debut in crime thriller Murder Inc. (1960) and racked up multiple TV credits before Midnight Cowboy put her on the Hollywood radar. Pursuing an idiosyncratic career path, she thereafter popped up in cultish projects: as a script girl in The Last Movie (1971), Maxine in Broadway’s 1976 revival of The Night of the Iguana, the Countess Rasmussen in Bollywood thriller Shalimar (1978). In Michael Winner’s horror cash-in The Sentinel (1977), Miles played a character she described as “a mad, dead, crazed German zombie lesbian ballet dancer”.

By then, her acting career was secondary to her reputation as a social butterfly: she was the first public figure to inspire the observation they would “attend the opening of an envelope”, a line variously attributed to the ventriloquist Wayland Flowers, gossip columnist Earl Wilson and Miles herself. In a mid-70s interview, Miles gave her reasoning: “I go out a lot because that’s the only way I get to meet people… I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of.”

She created furore at a party during 1973’s New York Film Festival, however, after upending a plate of steak tartare over the famously sniffy theatre critic John Simon, who had dismissed her in print as “one of New York’s leading gatecrashers”. (Miles insisted she was always on the guest list.) When Simon said he’d send her the dry cleaning bill, Miles retorted “It’ll probably be the first time that suit’s been cleaned.” The hullabaloo didn’t stop the invites: a People profile of 1976 bore the headline “What Would a Manhattan Party Be Without the Ubiquitous Sylvia Miles?”

She worked steadily in the decades that followed, lending flamboyant character to small supporting parts: fortune teller Madame Zena in fairground slasher The Funhouse (1981), the Broadway producer in Agatha Christie adaptation Evil Under the Sun (1982), a realtor in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) and its sequel Money Never Sleeps (2010). She was a matchmaker in Crossing Delancey (1988), Meryl Streep’s mother in She-Devil (1989), and turned up in a 2002 episode of Sex & the City, sprinkling granulated lithium on her chocolate ice cream.

In her personal life, she was a keen chess player, and married and divorced three times: her husbands were William Miles, from whom she took her surname, the actor Gerald Price, and the DJ Ted Brown. “I’m often thought of as controversial or avant-garde or erotic or salacious,” she stated in that 1976 profile. “But there isn’t anybody I know who wouldn’t live my life if they could.”

Sylvia Miles, born September 9, 1924, died June 12, 2019.

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