September 9, 1924 – Sylvia Miles:
There isn’t anybody I know who wouldn’t live my life if they could.”
There’s an old anecdote about Sylvia Miles; onetime, when a waiter asked how she took her coffee, she responded: “I like my coffee the way I like my men.” The waiter said: “I’m sorry, we don’t have any gay coffee here.“
Miles was a scene-stealing, two-time Academy Award nominee for supporting roles in the Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Farewell My Lovely (1975).
I first noticed Miles in Midnight Cowboy where she plays a sharp-tongued New York call girl who manages to hustle Jon Voight’s character as he’s trying to make his own living as an aspiring prostitute and con artist. In her only scene, with only about six minutes of screentime, she goes from the usual pleasantries to fiery, to wailing and weeping in just a few seconds.
Midnight Cowboy, directed by gay John Schlesinger, stars Dustin Hoffman and Voight, with great actors in smallish roles including Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Salt, and Barnard Hughes. Set in New York City, Midnight Cowboy tells the tale on an unlikely friendship between two hustlers: naïve sex worker Joe Buck (Voight) and ailing con man Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman).
The film won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It remains the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture.
Midnight Cowboy is the perfect example of way Miles went at a character, conveying the depth in a handful of concentrated gestures. While putting on her lipstick in the mirror, she is oblivious to the awkward attempts by Joe Buck to bring up payment for sex. With the force of a bomb explosion, she croaks: “You were gonna ask me for money? Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with? Some old slut on 42nd Street? I am one hell of a gorgeous chick!”, before sobbing.
Her second Oscar was for a five-and-a-half-minute scene and about eight minutes of total screentime, working alongside Robert Mitchum in an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe detective story from 1940, Farewell, My Lovely. The film also stars Charlotte Rampling and Harry Dean Stanton, with an early screen appearance by Sylvester Stallone.
“I become the character at the time I’m doing it, so it doesn’t matter if it’s two minutes or 200 hours.”
Some of her other performances: a real estate agent named Dolores in Oliver Stone’s ode to 1980s greed, Wall Street (1987), and Miles reprised this role for the film’s sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010); she stars in the Agatha Christie adaptation, Evil Under The Sun; in She-Devil (1989) she is Meryl Streep’s mother. In Michael Winner’s crappy horror flick The Sentinel (1977), she is a German zombie lesbian ballet dancer. In Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales (2007) she plays a landlady who turns a pole-dancing club into a branch of Bed Bath and Beyond. Her rowdy portrayal of chicken-chomping, lip-smacking matchmaker in Crossing Delancey (1988) is her funniest work.
Miles filled her life as well as her performances with incident and vitality. It seems that it was Wayland Flowers’ puppet Madame who first used the much- quoted quip:
“Sylvia Miles and Andy Warhol would attend the opening of an envelope“.
Miles hung out at The Factory and starred in Warhol’s film Heat (1972), directed by Paul Morrisey. Morrissey cast her again on Spike Of Bensonhurst (1988), where she plays a coke-snorting politician.
Her days were spent “going out, working, getting laid”. She moved from one boyfriend to the next with great elan. She married three times before she was 40; each marriage ending in divorce. Miles:
“What’s wrong with younger men? They have less problems, less bitterness and more stamina.”
In 1973, at a New York restaurant, Miles publicly dumped a plate of food onto acerbic critic John Simon‘s head after he referred to her in a review of a play she was appearing as “one of New York’s leading party girls and gate-crashers”. Reports claimed it was a plate of paté, steak tartare, brie, and potato salad; it all ended with her advising Simon: “Now you can call me a plate-crasher, too!” Later she wrote:
“How could I crash anything? I was invited to everything!”
In 1975, Miles complained about being typecast as a prostitute in almost all her then 14 films and 26 Off-Broadway plays:
“Do I look like a prostitute? What does a hooker look like, anyway? Me?”
Miles was born in Greenwich Village. She went to Washington Irving High School and Pratt Institute, and she attended the Actors Studio. She had quite the career Off-Broadway, beginning in 1954 with A Stone For Danny Fisher, starring Zero Mostel. She was in Eugene O’Neill‘s The Iceman Cometh (1957), starring Jason Robards, a production credited with reviving that play’s reputation. In 1960, Miles appeared in the US premiere of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (her dresser was a teenage Barbra Streisand).
Miles took her final bow in June 2019 at 94 years old.