Sylvia Miles: Hollywood actor and flamboyant scene-stealer with two Oscar nominations

Miles’ reputation as an omnipresent party-goer in some ways eclipsed her film credits, of which there were many

Harrison Smith
Wednesday 03 July 2019 14:06
Miles was known for playing cantankerous, sexually exuberant characters
Miles was known for playing cantankerous, sexually exuberant characters

Sylvia Miles’ appearances in the hit films Midnight Cowboy and Farewell, My Lovely lasted less than 15 minutes altogether but earned her two Academy Award nominations.

Miles, who has died aged 94, appeared in more than 30 films as well as about a dozen productions on and off-Broadway, working with director Jose Quintero at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York and once using a motor scooter to drive between performances in Greenwich Village, riding from Act I of Jean Genet’s play The Balcony to Act II of Tennessee WilliamsCamino Real.

With thick blonde hair and bawdy charisma, she was known for playing cantankerous, sexually exuberant characters, including what she once described as “a mad dead crazed German zombie lesbian ballet dancer” in the 1977 film The Sentinel, and a spinster who sprinkles her chocolate ice cream with lithium in an episode of Sex and the City.

In her breakout role, she portrayed a poodle-walking sex worker in Midnight Cowboy, director John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic about a young Texan (Jon Voight) who moves to New York to become a prostitute, befriends a part-time pimp (Dustin Hoffman) and picks up Miles, mistaking her for a wealthy client.

“You were going to ask me for money?” she asks Voight as they prepare to leave her apartment. “Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with? Some old [woman] on 42nd Street? In case you didn’t happen to notice it, you big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one hell of a gorgeous chick!”

Miles in ‘Farewell, My Lovely’, 1975, where she played a widow whose deceased husband owned a nightclub 

Miles received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, following by a nod for Farewell, My Lovely (1975), based on a novel by Raymond Chandler and starring Robert Mitchum as detective Philip Marlowe. “As a drunken widow,” wrote The New York Times. “Sylvia Miles plays a role that seems an overdone cliche until you realise that she is doing it with such subtlety that her lost beauty keeps flickering back.”

She also garnered rave reviews for Heat (1972), an R-rated riff on Sunset Boulevard directed by Paul Morrissey and produced by Andy Warhol. Miles – who played an older actress in a relationship with a floundering, onetime child star (Joe Dallesandro).

Off-screen, Miles was a ubiquitous presence at Manhattan cocktail parties, theatre premieres, film receptions, museum openings, book launches, charity luncheons and almost every other occasion that offered A-list company and the chance of finding work.

Her reputation as an omnipresent party-goer (“the Great Attender,” as some called her) spurred an oft-repeated joke, “Sylvia Miles would attend the opening of an envelope.” The line was variously credited to comedian Wayland Flowers and gossip columnist Earl Wilson, much to Miles’ dismay.

“I said it about myself, and unfortunately, everything I say sounds like a press release,” she said in 1992. “OK, so I did once go to the opening of a delicatessen. I heard Jackie [Kennedy Onassis] would be there, too. Turned out to be Jackie Mason.”

Despite all the plaudits she garnered as an actress, Miles said she struggled to maintain her standing as a serious performer, in part because of a notorious 1973 confrontation with theatre critic John Simon. Reviewing her performance in the play Nellie Toole & Co, he seemed to focus more on her offstage appearances, calling her “one of New York’s leading party girls and gate-crashers”.

Miles got her revenge at a New York Film Festival after-party, filling a plate with steak tartare, coleslaw, potato salad and cold cuts and dumping it on Simon’s head. “You called me a gate-crasher, now you can call me a plate-crasher,” she said. When Simon replied that he would send her the cleaning bill, Miles was unfazed, declaring: “It will probably be the first time that suit’s been cleaned.”

The daughter of a furniture maker, she was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1924, and rarely discussed her early life, when she was known as Sylvia Lee. “There are so many great contemporary stories about me,” she told People magazine in 1988. “Don’t get hung up on the past.” She sometimes shaved several years off her age, and she studied at the Pratt Institute and the Actors Studio in New York City.

With Jon Voight in ‘Midnight Cowboy’, 1969, where Miles played an Upper East Side prostitute 

Miles began her acting career in the theatre and appeared in Broadway productions of The Riot Act (1963), a comedy about three siblings in the New York Police Department, and a revival of Williams’ The Night of the Iguana (1976-77), starring Richard Chamberlain and Dorothy McGuire.

She made her film debut in 1960, with the gangster movie Murder, Inc and was later featured as a theatrical producer in Evil Under the Sun (1982), an aggressive real estate agent in Wall Street (1987), a bagel-munching matchmaker in Crossing Delancey (1988) and Meryl Streep‘s bombastic mother in She-Devil (1989).

Miles also appeared in television series such as Naked City and Miami Vice and performed in a short-lived 1981 solo show. Following after her father, she developed an interest in furniture-making, building her own chairs, dressers and chess set.

For years, she kept the same Manhattan apartment near Columbus Circle, a cramped, museum-like space that she likened to the burrow of “an elegant mole”. The home was filled with movie posters and magazine clippings that chronicled her life, letters from Williams and Bob Dylan, art by Keith Haring and Richard Bernstein, a sleigh bed topped with an enormous Warhol silk-screen of Marilyn Monroe, and a cardboard cut-out of Rod Stewart that she used to hang her feather boas.

“I’m always thought of as controversial or avant-garde or erotic or salacious,” she said in 1976. “But there isn’t anybody I know who wouldn’t live my life if they could.”

Her marriages to William Miles, Gerald Price and radio talk-show host Ted Brown ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister.

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

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