In Memoriam: Sylvia Miles, American Original, 1924- 2019

by Yoram Kahana July 10, 2019
Actress Sylvia Miles,Golden Globe nominee

jack mitchell/getty images

When the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Pictures honored the controversial Midnight Cowboy (1969) with seven nominations, there was one glaring discrepancy: the HFPA overlooked the brilliant but brief performance of Sylvia Miles, who died recently, aged 94.

Midnight Cowboy was a daring movie for its time, but it aimed at the heart of the zeitgeist, becoming the only X rated movie to ever win an Oscar for Best Film.  At about six minutes long, Miles' scene was one of the shortest performances ever to earn an Academy Award nomination. She portrayed an aging hooker who gets it on with Texas dishwasher and newbie Manhattan hustler Joe Buck played by Jon Voight, who was nominated for both Best Actor and Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globes, winning the latter.

Miles plays a woman who must confront the fact that time has turned her from pursued to pursuer. When she encounters a clumsy, inexperienced male escort, it shocks her that she's expected to pay Buck for his favors, rather than vice versa. "(It) demonstrated Miles' extraordinary way with character, conveying the depth of a complex life in a handful of concentrated gestures." wrote The Guardian. " Briskly applying her lipstick in the mirror, she is oblivious to the awkward attempts by the greenhorn hustler Joe... to broach the subject of payment after sex. ... “You were gonna ask me for money?” she croaks. “Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with? Some old slut on 42nd Street?.... I am one hell of a gorgeous chick”.

The outspoken Miles told an interviewer: "We rehearsed our scene alone for 10 days, Jon would come to my apartment on Central Park South dressed in a cowboy hat, jeans, and boots. My neighbors thought I had this cowboy toyboy... If only!" Her performance was so authentic, it fooled viewers. Actress Maureen Stapleton reportedly said to a colleague, “Isn’t that amazing? They went out and found a hooker and put her in this movie!”  only to be corrected: “That’s not a hooker, that’s Sylvia Miles! She’s been around off-Broadway for years.”

Criticized for being nominated for such a short scene, Miles said: “I become the character at the time I’m doing it, so it doesn’t matter if it’s two minutes or 200 hours."  It was one of several offbeat characters played by an actress who was herself an offbeat, uninhibited Manhattan fixture during her long, colorful life.

Miles was born in New York's Greenwich Village on Sept. 9, 1924, to Bella and Reuben Scheinwald, Jewish immigrants. She attended the Actors Studio, and her debut was off-Broadway in 1954 with Zero Mostel (later a Golden Globe nominee for The Producers), in a family drama set in the Great Depression. Her career soon took a different direction, when she was cast as a streetwalker in a stage production of Eugene O'Neil's The Iceman Cometh (1957) with Jason Robards (a five-time Golden Globe nominee) and as a thieving prostitute in the New York premiere of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1960). Her dresser, who helped Miles into her skimpy costumes, was a young actress and singer named Barbra Streisand, later an eight-time Golden Globe winner.

Always a reliable performer, Miles appeared in numerous stage and television productions, with little public recognition, until the explosive, brief role in Midnight Cowboy led filmmakers to recognize her and call. Lead roles came soon but off Hollywood: she played the Gloria Swanson character of a fading Hollywood movie star in Andy Warhol's Heat (1972), a satire of the classic, Golden Globe winner Sunset Boulevard (1951). The fearless Miles appeared naked and shared a steamy love scene with the hunky, much-younger Joe Dallesandro. Critics gave Heat high marks, with Roger Ebert singling Miles for high praise: "She handles this material in the only possible way, by taking it perfectly seriously. If she's a semi-retired actress having an affair with an androgynous robot, so be it: the robot has never met anyone like HER before."

Moments of the life of actress Sylvia Miles, Golden Globe nominee

Living the life: (top) with Keith Haring, in 1986; filming Andy Warhol's Heat with Joe Dallesandro, 1971; (bottom) in Midnight Cowboy, with Jon Voight, 1969; at a recent premiere.

jack mitchell/ patrick mccullan/getty images/shooting star


Another brief scene brought Miles her second Academy Award nomination, but again it was overlooked by the HFPA. In the 1975 remake of Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler's durable noir novel, this time with Robert Mitchum as private detective Phillip Marlowe. Miles plays a boozy, frizzy-haired ex-showgirl informant briefly revived by realizing that she can be useful, however fleetingly: a clearly doomed truth-teller, someone who delivers unpalatable veracity and pays the price.

For the next four decades, Miles took any and all roles, on stage, on TV and films: be it a crazed German lesbian zombie in Michael Winner's The Sentinel  (1977); a fortune-teller who gets murdered, in Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981); an aggressive real estate agent in Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987); a Jewish matchmaker in Crossing Delancey (1988); or a vulgar landlord of a strip joint in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales (2007). Miles did them all, brilliantly. Her last movie is the independent production of a cult classic remake, Japanese Borscht, soon to be unleashed, filmed on a shoestring budget, when Miles was 93 years old. It was pure Sylvia Miles to the end: “I’m always thought of as controversial or avant-garde or erotic or salacious,” she said. “But there isn’t anybody I know who wouldn’t live my life if they could.” 

And quite a life it was. A Manhattan fixture, Miles was known for her outrageous dresses and flamboyant appearance in restaurants, clubs, premieres, and parties. When John Simon, New York Magazine's critic, called her "a party girl and gate crasher" while slamming one of her off-Broadway performances, Miles took revenge. At a buffet table, she artfully arranged a plate of pâté, steak tartare, Brie, and potato salad just for the purpose of dumping it on Simon’s head. She told People Magazine: "I was always invited! But I have always had the temperament of an actress, which is just an excuse for volatile behavior."

Miles did love going to parties (wags would say that she'd even attend the opening of an envelope.) "I get invited because I'm fun," she said. "I have a good sense of humor. I look good. I'm not bad to have at a party."

Her three marriages ended in divorce, the last one when she was just 40, and her changing companions for the next half a century were yellow press fodder. “What’s wrong with younger men?” she said when questioned about dating below her own age, "They have fewer problems, less bitterness, and more stamina.”

A director and producer of her own colorful life, Miles lived to her last day in the 19th floor Manhattan apartment where she rehearsed her scene with Voigt 50 years ago. It was a home famously crammed with her photographs, artifacts, clippings, and tchotchkes.

"People disappoint you," she'd say, "Lovers disappoint you. But theatrical memorabilia stay with you, as long as you keep it under clear plastic."