by Harry Haun
One fine February day in 1976, best-buds Carol Kane and Sylvia Miles decided to dine at the Russian Tea Room where celebs normally went to be seen. Midway through the meal, Sylvia excused herself to call her agent and returned with the breaking news that her boozy-floozy cameo in Farewell, My Lovely had just earned her a 1975 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her sweep back into the Room was right out of Aida, with jubilant commotion on all sides and congratulations from Kane. Once all the dust had settled, she scooted back into her booth and said to Kane, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, I forgot: you were nominated, too” (for starring in Hester Street).
Sylvia’s sense of self was worthy of Bethlehem Steel, and she defended it with saber-toothed ferocity for most of her life. She had to, making her mark as an actress with twin measures of parts and parties. It was said of her that she would show up for the opening of an envelope, but she always claimed she drew the line at supermarkets.
New York nightlife was her playground, and she reveled in it. For fellow revelers, she was a revelation—like Jeff Daniels stepping off the big screen and into Mia Farrow’s mundane reality in The Purple Rose of Cairo—and she made herself right at home in this milieu. It was, to be fair, an easy drift from the Andy Warhol Factory where she was a reigning star. But there was always an actress trying to get out of the partygoer.
When she left us last week, she left us as an actress. Since she had no compunction about shaving decades off her birth certificate, not a few of her friends were startled at her age. I’ll keep her secret and not sully this report with her actual number, but the important thing is that she had her cover story ready, and I was glad to see the New York Post bought it: “She was set to appear in director Eric Rivas’ Japanese Borscht.”
With age, roles trickled away from her, but she gamely kept up the in-demand allusion and never let the flag touch the ground. The last time I checked with her on casting, she said a Provincetown director received permission from The Tennessee Williams Estate to let her play one of his characters in a wheelchair (a necessity by then).
With the noted exception of Williams’ The Night of the Iguana where she played the blousy hotel-owner opposite a saintly Dorothy McGuire and a backsliding Richard Chamberlain, Miles concentrated in the main on screens, large and small.
She contributed a priceless bit to the fifth-season premiere of Sex and the City when Sarah Jessica Parker finds herself in a luncheonette sitting next to an eccentric who crushes lithium and sprinkles it on her ice cream. On the big screen, writer-director Oliver Stone hired her for both his Wall Streets, the second as a reward for the first in which she played a motor-mouthed realtor whose pitch consumed an entire scene.
It’s a good thing Sylvia worked well in small doses because she never really and truly got her star shot (save for Heat where she and Joe Dallesandro did a tattered takeoff of Sunset Boulevard). The six-minute bit in Midnight Cowboy that put her on the map—the crafty prostitute who took greenhorn hustler Jon Voight for several kinds of rides—is the fifth shortest performance ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
But too often her acting skills were upstaged by her pronounced and singular rep as a starry night-crawler. I personally witnessed her defending herself in the public arena.
There was that afterparty at The Players where she wasn’t the only Sylvia in the room. Sylvia Sidney was also present, and photographer Bruce Glikas was alerted to get this once-in-a-blue-moon shot. Sidney, however, reneged—stridently: “I’m not posing with her. She’s too gaggy.”—and started to walk away. “Gaggy?” Sylvia huffed back, hurt. “Who got nominated for Vieux Carre, and who didn’t?” (It so happens that when that Tennessee Williams play opened in London, “our” Sylvia was up for the Olivier in the very role that Sidney had originated on Broadway–to critical crickets.)
Her most famous clash with her naysayers came during a New York Film Festival party at The Ginger Man when she hurled a plate of steak tartare and potato salad at the head of dyspeptic critic John Simon. He had written that, as an actress, she was a gatecrasher. “Now you can call me a plate-crasher,” Sylvia yelled. A livid and dripping Simon shrieked back, “You’re going to pay to have this suit cleaned, you untalented baggage!” Fine with Sylvia: “It’s probably the first time that suit’s been cleaned!”
Ah, there it is—the snap, crackle and pop of a saber-toothed wit, ready with the right words at the right time. The world is a poorer place without it. We’ll miss you, Sylvia.