The dragon-voiced diva chats us up
Sylvia Miles’ reputation in the 1970s was based on three things: her 6-minute bit as a New York hooker in Midnight Cowboy, her peerless rendering of a washed-up brassy B-movie star and game show habitué in Paul Morrissey’s Heat, and her dumping a plate of spaghetti on critic John Simon’s head after a particularly nasty review. In the public mind — and, according to Miles, some casting agents and producers — she was a gifted but slightly crazed harridan, capable of brilliant performances but too volatile to be considered for as many roles as she was obviously capable of.
An even cursory look at her total career — along with an hour-long phone chat — showed her own self-characterization as a “disciplined professional person” is an accurate one. Miles has a lengthy career in off-Broadway and television dramas like Naked City and Route 66. She turned down the Rose Marie role in The Dick Van Dyke show after appearing in the pilot episode, which shows up occasionally on Nick at Nite. Among her early theatrical appearances were The Iceman Cometh and the world premiere of Genet’s The Balcony, in which another “brassy broad,” Barbra Streisand, acted as her dresser. Her film career encompasses big-budget melodramas (Parrish); genre favorites like Funhouse and The Sentinel; classy venues like 92 in the Shade, Evil under the Sun, and Farewell My Lovely, which earned her the second of her two Oscar nominations; and hip indie comedies like the recent Denise Calls Up. Her one-woman show, It’s Me, Sylvia, was based on a series of autobiographical articles she wrote.
Unlike the self-absorbed viragos of Heat or Midnight Cowboy, Miles is an avid student of culture and reads voraciously. “I’ll spend a whole month doing nothing but reading,” she says, citing recent favorites Edith Wharton and Henry James. She’s almost frighteningly articulate, and her side of our conversation was a full-blown Sylvia Miles performance, something she was aware of herself and freely commented on. She has a droll sense of humor that can’t be contained and a full, gravelly laugh that comes easily, as if she’s relaxed with her life.
Miles was born in 1932 in New York City, where her father owned a furniture factory. She grew up in Greenwich Village and remembers playing chess with him in Washington Square Park. Always attracted to the theatre, though initially not to performing, she studied set design and costuming in high school. “I was hired as an apprentice to a set designer out in Long Island and one of the actors died and I played a 90-year-old man at the age of not quite 16 in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. I filled in and once I got onstage, that was it. I’d found my home.”
Home has almost always been New York. “I was an off-Broadway actress in the ’60s and it was while I was in rehearsal for The Balcony, the Jean Genet play, that I got my first film, Murder, Inc.” The splashy-trashy Universal picture Parrish, in which she plays a sexy tobacco-picker (!), was shot second but released first. “I was like what’s her name, Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, in the tobacco fields!”
I ask her about doing the pilot for The Dick Van Dyke Show. “If you see the pilot, you see that Rose Marie did my characterization. I was the only one that was offered the part. Danny Thomas wanted me, desperately. I was doing The Balcony at the Circle in the Square Theater and I had lunch with my father, and I said, ‘Daddy, they want me.’ And he said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to have an important career in the theater.’ He said, ‘You’re making 38 dollars a week. What’s an important career in the theater?’ I said, ‘Listen, when that show is over, whoever does that part is going to be doing game shows.’ That’s what she’s been doing ever since, right? I didn’t want to do it.”
It’s a long leap from Dick Van Dyke to Andy Warhol, but I have to ask because I know Miles is sensitive about being called a “Warhol actress” — and rightly, since she only made one Warhol (actually Paul Morrissey) movie. “People have a way of writing their own history and reshaping history. But when it involves me, I like to keep the record straight. A lot of people in the industry think I was a ‘Warhol actress.’ Every five years there’s a whole new generation and they’re less and less informed.” I suggest that it might have been because her performance in Heat felt so “real” that she was associated with the Warhol camp verité style. “That’s the same thing that happened with Midnight Cowboy,” she says. “Maureen Stapleton told me that Julie Harris and she were talking and Maureen said to Julie, ‘Isn’t that amazing? They went out and found a hooker and put her in this movie!’ Julie said, ‘That’s not a hooker, that’s Sylvia Miles!’ She’s been around off-Broadway for years.”
Miles is not impressed when I call that a tribute. “Yeah, but it’s like Heat. Artie Shaw swears I stole Lana Turner’s life for that role. Andy wanted a star. He actually wanted to get somebody like Rita Hayworth. I guess I was the Andy Warhol version of Rita Hayworth.”
A question about whether Heat was scripted or improvised triggers a monologue on acting style. “I wrote every line I said in Heat,” Miles says emphatically. “There was no script. I didn’t write it, I made it up. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I don’t consider that improvising, just like I’m not improvising now. I’m just creating it, making it up as I go along, which is what life is, behavior is. . . . Most good actors can’t really do that. They hump and they frump because they’re ‘improvising,’ but if you’re in a given situation, you’re not improvising, you’re behaving.” When I suggest this comes from a feeling of empathy for the character, she says, “It’s more than having a feeling for the role. I created her. I had a history, evil ex-husbands, and a rotten daughter.”
What about the production itself? “We were at the Tropicana Motel,” Miles recalls. “I was staying in the suite where Janis Joplin o.d.’d. At 4:00 in the morning, there’d be knocks on the door, these musicians comin’ around looking for her. The place where we shot was right across from that Frank Lloyd Wright house in Griffith Park. There was a hippie love cult staying there and we had to shoot around those people. And in the middle of the thing I lost 35 pounds. After shooting I had to do an additional scene and I looked skinny!”
And Joe Dallesandro, her gigolo-lover? “When I laid eyes on Joe, when I saw Trash, I knew that he and I would be a great combination. We would make fireworks together. Not even because I personally was that attracted to him. I just thought that the combination of his silent kind of stumbling awkwardness, with my kind of savvy but stupidity, would be perfect. I had that kind of strength as a ‘victim’ that he wouldn’t come off as a villain.”
Returning to the idea of improvising versus behaving, I mention Midnight Cowboy and director John Schlesinger. “I become the character at the time I’m doing it, so it doesn’t matter if it’s two minutes or 200 hours! Once you get the real person, you don’t have to have the 200 hours. That scene was 20 minutes cut down to 6 minutes and he managed to get every nuance in that 6 minutes, and I think he did a masterful job on that movie.”
Miles has fond memories of working in the trenches of generic horror — almost obligatory for older actresses since the 1960s. “Michael Winner called me in for The Sentinel. I wanted to play the real estate agent and he said, ‘I’d rather you play this.’ ‘Yeah, but that’s a mad dead crazed German zombie lesbian ballet dancer!’ He said, ‘Well, anybody could play the real estate agent.’ I said, ‘Well, who the hell would want to…” I mean, can you imagine a mad dead crazed German zombie lesbian ballet dancer?” Miles’s camp bravado is evident in scenes where she sits around naked in a hallway smearing blood all over herself. This film and Funhouse inspired a new generation of fans who know nothing about Heat and Midnight Cowboy. She meets them at “rock concerts.”
In the realm of real-life horrors, Margot Kidder’s name comes up, and Miles recalls working with her on 92 in the Shade. When I say it’s “sad” about Kidder’s bouts with mental illness, Miles corrects me: “Beyond sad. What’s beyond sad? The last thing I read she said was, ‘Hollywood has a way of spitting you out when you’re past your prime.’ It’s a good thing I live in New York!”
How does it feel to be an “icon”? “I just did this fashion show — Six on Seventh. [They] used real people as opposed to models. Ellen Burstyn modeled, Betty Buckley, Tama Janowitz. They described everybody — ‘the actress Ellen Burstyn, the diva Betty Buckley’ — and then, ‘Sylvia Miles — icon!’ I con, you con, we all con!”
What about American culture today? Miles is unequivocal. “Pretty frightening. Frightening because we used to hail and encourage and celebrate individuality. And now — I’m an icon. I’m a reluctant icon! I don’t want to be put on a shelf and pointed to! I’m not the Statue of Liberty …”
I can’t resist asking about the John Simon incident. “Would you believe that it happened in 1973 and this is 1996 and they talk about it like it was yesterday!” She says she and Simon laugh about it today. “But I think it’s prevented me from getting work in the theater all these years, because I seldom get to read for plays these days. Producers and casting agents are in the theater usually because they live a life of fantasy. Their own life is usually pretty dull. Somebody like me, they probably think I’m a pirate! That I’m likely to do something incorrigible. And I’m such a disciplined professional person.”
I mention her one-woman show It’s Me, Sylvia, written in collaboration with Galt McDermott. “While I was rehearsing being on hold with my agent — which was why I was able to write this, because I was always on hold with him — they came and said there was a call, and my agent was on the phone and said, ‘I have an offer for you to play James Mason’s wife in Evil Under the Sun. Twelve weeks, Mallorca and London. They’ll come and fit you for the costumes in New York and you have to be in Mallorca April whatever —” and I said, ‘But Milton, I’m in rehearsal for the story of my life!’ He said, ‘Fuck your life! This is more important.’ And you know what? He was right.” She laughs. “And I did. And I had the best experience in my whole life.”