The New York Times reports today that Sylvia Miles—Oscar-nominated actress, fearless film performer, and noted fixture of the New York social scene—has died. A prolific actress whose credits include dozens of off-Broadway productions, 50 years of films, 14 minutes of screen time that scored her two separate Academy Award nominations, and one citation as a semi-pro competitive chess player, Miles lived a fascinating life that only rarely intersected with other people’s opinions of what she could or should be doing.
Miles’ early biographical details are (possibly intentionally) hazy; not even her birth name is a matter of public record. (She picked up her last name from her first husband; the pair was married for only a handful of years.) Originally a stage actress, Miles made the slow slide into TV and film throughout the 1960s, popping up in the pilot of The Dick Van Dyke Show as comedy writer Sally Rogers. (Rose Marie took the part for the series proper.) She didn’t get a big Hollywood break until 1969, though, appearing for a memorable six minutes in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, conning Jon Voight’s easily duped would-be hustler out of cab fare. A short but forceful performance, it scored her her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
The second came six years later, for a similarly brief-but-powerful turn in the Robert Mitchum Raymond Chandler adaptation Farewell, My Lovely. Playing a washed-up, alcoholic former dancer with a lead that Mitchum’s Marlowe needs, she swans across the screen, spilling booze, breaking into song, and conveying inner tragedy in a scant eight minutes on the screen. These brief bursts are about as close as she ever got to the Hollywood mainstream, though; she was just as, if not more, comfortable in outsider projects like her various stage productions, or films like her pal Andy Warhol’s X-rated Heat. (She and Warhol, both eminent partiers, were forever linked in a famous line by comedian Wayland Flowers, noting that they’d both “attend the opening of an envelope.”)
Miles was brash, loud, self-confident, utterly unrestrained, and intimately tied to the very DNA of a particular vision of New York City; is it any wonder that she’d pop up years later on an episode of Sex And The City, mixing lithium with chocolate ice cream, and presenting one possible future for Sarah Jessica Parker’s lovelorn heroine? In its way, it’s the perfect Sylvia Miles role: A short burst of unforgettable energy, transforming everything around her like a whirlwind.
Miles’ final feature film role came in 2010, reprising her character from Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street for its two-decades-later sequel. She left behind a legacy of strong, smart, funny, and above-all-else take-no-shit characters that were undeniable forces whenever audiences were lucky enough for them to turn up.
She was 94.