Sylvia Miles was nearly 45 years old when she got her big break. Cast as an aristocratic woman who picks up Jon Voight’s naïve hustler in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, Miles set aside a career of modest credits to score her first Oscar nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actress. It was one hell of a coming out party for a profession that prizes youth. Especially when you consider Miles wasn’t well known for her previous work. She didn’t build up to Midnight Cowboy as much as finally unleash her force of nature on a public that rarely saw a depiction of a middle-aged woman invested in her own pleasure. While her screen time may have been short (6 minutes!), Miles got every second out of her fearless, uninhibited performance. It wasn’t just the forceful sexuality she displayed in the role, there was heartbreak too. The desperation just under the surface of a woman keenly aware of her advancing age was palpable.
It would be six more years before lightning would strike a second time for Miles. As a faded actress going to seed expeditiously in the oft-overlooked 1975 version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, she chewed the scenery with aplomb and earned her second Oscar nomination. This time she was onscreen for the whole of 8 minutes. You could say that even in a film with an aging Robert Mitchum playing Philip Marlowe and a young Charlotte Rampling, she still found a way to stand out. Her performance as a lonely alcoholic could have easily been played as a stereotype, but Miles would have none of that. In some ways it’s not too hard to imagine her character in Farewell as a version of Cass from Midnight Cowboy with just a few more luckless turns.
After Farewell, Miles never again achieved such a level of acclaim for her work as an actor. For the most part her roles stayed small, but the projects lacked the luster of Midnight Cowboy and Farewell, My Lovely. She had a nice role in the charming Crossing Delancey in 1988. She had a fun cameo in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street as a realtor. A part she would reprise in its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (her final feature role). I also enjoyed her as the victim of a home invasion in an episode of Miami Vice directed by Abel Ferrara.
No one would say she didn’t enjoy life though. A fixture on the party scene, and close friend of Andy Warhol, her appearances at galas was so ubiquitous she was the person of whom it was originally said “would attend the opening of an envelope.” Just as Miles squeezed every spark out of her time onscreen, she did the same for her life off it.
That we all would be able to say the same.
Sylvia Miles died today. She was 94 years old.