Sylvia Miles Played to Win

Jon Voight and Sylvia Miles in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Sylvia Miles, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of ninety-four, is on-screen for just under six minutes in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). Nonetheless, her performance as Cass, described by Anita Gates in the New York Times as “a well-groomed, poodle-owning Upper East Side hooker,” made such an indelible impression that it scored her an Oscar nomination. “You were gonna ask me for money?” she asks Jon Voight’s aspiring hustler Joe Buck. And she punctuates the question with a New York “Huh?” As the realization ripples across her face, Miles shows us the crushing humiliation of Cass’s entire world imploding.

Joe’s hemmed and hawed request for payment on the morning after his bronco has bucked sets up a standoff: Who’s more desperate—who’s lower—than whom? “Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with?” asks Cass hoarsely. “Some old slut on 42nd Street? In case you didn’t happen to notice it, you big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one hell of a gorgeous chick!” Whipping tissues from a box, Cass’s plays her trump card—tears—and wins one more round.

In 2006, Miles told the Scotsman that she and Voight had rehearsed the scene alone for ten days. “Jon would come to my apartment on Central Park South dressed in cowboy hat, jeans and boots,” she said. “My neighbors thought I had this cowboy toyboy. If only!” She also claimed that Schlesinger had cut a thirty-minute version of the scene; that she didn’t know until the night of the premiere whether he’d used the longer or shorter version; that Andy Warhol himself, before he was shot by Valerie Solanas, was slated to appear along with Factory superstars Viva and Ultra Violet at the party that Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso crash; that Bob Dylan, rather than John Barry and Harry Nilsson, was lined up for the soundtrack; and that Dylan wrote “Lay, Lady, Lay” for her.

Having studied at the Actors Studio, Miles began appearing in Off Broadway productions in the late 1940s and on television and film in the mid-1950s. She played a fading Hollywood starlet who falls for another hustler, this one played by Joe Dallesandro, in Paul Morrissey’s Heat (1972)—billed, of course, as Andy Warhol’s Heat. Her turn as a washed-up entertainer in a bathrobe in Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975) earned her a second Oscar nomination. The Hollywood Reporter’s Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge note that the “inimitable actress also played a crazed German lesbian zombie in Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977); a fortune teller, Madame Zena, who gets murdered, in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981); a Jewish matchmaker who tries to set up Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey (1988); and a hot-headed, vulgar landlord of a strip joint in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales (2007).” She also appeared briefly but memorably in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) and as the mother of Meryl Streep’s Mary Fisher in Susan Seidelman’s She-Devil (1989).

Off screen, Miles was a dependable fixture of New York’s nightlife for decades. In his remembrance for Paper magazine, Michael Musto, the former gossip columnist for the Village Voice, recalls his nights out with Miles at Studio 54. “Sylvia’s main purpose in being at a nightclub, in addition to getting photographed, was to track down directors and producers and tirelessly harangue them for jobs,” he writes. “She would actually traipse through 54 looking for show biz folks she could barrel up to and screech ‘Hire me!’ I started feeling like I was Joe, the writer owned by the demanding Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.” As always, playing women past their prime, Sylvia Miles forged her own singular triumphs, winning round after round after round.

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