Sylvia Miles: The Neon Soulmate

"She is very much like me," Tenn told me, in regard to Sylvia Miles. "She is determined to be heard and to matter and to be seen. Unlike me, she is unafraid to be seen haggling for the light, for the center of attention. Sylvia, you must understand, should not be underestimated: She knows what lies beneath the rocks before she lifts them."

Flamboyant and free with her opinions, I was intimidated by Sylvia when I first met her, in the fall of 1990. For reasons I still cannot fathom, she decided that I could be trusted with a visit to her apartment, on Central Park South, in a building that was, she pointed out, featured in The Fountainhead. The apartment was a wonder of memorabilia, design, and color, and because I had just moved into my own apartment, which was a jumble of boxes and bad intentions, I marveled at how lovely and well-organized her apartment was. A voice from ancient Greek drama yelled back at me: "I am well-organized! I am lovely! Why wouldn't my apartment be the same! Listen, I was an analysand for many years, and words are weapons, and you have just hurt me terribly by implying that I shouldn't be well-organized or lovely." I was speechless. Within seconds Sylvia was touching my arm gently, offering me coffee, and calming me down, in her way. "I'm sorry. I forgot for a moment that you were Southern. You didn't know what you were saying."

That was my first meeting with Sylvia Miles.

Tenn was also unsure of what to think of this actress, whom he described as "leonine, fiercely intelligent, primal." Elia Kazan had told me that Sylvia "never goes home hungry or unsated: she gets what she wants." And yet Tenn felt she was misunderstood, underused.

"There are the awards and the nominations and the column inches, but there is a real actress within Sylvia, and we have only been allowed--she has only been allowed--to reveal this to us in tiny increments: five minutes here; seven minutes there. I was urged by many to give her a larger space in which to show us her abilities. When she was in my [The Night of the] Iguana and later in Vieux Carré in London, she was brilliantly, wholly present, and she gave of herself perfectly. There was none of the ego I feared, simply a committed actress who wished to acquit herself. In my eyes, and to my mind, she did. I thought she was wonderful.

"We make pacts with the Devil, the world, and with ourselves. We write or perform those things we feel will allow us a moment of connection or a second of attention, or applause or love or a little something to tide us over in the dark night of silence. I have written things I should not have, because it was felt--by myself and others--that I should be producing, working, showing up. Sylvia has done things that have not allowed her talent to flourish because an actress has to work, has to show up, has to eat and move and let the world know that she is available. Sylvia is not alone in this work ethic, but she is unique in that she keeps reminding anyone within access of a newspaper or a magazine that she is great and that she deserves better. I happen to think she is right, but her image has been subsumed by what appears to be an egotistical, deluded actress at a perpetual party.

"I cannot tell you how an actress should perform her duties, and I don't begin to know if Sylvia has made a mistake in the allocation of her talents. Hers is a victory because she is known and she has given us several performances of startling detail and vivacity: I defy you to tell me there isn't extraordinary work evident in Midnight Cowboy or Farewell, My Lovely, or, if I may be so bold, so very Sylvia, in my plays. She found herself a place in the light, and she found a place in my heart. There is victory in her corner.

"I trust her implicitly. Sylvia is very intelligent and very well-read. She can analyze a script or a career or the movements of someone in an airport terminal and give you a succinct, correct report. Sylvia never, to my knowledge, lied to me, never fawned or knelt in actual or mental supplication: She leveled with me and she appeared to like me, and these things do not happen often, and I take them when they're offered and I am grateful.

"I felt very comfortable around her, in the brief times we had together. She was a soul mate, albeit one outlined in neon, electric, alive, forever thinking, talking, planning. 'You know,' she said to me one day, 'what we are doing is a miracle! We are creating something extraordinary! Who else gets to do that?' On top of everything else, she reminded me of the magic and the honor that is so important to working as a writer in the theatre."


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