Sylvia Miles, whose two Academy Award nominations (for “Midnight Cowboy” and “Farewell, My Lovely”) and decades of glowing reviews for stage and film performances were eclipsed by her midlife transition to constant partygoer and garishly flamboyant dresser, died on Wednesday in New York City. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, publicist Mauricio Padilha. He said she died in ambulance on the way to a hospital.
Blond-maned and nasal-voiced, Miles was in her mid-40s when she portrayed, briefly, a well-groomed, poodle-owning Upper East Side hooker who manages to out-hustle Jon Voight’s character, an aspiring prostitute himself, in “Midnight Cowboy” (1969).
She earned her second Oscar nomination for a 5 1⁄2-minute scene with Robert Mitchum in “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), based on a crime novel by Raymond Chandler. He was the detective Philip Marlowe, and she was a former entertainer wearing a bathrobe in the middle of the day who trades information for a bottle of bourbon. Perhaps her most memorable line was, “When I like a guy, the ceiling’s the limit.”
In between, as the sexual revolution hit its peak, she established a reputation as daring and bawdy. She starred as an aging movie actress enjoying a younger man (Joe Dallesandro) in “Heat” (1972), an X-rated film directed by Paul Morrissey, under the aegis of Andy Warhol. She appeared bare-breasted in European posters for the film and posed nude (with a group of men, also naked) for a magazine layout. Criticized widely, she was quoted in Earl Wilson’s column in The New York Post as saying: “What’s wrong with it? They’re all friends of mine.”
But her acting abilities were still taken seriously.
“Sylvia Miles is something special, a persona,” Vincent Canby wrote, reviewing “Heat” in The New York Times. He added, “She looks great even when she looks beat, and because she’s a good actress she automatically works 10 times as hard as everyone else to enliven the movie.”
Sylvia Miles was born in New York City on Sept. 9, 1924 (though for many years she listed her birth year as 1932). Miles began her career as a stage actress, making her off-Broadway debut in 1954 in “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” with Zero Mostel.