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Interview with Sylvia Miles

LOS ANGELES - It was one of those California Sunday brunches where everyone's expected to fill up on organic bran muffins and honeydew melons and five flavors of herbal tea...the kind of brunch where Bianca Jagger is chatting with Peter Weir, this hot young Australian director, while a reporter from Variety stands between them, so eager to eavesdrop on the conversation.

The brunch was being held to honor Filmex, the annual Los Angeles film festival, and there is something about Southern California that prevents you from wondering how a brunch can be in honor of something. Brunches are a way of life out here. In a town where everyone rises at dawn, they've even gone a long way toward replacing parties and other decadent events that take place after nightfall.

In fact, the brunch - you could almost argue this - the brunch is the Los Angeles party, just as the hot tub is the Los Angeles pool table and the gym is the Los Angeles bicycle. It is not very complicated. And if a brunch is a party, why then, of course that is Sylvia Miles in the corner, holding a honeydew slice between thumb and forefinger and talking at about 900 words a minute.

Sylvia is out here to make a movie. She is one of the stars of "Hammett," the new private-eye movie based on the life of Dashiell Hammett, who created Sam Spade. Sylvia is also out here to attend parties. In New York, where Sylvia Miles lives, she has been described as a star of stage, screen, television, radio and parties. She won that billing after an infamous party at the New York Film Festival, where she dumped a plate of food on the head of John Simon, the critic.

Sylvia is probably the only person at this brunch who knows everyone at the brunch. I tell her I'm going to be visiting the set of "Hammett" tomorrow. "Heloise Salt," she says. "I play a character named Heloise Salt. Fabulous. She's the sister of the guy involved in the plot. When Hammett goes out to the cabin in the woods to break down the door and find the body, Heloise goes along. We're hightailing it out to warn him, little suspecting he's already dead." A pause, while Sylvia lights a cigarette. "Heloise Salt is a little dowdy," she says. "I can play dowdy, don't you think?"

I don't know what to think. I know Sylvia couldn't play dowdy at this moment. She is dressed as a cross between an Indian princess, a hippie, and a bag lady. She's wearing a silk scarf wrapped around her head, and a flowing dress, and a lot of jewelry, and her makeup is deliberately bizarre, you might say - it defines the outer corners of her eyes as beginning at about her ears.

Sylvia can get away with this. I tell her I'll see her tomorrow. She drifts toward that bright young Australian director Peter Weir. I fantasize her fantasizing the credits: "Sylvia Miles in Peter Weir's 'Picnic at Hanging Rock.' "

The movie location was on an old ranch in the hills beyond Malibu. At first I didn't even recognize Sylvia Miles: She was the dowdy little lady with the dowdy little hat on her head, sitting in the canvas director's chair with her name on it.

"After I finish working in this picture," she confided, "I'm going to Florida to star in 'Fun House.' It's being directed by Tobe Hooper. You know who he is, don't you?"

Yeah. He's the guy who directed "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." "Fabulous, I'm playing a fortuneteller. Madame Zena. I have a phony accent and a great scene where I lose the accent gradually as I'm being murdered in the fun house. Of course, there are people who have asked why I want to be in a horror picture. You know what I always say: Better a horror film than a horrible film. Besides, the people who see them, I think they remember the horror films better than the others. I got an Academy Award nomination for 'Farewell, My Lovely,' but I think more people remember me from 'The Sentinel!' Remember?"

Not exactly.

"Of course you do. At the end of the picture? When we entered the gates of hell? Remember? All the freaks real freaks? It scared the hell out of people." She lit a cigarette and looked around. "There's the cabin right there where we find the body. We all burst in. Frederic Forrest and Marilu Henner and myself. Aren't I lucky, that I was in 'Farewell,' based on Raymond Chandler, and now 'Hammett,' based on Hammett?

That's two great private eyes.

"I was going to be in 'The Big Sleep,' which was the sequel to 'Farewell,' except that they had already signed Sarah Miles, and so they didn't want me, Sylvia Miles, because they thought people would confuse us Mileses. Isn't that ridiculous? And so now I'm in this picture, and guess who else is in it? Sylvia Sidney. So I guess we Sylvias won't get confused, huh? It's a little known fact that I was named after Sylvia Sidney."

I made a note to check on that when I get back to Chicago. It turns out that if the Filmgoers' Companion can be trusted, Sylvia Miles can just barely have been named after Sylvia Sidney, since Sylvia Sidney made her first big picture in 1932, the year the Companion claims as the one for Sylvia Miles' birth. The source for this information is almost certainly Sylvia Miles.

"I've got two unreleased pictures in the can," Sylvia said. "One's called 'Shalimar,' with Rex Harrison, me, and John Saxon. The other one is 'Zero to 60,' with Darren McGavin. me, and Joan Collins. 'Zero' is directed by Don Weiss, the great auteur director of 'Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.'"

I pulled out a copy of the "Hammett" press release to make a note of this information, and Sylvia asked to see it. She turned pale almost immediately. "Look at this!" she said.

I looked where she was pointing. It said that "Hammett" starred Frederic Forrest, Marilu Henner and Brian Keith. So? I asked.

"So where's MY name? It says in my contract, whenever and wherever the name of Brian Keith shall be displayed, I have to be named, too. Also, I have most-favored-nation status with Brian Keith."


"Most-favored-nation. That means that my name has to be in the same exact size and style of type as Brian Keith, or else."

Or else what?

"Or else I don't perform."

What would you do then?

"Florida, darling."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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