The Envelope Please

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Actress Sylvia Miles, lioness in winter, is not ready for her close-up, not at least until she gets one thing clear. “You’re not going to ask me about my age, are you?” she demands, one decibel short of a shriek. Her most frequently given year of birth is 1932, but Miles insists she was born in 1934. “God didn’t give me a lot of money, but I look younger each year,” she says.

Dressed in fingerless gloves, cargo pants, a black Gap top, and a rhinestone-bedecked knit cap, Miles is about to give me a tour of her nineteenth-floor rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment on Central Park South, with another caveat. “If this interview is going to be about my apartment, then I don’t want to do it,” she says. “I can’t even look anywhere in this apartment, it’s so distracting!”

The place is so tightly packed with thousands of pieces of … stuff that it’s hard to focus, let alone move. (“Stand here,” she orders. “Face this way, look both ways, and then walk.”) It’s a decoupage shrine to herself, every surface covered in books, yellowed clippings, lobby boards, awards, tchotchkes, and photos of her with celebrities. It’s a curio cabinet, all meticulously laid out and displayed, an obsession that threatens to crowd her out of her own home. “I’m going to get rid of some of it,” she says unconvincingly. “But I don’t want to apologize for anything. It’s an art installation, it’s clean and it’s unique and it’s not Miss Havisham’s bedroom.” She once offered to donate everything to the Smithsonian, to be displayed intact as Apartment of a New York Actress, but was turned down.

“Can’t I even get a free lunch out of this interview?” She wants to go to a fast-food Swedish restaurant on Broadway. Outside, she’s unsteady on her feet and walks with a cane. She’s fallen several times, once in front of Michael’s restaurant on her way to lunch a few years back, breaking both wrists. But she still went to a screening at Lincoln Center that night, her arms in casts. Not a lot stops the indomitable Miles from going out, although she’s hardly as ubiquitous as she was in the seventies, when Wayland Flowers joked, “Sylvia Miles would attend the opening of an envelope.” Miles thinks the quip had a negative effect on her career. “I became an object, not a subject,” she laments.

Difficult as it might be to tell, Miles is in an optimistic mood today. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which she reprises her role as the abrasive real-estate broker from the original, is premiering at Cannes, part of a strategy to position it for Academy Award recognition. Miles only got a minute or so onscreen, but she thinks she just might have a shot at an Oscar nomination.

After all, she’s already earned two nominations for a sum total of fourteen minutes’ screen time: in 1970, for her hilarious turn as a brassy Park Avenue blonde in Midnight Cowboy; and in 1976 for her mesmerizing portrayal of the wife of a dead nightclub owner, in Farewell, My Lovely. “I’m not leaving this planet until I get nominated for another Academy Award and win,” she says.

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The Envelope Please