For two weeks running now, Supporting Actress Sundays have instigated cinematic journeys that StinkyLulu would almost certainly never have undertaken otherwise. With Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough, the perhaps deserved obscurity of the piece would have likely been to blame, as overripe celebrity-stuffed pablum happens to be among StinkyLulu's most treasured pleasures. In the case of Farewell, My Lovely, on the other hand, the genre -- hardboiled egg on dry toast with a bourbon chaser -- would've been enough to get StinkyLu to steer way clear. Which would have meant that StinkyLulu would have also missed the surprising and eye-opening performance by...
...Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely (1975).
approximately 8 minutes and 9 seconds on-screen
roughly 9% of film's total screen time
In this strange mid70s riff on Raymond Chandler's iconic "private dick" Philip Marlowe, Robert Mitchum deadpans his way through Los Angeles' seamy underside in, ostensibly, the early 1940s. Mitchum's Marlowe has been commissioned to find Velma Valentine, the long lost love of a recently sprung con, Moose Molloy. (Those names!) Along the way, Marlowe survives -- mostly by flirting -- through various scrapes in "negro dance halls" and Chinatown backrooms, brushes against shady fairies and domineering bulldaggers, and encounters with Los Angeles' power-brokering elite. Along the way, he meets Jessie Halstead Florian (Miles), an aging boozed-out showgirl with the information and connections Marlowe needs to find Moose's Velma.
Sylvia Miles plays Jessie Florian as a woman forgotten by her own life. And when Mitchum's Marlowe swings by, flirting his way into her house with a new bottle of bourbon and asking questions in which her past matters? Well, it's like watching a nearly dead flower find reason again to bloom. Miles gets this aspect of the character, elementally, and it's a treat watch her Jessie morph from a beaten up, bedheaded boozehound into a smart flirty woman in a matter of seconds. (O'course the gulping swigs of bourbon certainly inform Jessie's transformation and it's to her credit that this, too, Miles knows.) In Miles' second scene, her Jessie has cleaned up, entirely for Marlowe's benefit, and the hope in her eyes just radiates -- which itself provides the final clue that Miles' Jessie is doomed. (See, a supporting actress in real noir is either doomed to a collateral damage death or she's at the diabolical center of the drama; Miles' Jessie suffers the conventional noir-esque misfortune of being essential but only for a time.)
But Miles' real accomplishment in the role derives from how her Jessie somehow gets under the skin of Mitchum's Marlowe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Miles' Jessie is almost alarmingly direct (such emotional forthrightness might be Miles' greatest gift as an actress) but, in this role, Miles' characteristic directness converges with the character's devastating isolation to accomplish an almost shockingly open-hearted character. Miles' Jessie thereby becomes a sweet soul caught in a broken down, beaten up, brutal life -- one of the few worth caring about in the picture. Consider, as example, a short sequence toward the beginning of Miles' performance that captures the blowsy vulnerability that Miles brings to the role: Jessie's let Mitchum's Marlowe into her home, an alcoholic pit of accumulated filth, and as she's inviting him to sit, she's walking sideways, almost backwards, as her eyes refuse to look away from this hunk of man bearing bourbon suddenly in her home. Miles' footwork in this quick scene is primo actressing at the edge. As Miles' Jessie maneuvers a couple square feet, she takes wobbly backwards steps, almost stumbles, tiptoes gingerly over a table, weaves exhaustedly, and then barely regains her wide-stride balance. Through this entire quickstep, Jessie's at once exhausted, thirsty-for-a-drink, thrilled, hung-over and downright giddy at the prospect of this man wanting to see her. And Miles invest it all in every step -- with no fussiness, no mannered detail -- just a smart set of specific choices that anchor the technical requirements of the scene in the character's reality. Now, that's good actressing.
All told, Miles gives a smart and sweet performance, perhaps the singular instance of nuanced and textured work in a film loaded with stock characters and familiar types. And while StinkyLulu can't say it's greater than great, Miles' performance was a pleasing reintroduction to the range of an actress that Lulu tends to dismiss. 'Twas not bad at all really; actually, 'twas quite good.