Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy (1969) - Supporting Actress Sunday

A week or so ago, Supporting Actress Sundays considered a performance that is for me one of the most thrilling and terrifying performances ever nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Of course, that performance was part of a film that is largely acknowledged as a horror film, so it's little surprise that it might contain a truly scary performance. I bring this up because, this week, we arrive to one of the few performances that I might submit as even scarier, partly because it's just as freaky and partly because there's no supernatural explanation of its monstrosity. Of course, I'm talking about the indelible terror of...

...Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
approximately 5 minutes and 46 seconds
3 scenes
roughly 5% of film's total running time
Sylvia Miles plays Cass, a hot-to-trot NY dame that the naïve Joe Buck (Jon Voigt) lamely propositions on Park Avenue as her poodle is pooping.
Cass replies to Joe's lame come-on ("I'm brand, spankin' new in this here town and I was hopin' to get a look at the Statue of Liberty") with a sardonic dismissal ("It's up in Central Park, taking a leak. If you hurry, you can catch the supper show") before wordlessly inviting the hopeful hustler up to her apartment.
As their assignation begins, Miles spools out a rapid-fire monologue -- a one-sided telephone conversation with her own "patron" Maury -- as Cass guides Joe's clumsy efforts to undress her. While Voigt's Joe is near to bursting with boyish excitement that all his plans are finally working, Miles's Cass adeptly multitasks both of her men, plumping each man's libinal excitement while carefully maintaining the curtain of cluelessness between them.
Miles handles this dialogue with salacious wit, affirming dinner plans with Maury and complimenting Joe Buck's "talent" with the same line ("Beautiful, baby").
Miles's aggressive confidence also amplifies the visual swirl that director Schlesinger utilizes to amplify the dizzying chaos of Cass's and Joe's actual sexual encounter. The strength of Miles's performance as Cass here derives from her clarity in both charting the vivid continuity of Cass as a character -- she's a blast of personality in the role -- while also marking the sharp turns in the character's brief arc. Indeed, what I admire most about this performance is how clearly Miles keeps Cass one step ahead of Joe Buck...until, that is, the brief moment in which Cass lets down her guard (during what might count as "afterglow") and permits Joe to utterly surprise her.
After politely asking Joe "what business" he's in, Joe guilelessly replies that he's a hustler, and that he's ready to talk about payment for his recently completed services.
Cass takes a long moment to assimilate this information, a moment that Miles maximizes with a dull gaze of bemused incomprehension. And, then, when Miles's Cass finally absorbs what Voigt's Joe is asking of her...well, boy howdy...that's when the distilled magic of this performance really happens.
Miles's posture of offended dignity quickly devolves into a shriek of feral fury. Miles unleashes Cass's despairing rage, an emotional blast comprised of much more than simple anger. Indeed, watching Miles unfurl invectives in this scene, I'm reminded of the energy that explodes when a wild animal realizes it's been trapped.
Miles's scary, animal explosion in this sequence (which lasts mere seconds) nonetheless establishes Cass one of the most memorably frightening character encounters in this complicated, often horrifying narrative. What's also really cool about Miles in this brief scene work is how, even as she's unleashing her rage at being presumptively place on the opposite side of the sex work transaction, she demonstrates the character's street-smart dexterity in finding a way to survive. Indeed, when Cass aptly assesses that Joe's a lover not a fighter, Miles has Cass play pathetic, reeling Joe Buck in by playing to his manly fantasies of chivalry, while also turning the tables so that he actually pays her for her troubles.
This memorable scene begins as a giddy seduction before transforming into a terrifying street fight between the veteran and the new kid. And, throughout, Miles never misses a beat. Moreover, Miles deftly cues that this encounter with Joe Buck represents a temporary victory in a larger battle that Cass knows she's likely to lose.
Miles's work in the role of Cass is vivid -- lively and vigorous and powerful while also the source of images and feelings that are hard to forget. Through Miles's fearless and fearsome work in this sequence of short scenes, we see that her Cass has a complex, scary and sad story that we never get to see. As such, it's indelible actressing at the edges -- I love the feeling that I could follow her to her own story and continue to be fascinated -- skilled, potent work that is elevated by Miles's thorough inhabitation of her character, an investment that exceeds the frame of this film. Hers is formidable accomplishment for such a brief performance in such a dense, terrifying and haunting film. Though I do wonder about its nomination, I don't doubt Miles's accomplishment in the role.


par3182 said...

that's a perfect selection of screen shots to follow her arc, especially her "dull gaze of bemused incomprehension"

a woman in her mid 40s sure looked a lot different in '69, even "helluva gorgeous chick" like cass

Ortzi said...

I love this nomination, but I wonder how Miles managed to get enough momentum to gain a nomination for this. Brenda Vaccaro, in a good performance, got some precursor attention, but Miles' nomination came out of nowhere.

I think a win is normally out of the question with such small performances (with permission from Straight and Dench), not because the performance isn't worthy, but because other actresses have a much better oportunity to show their range in longer performances (often leads and co-leads). Miles is one of the best examples of making the most of ultra-limited screentime.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Forget "I'm walkin' here!" For me, Cowboy's most unforgettable moment is that
"C'mon baby, do it for mama...c'mon baby mama's tired" entrance. I'll never get over it.

Criticlasm said...

I love her in this movie. IT's one of the things I most remember--searing, literally.

That screen shot with the fish mouth reminds me of Coco Peru in Trick. Hee.


Miles is always at film events here in NYC and she's still just as vivid a presence.

Matt said...

Good post. I especially like that the shots capture the most interesting element in Miles's performance--her increasing ugliness. I find it fascinating that she starts her sequence looking glamorous and ends looking haggard and grotesque. And almost all the photos are hilarious, particularly the ones with the dog (that poodle's expressions are priceless) and the one with Jon Voight's tongue in Miles's ear.

I think that Sylvia Miles's performance is too brief to be worthy of a nomination, but I did enjoy her and the sequence itself--I always laugh at the skillfully edited TV montage/sex scene.

ken said...

this is an outstanding performance form miles,she plays the character fantastically ..this is my favorite movie scence she is very sexy..and i just love her for whats she has done with this scene....maybe a bit crazy but looking at getting the stills of this scene and framing them ..thats how great the scene is ..love it
guys i would be interested in anymore info on her and her work
..,,"daddy wants to say hello baby"!!

Unknown said...

Sylvia Miles was my Ultimate teenage fantasy. I would have given anything to have been John Voight. I have finally ended uo with a Sylvia Miles Look alike .A real Blonde Bombshell and i am Blissfully Happy.