Tuesday, January 31

Sarah Miles

We can probably conclude that she is the same blithe spirit today that we realized she was when we first became aware of her 57 years ago.  Oh, like a lot of us as we age, she's let go of an assortment of childish notions, especially the ones that no longer serve her. There was a time when she seemed to court attention and then thumb her nose at any criticism.  She would do it her way. And that is one of the mainstays in her life.  She still does it her way but she's a bit more mellow about it.

Most of us, on this side of the Atlantic, at least, first came across Sarah Miles in stories and photographs in the Swinging 60s of London.  Before I realized who she was, I remember wondering which one of those Redgraves was she?  I certainly remember her as being mouthy, which had its appeal. She went to parties where the upper crust rubbed elbows and shared rolled-up one-pound notes.  If someone found her extravagant or out-of-line and they said that to her, they would need to stand back and brace for battle. She did not abide fools gladly.  She could be astonishingly and exasperatingly outspoken and if words happened to fail her, her middle finger always worked.  Sometimes there were tears.

The funny thing about going through life determined to do things your way is there seems to be an awful lot of obstacles to one's achieving it.  Sarah had to step over a few bodies in her time but she seems to have learned along the way, to her credit. The spirit may not be quite as blithe as it once was, but she still maintains an enthusiasm and energy for life that surrounds her writing and her spiritual beliefs and her thoughts on an afterlife.  It wouldn't be completely out of line to think of her as Britain's answer to Shirley MacLaine. 


She has always claimed she had a wonderful childhood which began in a small town in Essex, England, in 1941.  She didn't speak until the age of nine due to a stammer and dyslexia.  Her parents were affluent and strict, especially her mother.  Miles has said she found comfort in getting whacked with a hairbrush because she knew she deserved it.  She was a little agitator from the beginning and often brought out the worst in those around her.  She was expelled from several privileged schools.  She has said that her family tried to teach her boundaries... there would be others who would say she must have cut that class.

In her mid-teens acting caught her attention. It's likely she thought more in terms of stage acting.  One wonders how much was about a hunger to perform, to inhabit a character, to be someone else as much as it might have been an eagerness for applause and the luxuries a nice salary could bring. Nonetheless, she enrolled in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and graduated as an acknowledged young actress of considerable skill.

To think that in her first play she was appearing in Dazzling Prospect opposite the beloved Margaret Rutherford and directed by the multi-talented John Gielgud.  It did wonders for her ego.  So had a romance with actor James Fox.  Soon after it ended she was engaged to some fellow who left her for singer Carly Simon and once their relationship fell apart, he returned briefly to Miles. There was a liaison with Nicol Williamson and soon Steven Spielberg was on the scene and stayed around for a couple of years.

Why would someone have thought of her for the part of a rather worldly student in her first film, Term of Trial (1962)?  Laurence
Olivier plays a depressed, alcoholic teacher, disdained by all those around him for his pacifism, including his wife (Simone Signoret). When a student (Miles) takes a liking to him, it brightens his day and when she later comes on to him, he's brightened even more.

Miles with Laurence Olivier and Simone Signoret in her first film, Term of Trial

It gets even darker and this exquisite cast, which includes Terence Stamp in his film debut as well, is letter-perfect. Miles said that being cast as a sexy young girl in her first film meant there was nowhere to go but downhill. I suspect she didn't question that at the time but more on reflection. I think being the High Priestess of the Swinging 60s greatly appealed to her.

What was not widely known at the time is that Olivier, who had recently taken a new wife, and Miles did a lot of practicing off screen as well.  What she confirmed in later life is that their affair lasted over a 20-year period.

I would guess that The Servant (1963) would not be for just anyone but I think its dark psychological tones are fascinating.  Dirk Bogarde (whom we'll be visiting with soon) plays the title role and James Fox his wealthy employer.  Both are a little tightly wound and although they form a friendship, it is threatened by the appearances of two women with Miles being one of them.

There's a good chance the actress would like to forget that she appeared in The Ceremony (1963) or ever met Laurence Harvey.  A routine prison break story took a backseat to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of their not getting along... at all.  He was also the director, his first time, and his lack of expertise shows.  He could be abrupt and unkind and she wasn't about to take any of that.  She would never have dreamed of being that way herself... not in a million years.

Everyone associated with Blow-Up (1966) seemed to become the trendy, counter-culture gods and goddesses of the modern era.  It may look like it's about a fashion photographer who may or may not have witnessed a murder but it's something way different from that.  And I'm just not sure what.  It took an Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, to give us the most heralded look at contemporary London up to that time.  I found it unfocused, done with some strong sense of altered reality (the bong must have been passed regularly) and screaming of is this not just so cool when I was thinking could this get any loopier?  I admit it seemed to do everything for Miles' career and for the careers of her lookalike Redgrave and David Hemmings with his little Beatles' haircut.

Miles became thought of in the same way and vied for the same parts as Redgrave, Julie Christie, Susannah York and others whose stars rose at the same time.  The scripts must have been piling up on her doorstep and some thought Miles had taken her eye off the prize because she would not make another film in four years.

In all likelihood her somewhat-disenchanted attitude about acting had more to do with something else than her ruckus with Laurence Harvey.  She found her eye to be on a new prize... marriage.  For all the late nights, parties and substances, Miles found herself thinking about marriage.  She didn't want to extinguish herself... she wanted to be married and settle down.

In 1967 she married screenwriter Robert Bolt and the same year gave birth to her only child, a son, Tom.  Bolt, 17 years her senior, was enchanted with Miles.  She was dazzled by his towering intellect and no doubt she put some life back into the old boy.  He loved her youth and enthusiasm and gave her some respectability. They appeared to be madly in love.  He had won Oscars for writing the screenplays of David Lean's mammoth production of Dr. Zhivago (1965) and for 1966's A Man for All Seasons, based on his own play.

In my piece on Ryan's Daughter (1970), I mentioned that Bolt wrote the title role with his wife in mind and Lean concurred she would be great.  I thought she was wonderful in the role and apparently so did the Oscar folks as they nominated her for best actress. She didn't have the best time with her director (nor did a few others), saying that he didn't seem to respect actors and played cruel games.  She cited how Lean would get a kick over finding actors' breaking points. She became so frustrated with him that she pushed him down some stairs.  She had little chemistry with her illicit lover in the film, Christopher Jones, perhaps because they couldn't stand one another.

Despite much press at the time of making the film that she and Robert Mitchum were having an affair, she says no, not at that time. But they would make another film together in the future and it had a new set of circumstances.

Bolt directed for the first time with Miles as Lady Caroline Lamb (1972) and also wrote the screenplay based on the true story of a noblewoman in a loveless marriage who becomes the mistress of Lord Byron.  It was just bad news all the way around.  Bolt's writing seemed off and his direction was uneven and lacking focus. Additionally, Miles seemed to have forgotten everything she knew about acting, despite the presence or perhaps because of Olivier in the cast.

With Burt Reynolds in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) was a routine western concerning a fiery wife who is kidnapped by outlaws and falls in love with its leader.  But what went on behind the scenes could not only not be called routine but become one of the great scandals of the 70s.

Miles and her business manager, David Whiting, who was on location with her, had been having an affair.  It may have been coming to an end as it was but it was certainly over when he was found dead in her Gila Bend, Arizona, motel room.  It was reported that they had a ferocious fight after she had come back later than expected from co-star Burt Reynolds' birthday bash.  There were those who later reported seeing her with a bloody nose, cut lip and bruises on her forehead. When she returned later to the room, she says she found him dead.

His death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose.  No one seemed to pay attention to a pharmacologist who said there weren't enough drugs in Whiting's system to be fatal. Nor did they seem to be too concerned over his blood all over the room or the severe cut on the back of his head or scratches on his stomach, chest and knuckles. Case closed. 

It certainly didn't help Miles' career, especially long-term.  She had become a little too notorious for her own good.  When one isn't given a lot of information about a death and what little there is brings about more questions than answers, the principals involved shouldn't become too alarmed when the public reaches its own conclusions. She's always said when interviewers ask her about the scandal... I don't want to talk about that.  I don't want to go to jail. Burt Reynolds has said there's nothing to talk about in Cat Dancing except that it brings me pain.  So, I'd rather not talk about it.

The press was relentless in its pursuit of the truth and it didn't mind painting Miles as a fallen woman.  A few others, including the dead man, weren't spared either.  Under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, her marriage collapsed in 1975.

The making of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976) gathered a lot of press as well.  I haven't seen it since it came out and recall it as being haunting, erotic and beautifully filmed somewhere off the English coast.  It dealt with a widow and her rather disturbed son who develops homicidal thoughts about the new man in his mother's life.

Miles and Kris Kristofferson faked some hot love scenes... or did they?  It seems to me there were constant rumors during the filming of life imitating art or maybe it was how much they loathed one another.  I can't remember but Miles had certainly had her share of publicity on either count.  They're both still alive... maybe one of them could write and clear up this sticky point. 

If Miles was seeking to live down her shady reputation, it's odd that she would not only accept such a role but she did some nude photos around that time.  Don't recall if they were in Playboy but I do recall seeing them.

Mitchum had been offered the male lead in Sailor but turned it down.  That couldn't be said for The Big Sleep (1978).  The 1970s loved its remakes and here's one of the least good ones.  Everyone looked too old and the 1941 L.A. setting was changed to contemporary London.  Mitchum had the original Bogart part and Miles took over Bacall's role. I didn't think she looked so good. Another Ryan's Daughter alumnus, John Mills, was also aboard.

It very well may be during this time that Miles and Mitchum had their affair or had another one, whichever was the case.  She certainly was horrified to learn that on a television interview Mitchum mentioned something about Miles that she would forever wish he hadn't.  She has been drinking her own urine twice a day since she learned about it during a trip to India in the early 80s. She has said drinking your own urine is wonderful for your skin, fantastic for your hair, your immune system, it's fantastic for everything.  Well, not quite everything.  It wasn't so good for her standing with the public who thought this was just the limit.

And things weren't helped a bit around this time when she took a hit for bad mothering. She's not sure she sees it that way, although she's opined there may have been too many cuddles.  But Tom developed quite an addiction to heroin for a time and his exploits were well-covered by the press as well. These days, well-past his earlier problems, he has become a millionaire and may still be working with his mother on some projects.

Steaming (1985) didn't really find its audience but it was a delightful little character study (and more like a filmed play). Three women (Miles, Redgrave and Diana Dors) are upset when they hear their favorite steamroom, site of their most frequent get-togethers, is going to close.  

In 1987 Miles went to Kenya to appear in White Mischief, based on a true story of infidelity and murder involving British expatriates in the days before WWII... my kind of stuff.  It garnered some news when the director attempted to fire Trevor Howard because of his out-of-control alcoholism and Miles stepped up for her Ryan's Daughter co-star and said that if he goes, she goes. He stayed.

Also in 1987 Miles went to work for director John Boorman in his semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory.  It concerned the life of a nine-year old boy during the London blitz of WWII.  Miles was perfect as his distraught mother and the film gathered a fair amount of attention for her. She was likely a bit upset when Boorman replaced Trevor Howard as her father.  We can guess why.  That may have put her at odds with Boorman who went on to say
every actor has a certain way of expressing nerves and with Sarah it was always terribly difficult to get her on the set.  There was always a problem, usually with her clothes... I found myself shouting at her.  Then she'd burst into tears and her eyes would go all red and we wouldn't be able to shoot the scene.

Mr. and Mrs.; Robert Bolt

In 1988 she and Bolt remarried after 13 years apart and another marriage for Bolt in the intervening years.  He had just had a stroke and she became his devoted caretaker for another seven years before he passed away. 

Since finishing Hope and Glory, Miles has worked very little... mainly in television and in four little-seen (in the states) European movies in smaller roles.  She has said numerous times that acting doesn't particularly light her fire any longer.

One of two things that has stoked her fires for the third act of her life is a spiritual awakening which along with paranormal experiences turned her against atheism. She mentions that karma guides her thoughts and actions and she is immersed in reincarnation.

The other thing has been her writing.  In 1994 she wrote two memoirs. The first was titled A Right Royal Bastard and the second Serves Me Right.  Then there were two more that mainly dealt with her life with Bolt.  In 1997 it was Bolt from the Blue and in 1998 A Beautiful Mourning.

She's been almost dead for about 10 years now... that is, if one believes the press. Depending on who writes it, it could be from any number of causes, from extreme loneliness and isolation to arsenic poisoning. But she's still here and enjoying life, she says, with the added nod of the peace, serenity and wisdom that comes with aging and her gift for healing and practice of meditation and holistic therapies.  Her relationship with her son and grandson are paramount to her.  

In recent years she returned to Dingle, in Ireland, where Ryan's Daughter was filmed. She could scarcely believe the attention she received.  People came out of shops to get a look or a touch or pay her a compliment. Most wanted to tell her how much the film meant to them and the community.  She would call it one of the best days of her very full life. We could see that life as the subject of a movie biography one day.

Next posting:
A good 70s movie

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