(In Progress) Miles To Go:
Veteran Actress on Tenn, P-Town and Fast Food
by Tony Phillips
“Give me a pill,” Sylvia Miles pleads. “A pinky and a vodka.” Her much-younger paramour obliges, his white silk Chinoiserie hanging open in front as he squats to retrieve a fifth of booze. He places the liquor onto the table, but then struggles with the child-proof lock on the pills. He’s attempting to produce the “pinky,” but he can’t undo the white cap on the amber prescription bottle.
“Can we do something about this?” Brain Patacca almost whines, breaking from character as the Southern fried hustler, Chance Wayne. He shakes the bottle at A.J. Stephenson, the shirtless stage manager, who grabs it and starts hacking away at the protective white tabs with a box cutter on the deck of the beach house which is doubling as a stage this afternoon.
The three people above, along with what seems like an army of production crew, have assembled on Provincetown to do a benefit staged reading of the first scene of Tennessee Williams 1959 cougar on a hot tin roof potboiler Sweet Bird of Youth. I’m sitting in on the final run-through just hours before the reading goes up for a well-heeled, big ticket audience to benefit the Tennessee Williams Festival, which will happen on Provincetown later this fall.
The drive up to Provincetown, with Miles in the passenger seat and Stephenson crashed out in back, plays like a guided tour of the regional theaters that dot I-95 from New York to Boston. Miles regales us with not only the towns she’s played and the productions, but also the hardships of the New Haven commute on a working New York actor. “I used to stay over on Wednesday nights,” she allows of the two-show day. When work took Miles to Hollywood, her co-stars would page her at LAX, laying bets on whether or not she’d be on the red-eye back to New York the day production wrapped.
Almost the entirety of Connecticut is given over to Miles 1961 Warner Brother’s film debut Parrish, the Troy Donahue led saga of that state’s rival tobacco growers. Miles does her most famous line from the film several times in character as the country rube Eileen. “Listen John,” Miles recites from memory, “I got a hot date I’ve been working on for a month now and I ain’t giving it up for no worms.” It gets funnier each time she does it and the film instantly lands on my mental Netflix queue.
About an hour outside of Manhattan, we stop for breakfast. Miles is introduced to not only McDonald’s, but also their breakfast burrito. A few hours later, we stop for lunch and this time she’s initiated into the ways of the BK. Miles marvels over her dollar menu burger. “Look at how big this is,” she exclaims, shooting a disapproving look at my more expensive entree. Stephenson and I both feel slightly guilty about turning Miles onto two of junk food’s biggest perps in the same day, but decide to make it a trifecta with Taco Bell for dinner. “Oh, I love Taco Bell,” Miles enthuses, surprising us both.
Once Miles settles into her suite at the Norman Mailer estate, where the reading will also be performed, she, Stephenson and I drive into town for dinner. We cross paths with John Waters on his bicycle and arrive at the restaurant, which is, alas, not Taco Bell, but one of Provincetown’s best dining experiences: The Lobster Pot. Lobster dinners all around are interrupted by a steady stream of production staff and well-wishing locals buzzing with the arrival of the twice-nominated Academy Award veteran.
The best story one of these table side visitors brings comes courtesy of the reading’s coordinator Ed Martin. He tells of a summer residency by Water’s muse Divine, who arrived on Provincetown and found herself bored silly after two weeks, but too broke to afford a bus ticket back to New York. Her solution? She placed all her furnished room’s décor – lamps, sofa, bed – in front of her house and had a yard sale. Hello, New York. Buh-bye, P-town.
Miles delves into her own Provincetown lore vis a vis her good friend Tennessee Williams. Two previous Williams-related projects were shelved in Provincetown. The first occasion, a production of Sweet Bird in 1986, was dashed when the Provincetown Theater burned down. The second, a Provincetown memorial for Williams after his death in 1983, fell apart when a conniving friend stole Miles spot to speak at the service.
“Tennessee always liked me,” Miles states, “And he always wanted me to do Sweet Bird.” Her role of Alexandra Del Lago is the original proto-cougar (which Miles pronounces with the accent on the last syllable so that it sounds like the last name of actress Teri Garr), waking up in a steamy Florida hotel suite with a young man who earlier gave her a papaya crème rub in the hotel’s cabana. “Tennessee always said if there’s anyone who knows anything about cabana boys, it’s me,” Miles says, poker-faced. “So maybe the third time will be the charm.”
A photograph that is being used to promote the reading pictures Miles, her blonde hair aloft in the sea breeze, with Williams perched behind her. The picture is captioned as if the pair perches on the dock in Provincetown waiting for the ferry. “That’s Venice,” Miles corrects around a forkful of lobster Newberg. “Tennessee got himself put on the jury when we brought Heat there in 1972. The Warhol-lead posse was the toast of the Venice Film Festival that year, owing much of that film’s success to an underground star turn by Miles, who squeezed the picture in between her two Oscar nominations, first for Midnight Cowboy in 1969 and then for Farewell, My Lovely in 1975.
After dinner, there’s a concerted effort to get Miles out on the town. “Do you think she would do the A-House?” Stephenson asks. Miles, however, is having none of it and is adamant about being home in time to catch the 11:30 re-run of Lost. With the advent of digital television, Miles finds herself straying outside her usual PBS programming and is a recent convert to the J.J. Abrahams-helmed program. “Do you think he would ever work with me?” Miles asks as we get her settled back into her room. She bitches for a minute about the thick pile carpeting in Norris Mailer’s suite. It makes it difficult to cross the room’s broad expanse. After a quick tutorial on the big screen TV’s dual remotes, I leave Miles to Lost.
The next morning, on the way into breakfast at Edwige, a name we both swore we’d remember because it’s also the name of our favorite hostess at Beige, we have to make a quick call for the name of the restaurant one more time. On the ride down Commercial Street, Miles points out a colorfully painted ship’s prow that someone has affixed atop the roof of their front porch. “That’s me,” she says of the elegant nude leaning away from the ship. The ship may have gone down, but that prow survives.” She pauses for a moment and then asks, “You know what it is about this place? It’s broken in. It doesn’t conform to you, you conform to it.” I’m pretty sure she’s talking about Provincetown.
At Edwige, we settle into a sunlit table by the window and prepare for more variations on the local dish. Miles orders a lobster Benedict and I take a lobster frittata. I point out that it may take awhile as most of the cooking staff is pressed into kitchen doorway peeking at our table. A waitress will approach the table with a Sharpie after we’re done eating and ask that Miles sign the poster for the reading. “The chef is a very big fan of yours,” she offers. After she leaves the table, Miles shrugs. “I have all kinds of fans,” Miles says, “even the, what do you call them? Goths? I have a lot of Goth fans because I did Le Balcon by Gene at Circle in the Square. I played the thief and I got whipped on stage and made someone lick my boots. They like that.”