Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely

Sylvia Miles received her second and final Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Jessie Halstead Florian in Dick Richards' Farewell, My Lovely. This film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's detective novel of the same name, seems so desperately intent on evoking the mood of the great '40s noir films that it forgets to bring the heat in nearly every other aspect of its filmmaking. The design is all there (though black and white would have served this film vastly better), but Richards ruins it by casting all these fantastic actors and not pulling a single great performance from any of them. When normally excellent actors like Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling give such dull and uninspired cliches of performances, you know your film is underachieving. Sylvia Miles falls under the trap as well, playing the dirt poor widow of a former club owner who is sought out for questioning by Mitchum's Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe is searching for a girl named Velma who used to work at the club, and Mrs. Florian is merely one of Marlowe's many, many leads that all get significantly less screentime then is needed to make even the slightest impact.

But all of that is not to say that Miles doesn't at least attempt to pull together a good performance. For such a loud woman both in life and onscreen, she is surprising subdued and comfortable in her role here. Jessie Florian is something of a stereotype, the washed up wannabe actress who never quite realized her dreams and has become bitter in her old age. But Miles does well to imbue her character with a softness that is clear from the second she comes onto the screen. She is intrigued as this detective comes to her door, and it becomes clear that she is both an alcoholic and someone in desperate need for company. Miles plays it cool, expressing Jessie's want for connection mostly through looks and suggestive movements like opening her robe just a little too much. Her control on the character is truly admirable, and the way in which she subtly hints that there is more to Mrs. Florian then meets the eye is understated and effective. However, while her acting is certainly solid, it never really elevates into the next level that one expects of an Oscar nominated performance. It's capable supporting work in total service of the film, but at the expense of much impact.

The performance contains essentially two scenes, the first of which contains the most meat. It's in this scene that Miles establishes the emotional center of the performance, and the despair and poverty that Jessie's life has spiraled into. There are tons of little character moments, like when Miles performs a bit from her old show for a brief second, or when she swigs a sip of whiskey straight from the bottle before serving it to Marlowe. It's these little touches that make the performance always enjoyable and you can nearly feel Miles aching for more to do. Her second scene is almost entirely negligible, essentially rehashing many of the same beats as the first (dependency on alcoholism, casual flirting with Marlowe, etc). This scene more clearly shows the plot device that Mrs. Florian was designed to be, despite Miles's valiant attempts to do something, anything with this plot device character.

I'm quite baffled as to how Miles managed to secure a nomination for this specific performance. Unlike her performance in Midnight Cowboy, which was brief but incredibly loud and memorable this performance is smaller and subtler. Jessie Florian doesn't feel like too well defined of a character, and certainly not flashy enough to stand out above any of the other characters encountered throughout this story. None of this is Miles fault, and I can see her attempting to do something with this performance but in a film so unconcerned with her beyond the information she has to advance the plot, she can't really go anywhere with it. Never a bad performance, but nothing of note that makes it truly memorable or noteworthy. 2.5/5 Thelmas.


Alex in Movieland said...

I LOVED her cameo in MC. :) I think I gave that 4 stars over at Stinkylulu's Smackdown. From what you wrote it, I'd probably appreciate it more than 2.5 stars. :)

billysscreeningroom2 said...

Sylvia Miles was wonderful in "Farewell, My Lovely" and I always felt she remained underrated. However, I do think Gwen Welles or Karen Black, both in "Nashville" should've had the Oscar nod that year.