'I can't wait to get off this planet'
She wormed her way into the hearts of Irish buffs (not to mention Kerry buffs) with her role in 'Ryan's Daughter'. But her life was far removed from the Kerry "cailin". Her affairs were legendary, she was accused and acquitted of murder, and she has drunk her own "pee" for over 30 years. As Barry Egan takes a voyage around Sarah Miles and the Dingle Peninsula, he finds little has changed
Published 16/09/2007 | 00:00
A 1971 Cosmopolitan profile of Sarah Miles was headlined thus: "She uses words that would make a construction worker blush, but from her they sound refined''. The sub-editors of Cosmo will be inconsolable then to hear that her vocabulary hasn't changed in almost four decades.
Standing on the beach in the Blasket Islands last Saturday -- as the Dingle Film Festival honoured Ryan's Daughter and its star -- Sarah's language is certainly colourful. Despite the cut-glass aristo English accent, her account of Robert Mitchum's view of the film's producer, Anthony Havelock-Allan, is more Noël Gallagher than Noel Coward...
"Mitchum thought he was a pr**k and a w***er -- and wasted not a second in telling him so. He told him he wouldn't work on the movie if he was on f***ing set," she laughs.
Her timeless performance in the lead role of David Lean's Ryan's Daughter earned her an Academy-Award nomination for Best Actress 36 years ago. It is not overstretching the bounds of hyperbole to say that Sarah's performance today would possibly have won her the Oscar. "Mitchum wasn't the greatest actor of all, but he was a man. A man! There were three Mitchums: Sober Mitchum! Drunk Mitchum! And Marijuana Mitchum!"
It was Marijuana Mitchum, she recalls, whom she saw most on the set of the movie in 1969. There was physical intimacy between the two but it wasn't, she says, until after she divorced her husband, the English playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt, "that we got together. We fancied each other like mad, but I wouldn't do that to my husband."
But she would do exactly that to Sir Laurence Olivier's wife, Joan Plowright, of course. At the time, Sarah was 19 and making her screen debut in Terms of Trial opposite Olivier (a review of Sarah described her, intriguingly, as "a seductive nymphet who offered herself to stuffy schoolmaster Laurence Olivier". )
Larry, recently married to wife number three, Plowright, was, according to observers, disentangling himself from an affair with Simone Signoret via an affair with the very young Miss Miles. "He was very indiscreet at the end, but he was a lovely guy. You know, they don't make them like that any more. He was a very, very troubled man. He hadn't really found his soul."
And was that what he was trying to use you for?
"Yes, I think a lot of men come to me to find their souls," she says wistfully.
Was Sir Larry a better lover for his bi-sexuality? (Olivier had a "puppy-like acquiescence to all experiences'', remarked Noël Coward, who once walked in on Miles with Olivier in Hay Fever at the National Theatre. ("Coward never forgave me. I didn't realise quite how in love with Larry he was," Sarah said.) Was the great star of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca as theatrical in bed as he was on screen and stage?
"That doesn't matter. With me, it is certainly not to do with love-making. It is much deeper. Sex is too peripheral," Sarah says, adding that Olivier once told her that she, "would have a terrible life because I was a chameleon and I wouldn't be pigeon-holed". True. Still, it is unlikely, perhaps, that Sir Larry knew that, as a child, Sarah had "hereditary" sticky-out ears that seemed to flap ("I was a flapper!").
"So I was teased a lot as a child," she says. She couldn't speak until she was nine because of a stammer. Her voice is now, variously, haughty, throaty, cut-glass, smoky -- Luvvie in excelis. Her words resonate more theatrically with the sea as background music.
Earlier, as we walk down the treacherous steps -- her friend from Wales goes plonk on her arse -- to the boat that will ferry the legendary actress out to the Blasket Islands, Sarah says, "I feel like this place has stolen part of my soul." She motions for me to sit with her at the front of the boat, The Blasket Princess, with her legs dangling out over the Atlantic Ocean.
"I'm Queen Maeve! I'm Queen Maeve!" she starts roaring to me, punching her fist in the air, as the boat rushes through the waves. "I'm drawn to the Blaskets, you know. I wish I could have been a Blasket girl myself," she says as the cap'n waves out at Sarah to move to the side so he can see where he's going.
"I can feel the ghosts of all the extraordinary people that lived there. The writers! The philosophers! And the criminals! They couldn't be bothered to go over and get them. The musicians! They were such a colourful lot."
Colourful is perhaps the most superficial word to describe Sarah Miles. As a young teen, she was shipped off as a boarder to Roedean in Sussex. "It took me a whole three terms to get expelled..."
Visiting royalty, in the shape of the Queen Mother, had something to do with her untimely exit from the school. For four entire weeks before Her Royal Arrival, all the gels were taught to curtsey, say "Ma'am", answer her question politely then curtsey again. The whole routine was practised like it was a West End show. And then, on the appointed day, the charismatic widow of George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II stepped out of "her Daimler, all in blue -- a poem in blue", and came straight towards Sarah and her best chum at the school, Lanky. She asked Lanky: "Do you like it here?" Lanky followed the choreographed routine to perfection: curtsey, "I love it here, ma'am," curtsey.
And then she turned to Sarah, aged 11, with the same question. This time the monarch received a slightly different variation on the routine. Sarah curtsied, blurted out, "I hate it, Ma'am!" then curtsied again. Lanky went white. The silence throughout Roedean was only broken by peals of royal laughter.
"She went, 'Oh, hoo! Hoo! Hoo!" laughs Sarah now, with Dingle in the distance, "because she could see I was telling the truth. She had a wonderful sparkle in her eye." Behind her was Miss Pike, the house mistress, and the head mistress, Miss Horriban -- who was called the Horror -- neither of whom had anything approaching a sparkle in their eyes after overhearing what Miss Miles had said to the visiting Monarch.
The following day, the Horror, "dressed all in black like a crow", told the assembly in the great hall of Britain's most exclusive girls' boarding school: "Will the girl who told the Queen Mother she hated this school, please stand up!"
The Horror walked Sarah up the aisle to the pulpit and told her: "You had better learn to pull your socks up, Miles." "So I bent down to pick them up!" Sarah recalls with a chortle. "And everyone in the hall laughed. And then she took me to her private accommodation and expelled me." Miles adds at this point that she was asked to leave three other establishments during the course of her education. One incident included an accident on the playing fields where she broke the legs of two schoolmates: "but only one seriously -- cricket is such a deadly-dull game. I took aim at girls' legs."
Years later, when she had become something of a star, Sarah was at a party in Buckingham Palace when the Queen Mother recognised the brazen pupil and recollected the incident at Roedean with a warmth and wit that characterised the late dowager.
Given we are out at sea, I tell Sarah the story of the Queen Ma'am onboard the royal yacht Britannia off the Western Isles of Scotland when she ordered the signalman to send an urgent message to another royal boat in the region: "Dearest Lillibet, Run Out Of Lemons For The G&Ts; Please Send More."
Sarah hoots so loudly with laughter I fear she will almost fall overboard. Instead, she says that her own mother "couldn't stand having me around so I was left to my own devices. I was lucky that she couldn't stand me really," she laughs. "I loved her dearly but my mother was never there for me because I was just not the beautiful child she wanted. My younger sister Vanessa was everything she wanted."
She denies she was estranged from her mother for that reason. "No, all through my life I have been terribly good at one thing: forgiving. It is my ace card in my pack!" she roars. "If you forgive, you stay young. If you don't forgive, you get very old very quickly."
Sarah says she had a lot to forgive in her life. "And a lot to be forgiven for. Oh, a lot of things along the way."
I ask her what she considers the lowest point in her life. She doesn't hesitate. She refers to being accused, and acquitted, of murdering David Whiting (he had become obsessed with her after an alleged one-night stand) in Gila Bend on February 11, 1973 at the TraveLodge Motel. During the course of the filming of the western, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, with Burt Reynolds, Whiting, then a 26-year-old aspiring screenwriter, was found face down near a pool of blood in Sarah Miles's room. According to a Time magazine report of the trial: "Alternately sobbing and indignant, she seemed to transfix the courtroom spectators and the seven-person jury. Justice of the Peace Mulford Winsor IV, a plumber when he is not sitting on the bench, was so unnerved that he had to start the oath twice."
The article also revealed that on the night of Whiting's death, Miles had returned from a dinner party with the actor Lee J Cobb and gone to Burt Reynolds' room until 3am.
When she returned to her own room, Whiting, according to Miles's testimony, "got hold of me and began throwing me about the room".
The commotion roused Janie Evans, the nanny for her five-year-old son, Thomas, who called Reynolds. He took Miles to his room, where she remained for the night. "Late the next morning," continues the Time report, "when Miles returned to her room -- to get her birth-control pills, she said -- she found Whiting curled up in the bathroom."
The coroner's jury found that the screenwriter died as a result of a drug overdose. However, a pharmacologist hired by Whiting's mother said that the amount of methaqualone in Whiting's bloodstream need not have been fatal. "Left unexplained was how Whiting's blood came to be on a pillowcase, towel, tissues and the washbasin in his own room, as well as on a blue sweater he had apparently been wearing. Also unaccounted for were the severe cut on the back of his head and scratches on his stomach, chest and knuckles," continued Time's report.
"This guy wouldn't leave me alone," Sarah says now. "He was having an affair with my child's nanny. I came into my suite one day and he was dead on my bathroom floor. I was accused of his murder when I was absolutely innocent. It was Burt Reynolds's birthday. The Merv Griffin Show were there that day," she recalls.
"It went on for six months. Murder? Suicide? Murder! Suicide! Murder! Suicide! And, gradually, the truth came out, which I'm not going to speak about, but it certainly wasn't me. I had actually saved the man from three suicide attempts so why would I want to murder him? I really can't imagine."
The press and hysteria around the case, Sarah says now, destroyed her first marriage to Bolt (they had a child, Tom, born in 1967). "And I couldn't live in England anymore. I couldn't go down the street. That's why I went to America, to get away from it. The press wouldn't leave us alone, Robert and I. I couldn't fart." So she went to LA. If you are up the Himalayas you are still the girl from Ryan's Daughter but in LA, you are just another tiddler in a tank of sharks.
Her siblings, she says, "had to move from the family home in England because of me being a 'murderess'. They went to live in Brighton because they couldn't stand the gossip any more."
Miles's romantic liaisons with the likes of Burt Reynolds and Steven Spielberg possibly added to the gossip. Looking back, she adores Spielberg but is less than flattering about her short time with Reynolds. "He had huge lifts in his shoes and a toupee. He was bald as a coot! He was a total nightmare. I don't even want to speak about him. He was a dodgy character."
She was clearly starting to pine for her ex-husband when he rang her in Los Angeles (he was in town with David Lean to write Mutiny on the Bounty) and asked her out for dinner. Sarah recalls how the motto from her first school in Chelmsford became her raison d'etre: I am, I can; I ought, I will.
"And I've always thought: 'Dammit, I will!'" And, dammit, she did. She remarried her first husband seven years after they had divorced. "And, golly, it was the greatest thing I ever did. We went out for a walk on Venice Beach and he said: 'Let's get back together. We were a happy pair, weren't we, until all that business, weren't we?' I said yes, and I would come home to him."
THE next day, however, Robert had a heart bypass. He came through the operation, but, says Sarah, "he was a vegetable for two years. I went back to him to take care of him and we were together for 14 years. I never met anyone who was so eloquent as he but to have all that removed from him yet never complain.
"I buried him in the bottom of the garden of our house in England," she says as we walk up a hill towards Peig's cottage. "I bunged him in a cardboard box, which is what he wanted. And now he is just waiting for me to be bunged in beside him!"
You couldn't make Sarah Miles up. Or last Saturday in the Blasket Islands. Sarah, with a manic energy that belies her 70 years, shoots up hills and ravines to look in the windows of derelict old cottages, with me breathless, huffing and puffing (having lost my mobile phone) behind her. At one point I walk in on her meditating and waving her hands about in one such beautiful old ruin.
In many ways Sarah Miles is a beautiful old ruin, too. You can still see what it was that made Olivier, Mitchum, Reynolds and Spielberg fall for her. She was born on New Year's Eve in Ingatestone, Essex. "I'm an Essex girl! An Essex girl!" she roars, and her laughter is lost somewhere in the breeze blowing in off the Atlantic.
The slightly out-of-kilter actress gave up the profession years ago because, "she didn't really like it and because I was following a very strict spiritual discipline. I just wanted to find my own answers in a reclusive situation. I have been on this voyage for a long long time."
Disembarking The Blasket Princess, I realise that Miles has a dottily eccentric English charm that makes it impossible not to warm to her -- even when our chat turns to what she is most well-known for after acting. "On my tombstone will be engraved: One of the untouchables -- she drank her own pee," she told the New Statesman in 1998. "That's what all Indians do!" she harrumphs. "That's what Ghandi did. That's what Nero did! That's what everybody that I think looks fantastic in old age does! I thought: 'Well, if they all look that bloody good, I think I'll have a go!' It tastes like good beer. You take it mid-flow every evening and morning. You just swig it down. It tastes fine."
And for how many years have you been drinking your own urine, Sarah? "Thirty."
She can tell by the look on my face that I'm horrified. "Urine! It immunises you against your own allergies. Clinics use it for cancer. It is used for all kinds of illnesses.
"Why does humanity have a problem with me drinking my own urine? I can't wait to get off this planet!"
Some would say Sarah Miles was never truly on it.