Monday 23 October 2017

'I was so innocent in the 60s, but Robert Mitchum corrupted me'

On a rare return visit to the county where she spent two years filming 'Ryan's Daughter', leading lady Sarah Miles tells Majella O'Sullivan just how wild filming the David Lean epic really was

Life lived: Actress Sarah Miles relaxing in Castlewood House in Dingle this week.
Life lived: Actress Sarah Miles relaxing in Castlewood House in Dingle this week.
Sarah, as Rosy Ryan in 'Ryan's Daughter' with co-star Robert Mitchum.
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

Sarah Miles was an icon of the 1960s silver screen and at the pinnacle of her career when she turned her back on Hollywood, her job and stardom, to become her husband's full-time carer.

Divorced from playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt, whose screenplays include Laurence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter, the couple had only decided to get back together the day before he suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to walk or speak.

Now 74 and widowed since 1995, Miles is back in Dingle, where she officially opened the 10th Dingle International Film Festival last night.

This is only her second time to return to west Kerry, where she spent two years of her life filming the David Lean-directed epic Ryan's Daughter, which secured her an Oscar nomination.

She is the last surviving member of that starred cast that included Robert Mitchum, John Mills, Christopher Jones, Trevor Howard and Leo McKern.

Loosely based on Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, the film - which won two Academy Awards - is set in 1916 and tells the story of Rosy Ryan (Miles), who's married to the local schoolteacher (Mitchum) but has an affair with a British officer (Jones). The film will be shown at Dublin's IFI cinema next Thursday as part of their 'Appraising the Rising' series.

Miles revealed she wasn't aware of the historical context of the film or that Ireland was commemorating the centenary of the Rising.

Years after filming in Kerry, she revealed her and Mitchum had had an affair, though not during filming, when she was with her husband.

Her face lights up when she recalls her co-star. "He was really a classic you know? He had this enormous charisma. I've been a very privileged woman in my life. I've met all the greats, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Greg Peck, you name them, I met them.

"But nobody was like Robert Mitchum. He was bigger than he is on the screen. He had this huge presence. You could't walk anywhere with Robert Mitchum without people knowing that walk," she says.

"I spent a lot of time there (Milltown House). There was a party there on his birthday and one for his wife's birthday but they weren't wild parties, but he did smoke a lot of pot.

"I never smoked before I met him, I was so innocent you know. I was supposedly an icon of the 60s and I'd never smoked in my life, I never even drank and he corrupted me."

Of her love interest in the film, she's less flattering. That Miles didn't get on with Christopher Jones is part of movie lore. She says: "It wasn't so much that there wasn't any chemistry. He was very damaged goods. He was taken off in a straitjacket after the filming.

"He never worked again. He had great charisma but they had to dub him because he couldn't do the accent. I felt sorry for him though."

Some years later, she says Jones came to a theatre on opening night of a play she was directing.

"He explained the reason he behaved as he did was because he had fallen in love with Sharon Tate and they were going to get married and she was going to leave Polanski."

Tate was an actress and model, who was married to Polish film director Roman Polanski and was over eight months pregnant with their child when she and four others were murdered in her home by a group known as the Manson Family in 1969.

Meanwhile, in Kerry, Ryan's Daughter was three weeks into filming.

Mitchum also spent a few anxious days in Dingle after news of the murder in California broke, as his daughter Wendy had attended the same party.

It took several days for him to make contact with her and establish that she was all right.

One thing that Miles is proud of is how the filming helped change the economic fortune of the area and its people, whom she describes as "decent", "happy" and "full of life". Her home for the two years of filming was Fermoyle House at the other side of the Conor Pass. She said this meant she had to travel to work, often rising at 3am, but she stayed there because her husband wanted to. She recalls the house was huge but very cold.

"My husband insisted on being there. I wanted to be nearer work but I wanted him to be happy," she recalls.

"He sent me into Dingle to get some fires and so I went to this hardware store (Fitzgerald's)."

Miles was assured they had plenty fires but when she told them she'd require 10 she said the shop could hardly believe it. "His face completely transformed. Of course, that was his turnaround. Those 10 fires changed his whole life.

"But I was amazed at his look. He just stared at me for ages before he answered because he was digesting the wonder of that miracle."

Materials also had to be sourced locally to build sets. Actors and crews had to be accommodated and fed and transported to the film set in Dun Chaoin each day.

It was no wonder one local woman described the film as 'An rialtas is fearr' or the best government ever, with the amount of employment and economic activity is brought to the area. After Ryan's Daughter, Miles pursued her career with varying degrees of success. She and Bolt divorced in 1976 but decided to get back together.

She says it was around that time she experienced "an epiphany" and a voice telling her that her life should be lived in service. Her ex-husband was in Tahiti working with Lean once more and writing the screenplay for Mutiny on the Bounty. He had suffered a heart tremor and Lean sent him to LA for a heart check.

The night before he underwent surgery he met Miles on Venice Beach and they decided to get back together. "And the next day I went to see him after his heart bypass and he was a vegetable. They'd made a terrible mistake," she said.

"It was an extraordinary moment but I'd promised to come back to him so I did and that was my service. So I spent the next 14 years in service as a carer and they were the best years of my life.

"Mind you, it does depend a lot on who you're caring for but I was caring for a giant of a man. He was only 49 and probably our greatest playwright and script writer, and he never said, 'why me?'

"I learnt how to be a great human being from watching how he was."

Nowadays, Miles devotes her life to writing, meditation and allowing people access to a healing well at the Sussex home she shared with Bolt.

She says she had visions of this house from the age of seven but Bolt, an "adamant atheist", dismissed this idea until they got back together.

When he finally died, she said it wasn't devastating.

"You know it wasn't because he's with me all the time. In fact, we wrote a sequel to Ryan's Daughter from the grave," she says.

"When Robert wants to contact me he taps me on the shoulder. I'd never mentioned this to anyone because they'd say she's only a mad old widow."

Although Lean and Bolt had planned a sequel to the movie, she says this never happened because their lives "fell apart".

Now, she has written this sequel as a novel because she says so many people just wanted to know what happened to Rosy Ryan.

"I'm very proud of what I've done because it works. The reason she was unfaithful was because he was such a terrible lover and he never gave her any satisfaction at all and hence she went off with the major.

"When they're in Dublin first they're separated because she's got the IRA after her because they think she's an informer so she has to go into hiding. She changes her name and goes to work as a chambermaid at the Shelbourne Hotel.

"In the meantime, he gets a bit of practice and so when he finally catches her at the end, he's had a lot of practice," she says, again with that glint in her eye.

Irish Independent

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