During a break in filming John Boorman’s new movie, Hope and Glory, female lead Sarah Miles decided to show off by walking along Britain’s Brighton beach on her hands. Boorman, director of Deliverance, Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, was so impressed by Miles’s agility that he asked her to recreate the stunt on-camera. “That was my main ambition as a child,” Miles recalls. “I was this sad little girl with funny hair who was always trying to stand on her hands.” She obviously mastered the stunt, and perhaps that’s why the wispy 45-year-old British actress, best known for the 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter, sees the world from a perspective that not everyone understands or appreciates.
Controversial, perplexing, shocking and outrageous are the adjectives most often used to describe Miles, whose life, time and again, has been rocked by scandal and disappointment. Age has done nothing to temper her wayward spirit. Spending a few hours with Miles can be an intensely exhilarating experience, like going through a car wash in a convertible. She exhibits a wide range of behavior, from bursting into tears(“l just got some terrible news on the telephone, but I’ll be all right”) to doing her impression of a rhino going potty.
She’s offbeat, yes, but not without insight. “I’m quite hard to box-in, you know,” Miles says. “Larry Olivier said to me when I was very young that I was going to have a lot of trouble because I’m a chameleon. He said I’m like mercury or the wind, always changing. He said nobody likes change, that people want to categorize you. Because of that, he said I was going to have more enemies than friends, and I think he’s absolutely right.”
At the moment, her supporters outweigh her detractors. With Hope and Glory, Miles—once one of England’s most intriguing young actresses—has achieved a giant comeback. A nostalgic comedy set in World War II London, the movie gives Miles her first critically praised screen role since 1976, when she starred with Kris Kristofferson in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. In Hope and Glory she plays a mother who tries to keep her family together during the Blitz. Director Boorman based the character on his own mother, Ivy. “I cast Sarah to play her,” he says, “because they share a certain grace and Rabelaisian humor. When they met, they looked into each other’s eyes and realized they were the same creature.”
The role of doting mother is a new one for Miles, who has a history of playing temptresses and appearing nude onscreen—she even feigned masturbation in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace. Miles’s knack for shocking people was evident even at age 12, when she was expelled from Britain’s exclusive Roedean girls school for telling the visiting Queen Mum that she hated the place. Miles’s second feature film, 1963’s memorable The Servant, almost drove her wealthy parents to disown her. “They came to visit me in Chelsea,” she says. “They said I destroyed the family name by taking my clothes off on-camera. They said they couldn’t show their faces in the village again and that the servants would leave. Then they drove off in their Rolls in a cloud of dust.”
Daughter of an engineer who designed steel mills around the world, Miles first turned to acting to cure her stutter. She enrolled in London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 15, and made her film debut six years later—as a nymphet who seduced Laurence Olivier in Term of Trial. The erotic nature of her roles, and the blunt nature of her mouth, earned Miles an abundance of bad press during the ’60s. “I’ve always been a stickler for truth,” she says. “I say what I believe, and I avoid the fence-straddling, double-faced B.S.”
In 1973, while she was making The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Miles received her most unwelcome dose of publicity. Her business manager, David Whiting, was found dead in her Gila Bend, Ariz., motel room. The county medical examiner ruled Whiting’s death a suicide from a drug overdose; why the body was found with a severe cut and scratches has never been explained. Miles admits she was involved with Whiting and blames the incident for ruining her eight-year marriage to Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man for All Seasons and the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. “I was unfaithful once in my life, and I get caught. The whole world finds out,” says Miles. “My only choice was to remain silent, and that was interpreted as guilt. It has to remain a mystery.”
Miles says the bad publicity over Whiting’s death drove her out of England. She fled to Malibu (“I was a ludicrous misfit—it was full of people snorting, drinking, squirting and puffing”), then moved to Benedict Canyon in L.A., where she remained for the next seven years before returning to Britain. “I failed miserably in Hollywood,” she says, claiming that the Whiting scandal made her a scarlet woman in the industry and contributed to her career’s slow decline.
While Bolt remarried and divorced, and Miles remained single, they both say today that they’d never stopped loving each other. They continued to see each other as friends, but it took a tragedy to bring them back together. Five years ago Bolt, 63, underwent a heart bypass operation that left him barely able to move or speak. The night before he went into the hospital, he took Miles for a walk and asked her to come back to him. “He actually asked me to remarry him,” she recalls. “We may still do it, but it doesn’t seem relevant anymore. We’re husband and wife in our eyes.”
Following the operation, Bolt and Miles moved into a London home, where Miles helped nurse him back to health. “He was a vegetable for two years,” she says. “No one gave him hope. But now he’s back being a wizard.” Bolt, who is still partially paralyzed, credits Miles for his recovery. “I would be dead without her,” he says, adding, “When she’s away, my life takes a nosedive. When she returns, my life soars.”
The couple’s only child, Tom, 20, complicated the recuperation. “We gave birth to the devil himself,” Miles says of her son, who kicked a heroin habit last year. “He put us through hell and back.” Their efforts to deal with the boy’s addiction—which included having him locked up in jail and barring him from the house—seemed like a lost cause. “He stole all my awards and Robert’s two Oscars, which he sold on the street,” says Miles. “He hit rock bottom when he was found with a needle in his arm. His lips were blue. We thought he was dead.”
Soon after, Bolt and Miles helped get their son admitted to the Twin Town Treatment Center in St. Paul and later joined him for a week of family therapy, “it was terrifying,” says Miles. “Every mistake, every resentment came out in an effort to give our son a new foundation on which to rebuild his life. My husband cried for the first time.” Miles turns radiant when she talks of her son’s successful recovery. “He’s totally turned around,” she says of Tom, who now lives on his own in London and works as a dishwasher. “I’m so proud of him. He’s the most wonderful creature in the world. Heroin addiction is a disease that needs compassion and caring. I want parents with addicted children to know there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
For Miles, happy days finally seem to be here. Her family is intact, and her career is doing quite well, thank you. After finishing Hope and Glory, Miles filmed the soon-to-be-released White Mischief, based on James Fox’s book about a headline-making 1941 murder among the rich white colonists of Kenya. “I play the most wicked lady of them all,” she says, “a debauched, decadent drug addict. I take my clothes off and shoot my husband in the balls. If they leave all my scenes in, it’ll have to be X-rated.” With that she laughs and leans forward to share a confidence: “I guess people are going to say, ‘Oh, that Sarah Miles. Back to her old self again.’ ”