Sienna Miller: Famous, Sexy, and Well-Liked
Starring in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in London, Sienna Miller shows us something more determined than a cat in heat.
Photograph by Ricky Vigil for Getty Images.
Three years ago, Sienna Miller told Alex Bilmes of Esquire UK (in a profile called Girl Interrupted, as if she were then and only then resuming normal, A-List service), "It had become difficult for me to get the work I wanted, if I'm really honest.… It was a weird situation to be in because there was a lot of goodwill for me in Hollywood. I think I'd been lucky in that I'd always been naughty in that town and people had always liked me for it. And it was refreshing and it was who I was. I was English. I was, 'Let's be who we are! I'm not going to have my hair done every morning and yes: I smell of fags!'"
All that goodwill burned out like a cigarette sometime around her twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth year, when her naughtiness began to look—to Hollywood, at least—unfeminine. "I sabotaged things," she admitted to the magazine. "I burnt a lot of bridges. … When I wasn't at work, I wasn't behaving the way you should."
To parse "the way you should" is tricky for an actress, but it seems to boil down to something not unlike this famous tip from Paris Hilton: to be both famous and well-liked, women ought to juggle being sexy without being sexual. They should try not to be wild or sybaritic—or too indiscreet. This means not being photographed on yachts with famous married men, and definitely not mooning over famous married men near paparazzi; nor appearing so untethered from the stifling confines of traditional, heteronormative morality that, when photographed while doing so, you only smile. It means not shooting water pistols full of piss at paparazzi, even if this is at least a little funny and the paparazzi are more than a little physically aggressive. It means not going out for dinner in a swimsuit—as Miller did with Jude Law—even if you cheekily look chic in one. It means not calling Pittsburgh "Shitsburgh," even if it's where your father is from.
"People," Miller added with no seeming malice, "don't want to see films with people they don't approve of in them." One way to get around what people do not want to see in films is by doing theater. For 12 weeks this summer—through October 7—Miller stars in the new Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the play by Tennessee Williams, in the role of Maggie. For one afternoon I watched her do it, and for one week afterwards, I thought about not much besides. Maggie is the female lead. She's deeply complicated—and a mess. A sexually voracious woman verging on a nervous breakdown, she exudes the kind of vivid, quasi-masculine, erotic power often seen in, well, the women of Tennessee Williams's plays.
"I don't know if [casting] people have the imagination you assume they would," Miller told The Talks this past spring. "If they're casting someone with brown hair they tend to cast an actress with brown hair, you know?" (This, a self-aware nod to the David Lynch–and– Alfred Hitchcock binary of the blonde and the brunette, highlights her conundrum: she's a modern thinker, in the golden body of an old-school babe.) An actress typically ends up confined to play to type, which is why Miller playing Maggie is as perfect as it is surprising. She's a boarding-school girl with a father richer than, if not God, then at least most fathers, who is passing onstage as poor, Southern trash dun good. She almost fooled me; although when she isn't sprawling in a negligee—hardscrabble, hickish, looking like a proto-divorcée—she wears a floor-length sequined gown and kills it, looking far less like a desperate digger than the gold itself: a statuette.
In other words, Sienna Miller is a movie star. Designed to look her most remarkable in luxe, red carpet drag, it's only when she's pared down, as she is here in the first act, that we get a real approximation of the truth. Onstage, she howls and cackles, chain-smokes, crows, seduces, falls to pieces, dodges objects hurled directly at her head, and hurls a few things back herself. "I'M ALIVE," she bellows, kneeling on the bed and panting like a woman in the wreckage of an airplane crash. "MAGGIE THE CAT IS ALIVE!"
It does not take a psychoanalyst to see the subtext of Miller's arc transmogrifying into text in this performance, or to liberally apply its rise and fall, its desperate cat's claws and implied decline, to her past tabloid lives. In life, she has parlayed a sequence of small roles in serious films with serious directors into something like an image rehabilitation. ("If it's an amazing filmmaker and an amazing group of actors—like Foxcatcher, " she said to New York magazine two years ago, in an interview commemorating her second starring role on Broadway, playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, "I want to be on that set.")
In Cat, she relives past humiliations like a taped loop—or a bad, yet cathartic, dream. The plot demands that Maggie strip down and humiliate herself, at least symbolically. In this production, there is real flesh too, albeit less important than the naked talk, the wild, denuded souls. A Southern family gathers for the birthday of its hulking, boorish patriarch, Big Daddy, and unravels into chaos. They are rich; and because near everyone knows that Big Daddy's dying other than the brute himself, there are squabbles over who'll inherit. Privately, his daughter-in-law Maggie—or "the Cat"—is in a sexless marriage with a closeted gay man. She's desperate to be fucked, to end up impregnated, to inherit the plantation when Big Daddy dies. Her husband, Brick, has lost the man he loved in secret to a drinking problem and desires only drink himself.
In the film by Richard Brooks, Brick is played by Paul Newman, so exquisite that, of course, it's torture not to touch him. It's also famously Liz Taylor who plays Maggie, so that she reads like a sex goddess or a statue of fertility—a heterosexual-male dare. Here is a man, the implication throbs, who does not want to fuck Liz Taylor. What ' s he hiding? Filmed in 1958, the movie never really clarifies his secret. Set in the present day, the new production—with a minimalist, black set and contemporaneous tics like iPads—makes the open secret slightly less explicable. Miller's Maggie is more angular (she's always spare, but here she's sparse and bone-stripped), and when she leaves the stage, the tempo drops like mercury in winter. In the audience, I counted one-third of the women d ' un certain age who were presumably propelled there by platonic crushes and the memory of low-slung coin belts—women like myself. For all her proud and quasi-masculine philandering, she's always been for girls: more gamine than erotic, she's a lodestone for a certain kind of gimlet female gaze.
"A speech of this kind," Williams writes about one cruel and catty monologue in Maggie's stage directions, "would be antipathetic from almost anybody but Margaret; she makes it oddly funny, because her eyes constantly twinkle and her voice shakes with laughter which is basically indulgent." So far, so Sienna Miller. (Bilmes described her in Esquire as "a human firework," as well as "fidgety and exuberant, coltish, gushy, tactile, generous with compliments and also larky and piss-takey. She's vivacious, convivial, a joiner-in-er, one of the gang.") Maggie the Cat might talk about "the martyrdom of saint Maggie," but Miller never tried to tell us she was saintly, nor to paint herself as Job. She's ultra-fallible, relatable par excellence. In the noughties, she seemed genuinely hedonistic, bacchanalian, unlike all the other proto-nihilist party babes who crashed. But she's never even been to rehab.
She still calls "fucking"—gloriously—"shagging," as in: "The media just want me to be this partying, shagging girl" (New York magazine, 2007). I admit, we do; perhaps because there's no one now who does the act quite so well. Lindsay, playing an ex-pat in Knightsbridge, is too dangerous and dark. Kate is now too much a stateswoman, a London institution. And Sadie who? "Shagging" is a game, a sport without high stakes, a hot goof; Miller is athletic, game herself. She is a hot goof. Rangy in a way that can be kittenish, then knockabout, then adolescent-seeming, she's a fair-to-middling actress vocally, but a totally electrifying one when speaking in the language of the body. Film directors often linger on Miller's face, its catlike angles and Pacific-colored eyes. The theater has no close-up. Void of blue and seen as blur—assuming you are, like me, seated in the upper circle—she is uniformly tawny gold, from head to pointed toe. ("Sienna" means, as if you did not know this, "yellowish or reddish brown.")
"In her long speeches she has the vocal tricks of a priest delivering a liturgical chant, the lines are almost sung, always continuing a little beyond her breath so she has to gasp for another," the stage directions add. In this production, Miller does this with her frame, a liturgy of motion. Sometimes it feels like an invocation or an exorcism. Line notes also specify that Maggie's voice "has range, and music; sometimes it drops low as a boy's and you have a sudden image of her playing boys' games as a child," which is a better way to pin her movements, her charisma, than I could devise myself. There is a scene in which her body drops quite literally low as a cat's on all fours, high in heat, crawling, yowling. If Miller, à la Walt Whitman, "sings the body electric," it is as a limerick, a drinking song.
"The chief reason for catching the new West End version of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is seeing Sienna Miller remove her kit," wrote Quentin fucking Letts in the Daily Mail, which makes me want to scream. It's juvenile, especially as Letts is 54 years old. How old is Maggie? Maggie may be 29 or 30, though she may as well be 40. Maggie is a woman on the edge of something other than her metaphorical tin roof; if not senescence, then the farthest side of youthful splendor. Miller is now 35, but lit the right way she can pass for 40, which is less about the fact that she looks old and more to do with how—just like a cat—she looks as though she's lived five years in one, or eight previous lives. Hers is, just like Lola's in the love song by the Kinks, a dark-brown voice. Like Maggie, she is pretty; and like Maggie, she's pragmatic and a little proud about her grown-upness, her established womanhood. "My face looks strained, sometimes," the Cat purrs, "but I've kept my figure."
In Act One, Scene One, Brick suggests that Maggie take a lover. "I'm not that stupid," Maggie snarls. "Oh, I might some time cheat on you with someone, since you're so insultingly eager to have me do it! But if I do, you can be damned sure it will be in a place and a time where no one but me and the man could possibly know."
Sometimes, being careful isn't quite enough to keep the lie between the liar and her lover—though in 1955 there were no mobile phones and no voicemails into which to whisper infidelities. ("Hi, it's me, I can't speak," Miller allegedly said in a voicemail to actor Daniel Craig—made public when the News of the World hacked, sleazily, unethically, into his inbox—and then, speaking dangerously and too much: "I'm at the Groucho [Club] with Jude. I love you.") Modernized, the characters in this new Cat have flip-phones, and the set by Magda Willi is comprised of almost nothing but an empty, chasmic bed with satin covers—black, a bed-as-grave—and sheets of flattened tin. When Miller happens to be naked, these tin sheets are lit with golden-orange light, as if the whole time they were only waiting to enhance her. That the upper circle is in theater called "the gods" feels apropos when she and co-star Jack O'Connell strip before the finish: neither Brick nor Maggie is happy or in love with any living man, but they are still here once "the dream of life is gone." They look like Eve and Adam. Why, then, does this feel more like end-times than Eden?
"I love you, Brick," she says. "Wouldn't it be funny if that were true," he says. Sienna the Cat—a chaos agent staging a comeback—crosses the stage. She shows us something more determined than a cat in heat.