Monday, March 13, 2017

LIZ SMITH: The Glory That Is Faye Dunaway

Faye in “Bonnie and Clyde,” which catapulted her to the top echelon of stars.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

The Glory That Was (and STILL is!) Faye Dunaway.

In the wake of the criticism and snickering about the appearance of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty at the recent Academy Awards, we want to remind all of you, about the greatness and glamour that was — and still is, away from podiums and mishandled cards — of Miss Dunaway. We wrote this tribute a couple of years back, and it still applies.

“TELL ME the truth”

“She’s my sister” (slap!)
“She’s my daughter” (slap!)
“Sister” (slap!)
“Daughter” (slap!)

“She’s my sister and my daughter!! Get it? Or is that too tough for you?”

Any film fan worth his salt knows this famous Faye Dunaway scene from Roman Polanski’s famed “Chinatown” (slaps courtesy of a very frustrated Jack Nicholson.)

“Chinatown” was, in many ways, the last true noir film (albeit in color)  And Miss Dunaway a true, mysterious and tragic noir lady. Half truths, deadly lies, and often a gun (pulled from the pocket of a mink) were the weapons of this cinema staple. Although Faye would win her Oscar, playing the modern, ruthless exec of “Network,” it was “Chinatown” in which she gave her defining performance. The role she was born to play. 
Dunaway is a star who was born 30 years too late. She was made for mystery and evocative black and white. She could have given Bette and Joan and Barbara Stanwyck a run for their dramatic, neurotic money. She had an intrinsic propensity for brilliant, grand, unapologetic over-acting. Nothing hesitant about Faye Dunaway. A straight-forward throwback to a time when movie stars thrilled millions with the curl of a lip, an arched eyebrow, a whispered threat, a declaration of love — perhaps true? With her hooded gaze, the lush mouth of her youth and those incredible cheekbones Dunaway was a true American exotic. And for a while, she was one of the most fascinating actresses in the world.
BORN in Bascom, Florida, Faye attended the University of Florida and Boston University. She graduated in theater. The striking young woman joined the American Theater and Academy. She appeared on Broadway in “A Man for All Seasons” and “Hogan’s Goat,” well reviewed.
Faye Dunaway with William Roderick in “A Man for All Seasons."
Hollywood beckoned and she had smallish but showy roles in “The Happening” and then “Hurry Sundown,” which was Otto Preminger’s tribute to Southern white trash. Dunaway objected to Preminger’s dictatorial attitude and this was the beginning of the actress being labeled “difficult.” (Why nobody ever considered the infamously abusive Preminger difficult is hard to imagine.)

Still, despite the tensions, Faye captured a Golden Globe nomination and was named “Star of the Year” for 1965.
Faye with John Phillip Law in "Hurry Sundown" (1967).
Still basically unknown, she immediately went into Warren Beatty’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” This catapulted her to the top echelon of stars. (Natalie Wood, Warren’s once-upon-a-time amour, had rejected the role.)  Faye’s  hard/soft performance, her unusual beauty, and the way she wore Theadora Van Runkle’s 1930s-inspired fashions made Dunaway an instantly iconic and recognizable face of the late 1960s. Nobody looked quite like her. Nobody looked like her at all!
She received her first Oscar nomination for “Bonnie and Clyde.” She then had another big hit with “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Steve McQueen was cool. Faye Dunaway was icy. They looked beautiful together. The film was another hit.
However, with the old studio system dying, Faye — a fantastic personality with no place to go with it — floundered for the next four years in films such as “The Extraordinary Seaman” ... ”Little Big Man: “The Woman I Love” ... ”Doc” ... ”The Arrangement” “Oklahoma Crude” ... ”Puzzle of a Downfall Child” (a brilliant performance, begging to be re-examined) and “A Place for Lovers” (this was a place where at least she found romance for several years with co-star Marcello Mastroianni.)
She also offered a seductive turn in “The Four Musketeers” as the infamous Milady de Winter. If Faye was not quite up to the lush MGM lure of Lana Turner in the 1948 version, she was still mighty dangerous foe — pulling daggers out of her bodice!  By this point, Faye’s public image had begun to spin into “diva” — although that phrase to describe a demanding celebrity had yet to be coined. Divas were still opera singers.
IN fact, on the Musketeers” set it was rumored that in a scene where Faye is supposed to strangle Raquel Welch with a heavy wooden rosary, Faye performed a bit too realistically. Not that there was much sympathy for Miss Welch. She was known as a difficult star herself. True or not, it made for lively gossip.
AND then, Faye received the second “role of a lifetime” when Roman Polanski cast her as Evelyn Mulwray in the beautifully chilly and tensely violent noir “Chinatown.” She starred opposite Jack Nicholson, a scene-stealer if there ever was, but Dunaway — who could command the camera with one defiant glance — held her own as the icy wife of a missing mogul who had a more than a few secrets of her own. Was she a deadly femme fatale or a hapless victim? (“I don’t ‘get tough’ with anyone, Mr. Gitties. My lawyer does.”) Faye was, top-to-toe, a fabulous movie-star, perfecting a series of mannerisms that were fascinating to behold. She was once again Oscar nominated. But lost, perhaps because Polanski had been so vocal about how hard she was to work with.
After that, she was a throwaway in the spy thriller “Three Days of The Condor” with Robert Redford (No chemistry at all between these two superstars) and was merely gorgeous and distressed in the smash hit “The Towering Inferno.” She seemed to drifting off track again when along came the role of the madly driven TV executive, Diana Christensen, in “Network.”
Working with Peter Finch, William Holden and Robert Duval energized her. Dunaway’s by now familiar quirks and intensity fit the role perfectly. Finally, she took the Academy Award. (She was famously photographed relaxing poolside with Oscar the morning after at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The picture was taken by her soon-to-be second husband, Terry O’ Neill. Her first spouse had been musician Peter Wolf.)
But as is so often true after an Oscar win, things start to go south. She was first-billed in the aptly titled “Voyage of the Dammed” ... saw visions in “The Eyes of Laura Mars.” (This made money, but critics were unimpressed.)
She also appeared in Franco Zeffirelli’s “The Champ” in 1979, not looking her best and rather ignored in the praise heaped on Jon Voight and Ricky Schroder. She was sensational on TV as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, but her co-star Bette Davis complained Dunaway was impossible to work with (pot and kettle, there!)
SHE played Evita Peron in a 1981 TV movie based on the life of the Argentinean legend, and was delightfully — for those who enjoy that sort of thing — over-the-top. (Madonna, in the 1997 feature film version of the musical, “Evita” played Peron with an eye toward softness. Dunaway did away with any of that.)
And then, later the same year, came — drum roll! — “Mommie Dearest” the screen version of Christina Crawford’s scathing tell-all on her famous mother. I can’t imagine what anybody expected from this, given the material. Frank Perry directed, with an eye toward excess. Faye, apparently, threw herself into being Joan Crawford with magnificent, unrestrained gusto. Faye had not written the script, nor had she a hand in editing, so who will ever know if she was encouraged to tone it down? (Or if there were subtler takes.)
The performance is brilliant, daring, poignant — but so outrageously committed, it explodes into camp instantly. Within a week of its release there were “Mommie Dearest” parties being held all across the country. Faye’s every utterance had become legendary, and we needn’t even talk at length about the Kabuki makeup “no wire hangers” scene. In truth, Faye wasn’t doing anything she hadn’t in a number of other films — these were her mannerisms. But playing Crawford brought them out in vivid high relief. Faye would forever more blame “Mommie” for downturn in her career. (Director Frank Perry simply omitted it from his bio.) But truth be told, Faye had been a star since 1966. Her big-time was coming to an end, anyway. She just happened to go out in a blaze of derision. (Though I think she is glorious as Crawford.)
Her next film would be an unfortunate period potboiler, “The Wicked Lady,” which only enhanced her image as an eye-popping, tempestuous virago.

Afterward, it was up and down — a fine, gritty turn in “Barfly” with Mickey Rourke, and superb with Peter Ustinov in a lush TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Dinner for Thirteen.” But there were too many like “Supergirl” or “Terror in the Aisles” or “Beverly Hills Madam.” She kept a hand in features and television, sometimes scoring (“Albino Alligator" ... ”The Twilight of the Golds”) ... a TV version of “Rebecca” where she was delicious as the pretentious Mrs. Van Hopper. Excellent in “The Yards” with Charlize Theron.
But mostly, she just kept on keeping on. Her resume is vast and eclectic, (In 2011 France honored her as an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.)   She adopted a child with Terry O’ Neill, Liam, and they divorced in 1987. She has commented since that she considers herself “a loner, anyway — I like to focus on my work.” She has, for the most part, kept her private life singularly private.
Faye with her son Liam in 1996. Photo ©Albert OrtegaOnline USA, Inc.
In recent years she has been almost manically committed to putting Terrence McNally’s tale of Maria Callas, “Master Class” onscreen.  It has proceeded in fits and starts, and was said to be “almost ready” a couple of years back. It is surely a role for all aspects of her larger-than-life personality. (Dunaway toured with the show in 1996, to great acclaim.)
Faye Dunaway was too big for her time. I end this as I began — had she appeared in 1943, she would have wiped the studio floors with the great stars of that era. As it was — despite her bitterness over “Mommie Dearest” — Faye had a good run. And she has never stopped working; always looking for the next “Bonnie and Clyde” ... ”Chinatown” ... ”Network.” 

She is an artist committed to her art. Her great golden moment, I think, is still ahead of her.

It was not, obviously, the 2017 Oscar telecast!

Contact Liz here.