Friday, May 30


Joan Crawford once wrote... of all the actresses only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the courage and the class it takes to make one a real star.  I might take exception to that but Joan didn't consult me.  If I had consulted her, however, I might have told her that I am not at all surprised she assessed Dunaway in such a way.  In my mind's eye, they are not all that different as actresses and as movie stars they seem to be almost twins. 

Dunaway never got to sit in my royalty box of favorite actresses.  And actually, the more I think about it, perhaps I didn't care all that much for her as an actress.  I will add she was perfection itself in three films and those films are among the best Hollywood has ever produced.

For one of those films she won a very deserved best actress award from the Oscar folks.  She has moments of searing truthfulness in her acting and I sense a steely determination to get it right.  But I suspect that when we see her doing her best work, it is due to a director who reigned in her tendency to overact and employ histrionics and be overly mannered.  Only three directors seem to have been able to slow down her combustibility and showcase her at her finest... Arthur Penn, Roman Polanski and Sidney Lumet.  She was also very good in a couple more that are good but not brilliant films.  There are still another two that, for different reasons, are films that I hold near and dear but she is the worst thing about both of them.

Finally, there is a film which most people would say contains her most embarrassing performance and I think it's one of her best star turns.  But whatever view one takes, it did seem to put the kibosh on her movie career.  She's not done anything impressive for years.

Who is this woman?

She was born in a little Florida hamlet near the Alabama border to an army man and his wife who from Day One had big plans for her little girl.  Her folks divorced when she was in her adolescence and it left her emotionally damaged and insecure, traits that despite years of therapy as an adult, didn't seem to scatter.  Her adult relationships also seemed to have had a short shelf life, echoing what she learned as a child, both from her parents' divorce and from a life of constant moving as an Army brat.

Her mother raised her religiously and although there was also a son, the mother overindulged the child, focused all her attention on her which likely played a part in the parents' divorce.  Mama had stage mother written all over her and she saw to it that singing, dancing and piano lessons were provided.  She knew the kid was destined for the big time.

The notion of being an actress took hold while in high school and once attending the University of Florida, she managed the lead in Medea (early typecasting?).  Filled with hope and promise and a fierce drive to shake off her childhood woes and make something of herself, she was accepted at the Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts.  At the school a professor was impressed enough with her in a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible that he recommended her to stage and film director, Elia Kazan.

To her credit, she was a hard worker and had already developed the traits of a tigress.  Kazan recommended her for a part in the Paul Scofield Broadway production of A Man for All Seasons and she got it.  She ended up doing several things on Broadway and even a little television but for whatever reason, she was known to have said it didn't quite fulfill her.  Her personal life was a mess.  She had a boyfriend who apparently committed suicide and was involved with comedian Lenny Bruce. 

She then met up with fashion photographer Jerry Schatzberg who photographed her beautifully.  One of his photographs in some magazine was my introduction to her and I was quite taken by an attitude that screamed out at me and seductive beauty, especially those cheekbones, a look that she would display to perfection some years later in The Thomas Crown Affair.

Her work on the stage and undoubtedly on the pages of glamour magazines brought Dunaway to the attention of film people.  Regrettably her first two films were considered junk.  I agree The Happening, a kidnapping yarn, was quite worthy of  that consideration.  Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown, however, I quite enjoyed, although I am a sponge for large casts and most anything filmed in the south.  It contained a rich performance from Michael Caine, truly detestable as an unscrupulous bigot.  It also starred Jane Fonda (who would later be considered with Dunaway for the same roles), Diahann Carroll, Robert Hooks (both great), John Phillip Law, Burgess Meredith and the sweet Beah Richards (Sidney Poitier's mother in Guess Who's Coming to dinner).  Dunaway had a small, inconsequential role as Law's wife.  Director Preminger would go on record as saying he hated Dunaway.

I had to look up a quote I remember Caine saying about Dunaway.  I only remembered that it made me laugh. I think she's a woman of great talent.  I met her on the first day... and I got to know her less as time went on

Those first two films, which nobody saw, were released in 1967.  It was one of those years that would forever alter movies and it would undeniably do the same for Faye Dunaway's career and life.  Warren Beatty would come calling.

Technically it wasn't Beatty at all... it was director Arthur Penn who had seen Dunaway on Broadway and was impressed.  Tuesday Weld and Sue (Lolita) Lyon were both considered for the role of Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde and both would have been excellent.  But Dunaway's southern roots must have been identified at some point with the rebellious Parker who yearned to rid herself of her dull life and find some excitement in the world.  Dunaway captured the character's early sense of isolation and her later craving to make a mark in the world, crazy as it was.

The film itself, of course, changed the way movies were made, particularly with the way violence was depicted and even how outlaws are elevated to folk heroes.  There isn't a dull or slow moment in the entire film.  It would receive well-deserved Oscar nominations for the five main actors, the director, the editing, photography and the film itself. 

Dunaway would become world famous.  Part of her fame came from the look she had in the film.  The beret, the cigar, the stance.  Her look influenced fashion to a degree.  She had a few years of acting under her belt but now she was a movie star.  She had always wanted to be one and she likely thought she quite deserved it.  Like a lot of people who acquire a rush of fame, odds are it  went to her head and she didn't handle it very well.  Some would say she's never handled it very well.

Actors tend to be insecure, overly sensitive and self-centered.  They require pampering.  Often their DNA doesn't allow them to be grounded in the real world.  They need to pretend.  Some of their greatest acting is done off the screen.  Dunaway not only wanted to be a big movie star but she wanted to be the best damned big movie star there ever was.  She apparently caused no problems on Bonnie and Clyde but that could not be said for many of her future films.  She would soon get a reputation as being difficult, being the diva, barking orders, pugnacious.

She became a meticulous perfectionist with an obsessive attention to detail, always well-prepared, with an unerring instinct for the right look, intonation, emotion.  Sounds like someone I would have liked to have worked with until one realizes the one thing that is not included... as long as it's done her way.  While she reminds me of Crawford, she also reminds me of her nemesis, Bette Davis... a wonderful actress but not so wonderful to work with.  It is interesting to note that Dunaway once said she liked Davis because she challenged the Hollywood system.  Are you taking notes?

She became famous for the Bonnie look but it could be said she created one famous look after another.  Her best films come with superb acting and a definite look.  She was a lover of fashion and how she looked in a film was no doubt the source of endless agony for costumers and makeup and hair people.  Some of her career and her acting was sacrificed, it would seem, because she wanted to be more of a glamorpuss.

Take her next film, The Thomas Crown Affair.  I quite liked it and I loved to see a favorite actor, Steve McQueen, go all Brooks Brothers for us.  A sexy heist movie, showing Dunaway at her glamorous best, I could have liked it more had she not been in it.  Even the erotic chess game would have been more fun with another actress.

Then came a series of flops... both so-so and serious.  One heard there were problems with Dustin Hoffman on Little Big Man and Raquel Welch on The Three Musketeers, neither a stranger to acts of temperament on film sets.  On The Arrangement, Deborah Kerr said she was a bit crazy but apparently liked her.

Then she was hired to play Evelyn Mulwray in the exquisite private eye drama, Chinatown... as close as one could get in 1974 to film noir and the granddaddy of all detective flicks.  This movie is sheer perfection... the direction, acting, sets, photography, editing, music, the period, the mood.  The recreation of a glossy mask of 1930's Los Angeles was glamorous and scary.  

It concerned a down-on-his luck private eye (evoking the best Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett) who takes on the case of a woman who suspects her husband of adultery but it is contrasted against a true story of a water rights war.  Dunaway was rightfully nominated for an Oscar as the doomed femme fatale, who is at the heart of the story with her terrible secret.

She feuded terribly with director Roman Polanski.  He said she was insane; she said he was insufferable.  He seems to have treated her badly, for sure, but it still amounted to another news story involving her in some unhappy work experience.  One wonders how so many of her mishaps wound up in the press.  I suspect sabotage was already afoot in Hollywood to exact a pound of flesh from Dunaway.

The same year she made The Towering Inferno, which more than satisfied my craving for star-laden disaster films so in vogue at the time.  She is perhaps the least-interesting character in the story and of course I wished someone else had been in the role.  William Holden might have felt the same because he took Dunaway to task for keeping him waiting for a scene.  Of course, the incident made the press.

Three Days of the Condor was a mainly-wonderful thriller which I watched again recently for the umpteenth time.  I didn't like the ending and I didn't like her.  She has the reputation for being tougher than a toothless woman at a taffy pull so one wonders how she was thought of to play a meek, mousy character like this one.  I didn't see so much acting here as I saw postulating.  Robert Redford was quoted as saying he liked her enormously but found her difficult to work with.

In 1976 came Network, where all the powers came to be to make a brilliant film.  A exposé of sorts of the television industry, written by one of its most acclaimed denizens, Paddy Chayefsky, Dunaway played Diana, a programming chief, merciless in her inhumanity, out to improve ratings no matter what.  A particularly funny and revealing scene to Diana's character is when she talks on the phone while having an orgasm in bed with William Holden (who had apparently forgiven her from Towering Inferno).

It would be an Oscar triumph for many, including Dunaway, who finally nabbed a best actress Oscar and was most deserving.  I am still pissed off that it lost best picture to that little crowd-pleaser Rocky.  It would seem that Dunaway's best work would come from playing strong but very damaged, control-freak characters.

There were rumors that she and Oskar Werner didn't get on while making 1976's Voyage of the Damned, which I liked.  Even more so I liked 1979's The Champ immensely, such a sentimental favorite that always has me reaching for the Kleenex.  She was so wrong for the part of the absent mother although playing a fashion maven was right up her alley.  She and Jon Voight (with whom she had worked on the stage) formed an uneasy alliance and both certainly took an acting back seat to young Ricky Schroder.

If I've been rough on Dunaway, it would seem it would all reach the boiling point on Mommie Dearest, but actually I stand apart from all the naysayers.  I thought she was riveting, a casting coup if there ever was one.  Hard to believe Anne Bancroft was first offered the role.  You show me a gay man who doesn't like Mommie Dearest and I'll show you one who must still be dealing with curious.  She was Joan Crawford in every way.  I think I covered my eyes when I saw her start to boil upon discovering, in her eyes, some transgression by her daughter. 

But those naysayers-- and they are legion-- say that Dunaway was over the top and the film was little more than high camp.  I certainly think she was over the top but hey, so was Crawford.  And really, isn't Dunaway herself?  Maybe what the naysayers didn't like was the side of Dunaway herself that she was revealing.

Whatever.  The truth is the film ruined Faye Dunaway's career.  It will always stand as a testament to what Hollywood didn't like about her.  For years she put it down in public and later on she would refuse to discuss it at all.  Obviously an embarrassment to her, I have no problem getting that.

In the years since Mommie Dearest, she has made a number of television movies, a few of which are quite good.  She has also made 48 theatrical films and you'd be hard-pressed to have heard of most of them.  She is often listed in the casts after a host of names of actors you have never heard of. 

The lonely little girl longed to be a movie star.  I suspect as much as anything she wanted to be heard although she has been quoted as saying she has had problems relating to people.  She also once said that movies should be made with love, devotion and respect.  She didn't say whether that should be a two-way street. 

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1 comment:

  1. I agree wwith you about Dunaway 100%!again. Carlo
    Thanks for Aldo Ray. What a Joy! What do You think of Jennifer Jones and Rod Taylor?
    Thank You