Not too long ago, a friend and occasional reader of this blog gently chastised me for “glossing over” Gypsy and West Side Story in my entry on Natalie Wood. I didn’t make it clear enough in the actual featurette that I was really focusing on the childhood and youth career of Miss Wood and not giving her the full-on biographical account that I sometimes do for other, often lesser known, subjects here. It wasn’t meant as a slight to her, I just wanted to look at her early years, especially since Miracle on 34th Street was airing a lot at the time.
When it comes to today’s subject, I must state right off the bat that there is no way I could cover everything in one posting. Miss Faye Dunaway is my favorite post-1970 actress and I could go on for days! This is just a bit of musing about her because, despite my adoration of her, she has been thus far rather underrepresented here! (And, really, there’s precious little rhyme or reason as to what I write about! I just try to avoid two entries in a row about the same type of thing – for example, I usually try to somehow rotate the beefcake, the disaster movies and the favorite actresses with occasional sprinkles of TV shows, other movies and what-not.) As mentioned in one of my earliest entries, Dunaway was the very first motion picture actress I ever understood as such. In my pea brain as a child, it didn’t dawn on me that actors appeared in more than one film in their lifetime! She is the first actor I ever identified by name and saw playing multiple parts. It’s easy to understand the second part of that sentence because in the late 60s and early 70s, Faye was one of the top actresses of the cinema.
After working on Broadway for a while, she was put under personal contract to the fiery and confrontational Otto Preminger. He had intended to use her in five films, but their association during the first, the hooty turkey Hurry Sundown, was so volatile that she bought herself out of the deal, prepared to go broke or maybe never work again in the movies rather than act for him. (One of the films she fought to avoid making was Skidoo and if you ever see that, you’ll understand her reluctance to do it, though her second film, The Happening, was certainly no classic either!) Faye had played a penniless sharecropper’s wife in Sundown, wearing next to no makeup and garbed in frowsy dresses. For The Happening (in which she played a restless girl caught up in a kidnapping scheme), it was a total change. Her hair was longer, she was tan, made up heavily and she displayed a rockin’ body. When people think of Ms. D., her figure isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind, but, in this movie, at least, it was the main selling point.
Shortly thereafter, she was cast in Bonnie and Clyde, a role that shot her to superstardom. Her Theadora Van Runkle fashions in the film started trends all over the world and she was featured on many magazine covers. Obsessed with her weight in the film, she grew more and more gaunt. She also began sporting gargantuan false eyelashes, giving her a very distinctive look. During the Steve McQueen collaboration The Thomas Crown Affair, she again sported Van Runkle clothes, but this time “mod” ones, which, while amazing to look at, quickly dated the film. It’s my own feeling, however, that any contemporary movie will eventually look dated in time anyway, so why not go for it and wear something interesting that may make people want to see the film later, even if only for the clothes?! Look at all those Adrian concoctions that had no relevance to the economic conditions of the heroines in the 1930s film in which they appeared. They’re fun to look at now regardless. A frothy caper flick like Crown didn’t need kitchen sink realism in my book.
These days, Dunaway is the go-to gal for neurotic, fire-breathing diva-type of characters, but she’s actually led a remarkably varied career, attempting virtually every genre and succeeding in most of them, including a surprising number of neo-Westerns. Her own favorite film is also among her most obscure, Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Released in 1970, it details the mental erosion of a fashion model (and is, in fact, based on the life of one of the most stunning creatures ever shot by a camera, Anne St. Marie.) To her credit and despite an affinity for glamorous clothes, dramatic hairstyles and heavy makeup, Dunaway never shied away from providing warts and all portrayals of earthy women such as Katie Elder in Doc and Lena Doyle in Oklahoma Crude. (My favorite moment in the rather bleak Doc is when she and Stacy Keach have carefully rationed the canteen given to them by a barkeep as they travel across a sweltering desert. Faye groans something like, “Do you think we’ve earned a drink of water?” only to take a swig and spit it out in fury, “Vinegar!! Mexican Greaser... BASTARD!” She later tells a local church woman that when she goes down on her knees, it isn't to pray!)
1973 marked the year of The Three Musketeers and, thus, the year my life was changed. My favorite film as a child, I was captivated by everyone in it, but mostly by Dunaway as the conniving Milady de Winter. I’ll grant that Lana Turner was a prettier one in the 1948 version, but there has never been a better one and I doubt there ever will be. She really has very little to do in The Three Musketeers. It’s in the simultaneously filmed and soon after released sequel The Four Musketeers in which she really shines. Here the focus is on her and her revenge against the people who foiled her scheme against the Queen in the first film and she rises to the occasion in spades. By the time of Chinatown, released in between the Musketeer films, Dunaway was a screen star of the highest magnitude. Here, regardless of the fact that she and director Roman Polanski clashed heavily, she would be part of an undisputed cinematic classic. Her look in the film was patterned after Polanski’s own mother and there would be little or no compromise in it. There was, however, a maelstrom when he tired of seeing a stray hair wafting around all on its own, spoiling a shot, and plucked it out with his hand!
On the heels of this great success came The Towering Inferno and my reaction to that film has been duly noted elsewhere. Suffice it to say, I never got over my fabric in the wind obsession (Thanks, Faye!) and go into spasms whenever and wherever it occurs (such as in a recent viewing of Mamma Mia! in which Meryl is at the front of a huge yacht with a massive wrap billowing behind her.) Another great film, though her role in it is decidedly secondary, came soon after and that was Three Days of the Condor. She plays a sensitive photographer held captive by (and eventually falling for) Robert Redford, who is on the run from conspiratorial CIA members. (Interesting that I have seen this film many times and never noticed Redford's "skin tags!" I guess even the idols have cracks in them somewhere.) By the way, Faye has to hold some type of record for working with the largest number of major leading men of the cinema. It’s easier to list the ones she has not worked with than the ones she has.
Following Condor, she worked with (and incurred the wrath of) Bette Davis in the TV-movie The Disappearance of Aimee, before playing the role that would win her the ultimate movie accolade, a Best Actress Oscar statuette. In Network, she portrayed the driven, single-minded Diana Christensen, a television executive who wants ratings at any cost. With this, she was at the top of her game and at the height of her success. It would last only a short while, however.
She received top billing, if not the most screen time, in the ensemble drama Voyage of the Damned. She played the wife of a Jewish doctor who was placed aboard a cruise ship out of Nazi Germany filled with Jews, but which was forbidden to dock anywhere, causing much distress and trauma for its inhabitants. Here, she played in a marvelously unhinged scene with another of my favorite actresses, Lee Grant, in which Lee has come unhinged and begun cutting off her own hair. (A couple of years later, she would do the cutting when, in Mommie Dearest, she got bent out of shape at daughter Christina for mocking her and using her cosmetic products!)
Theoni V. Aldredge had handled the costumes for Network and Faye must have liked her because she began using her for a trifecta of films, none of which showed her off to any great advantage physically. Though her character in Eyes of Laura Mars was deliberately outré, she sometimes looked foolish as in the ostensibly scary scene in which she wore a newsboy cap with built in scarf and gauchos with slits to the hip, those articles being scarier than anything else. Then in The Champ, she was swallowed up in a series of pastel, gossamer nightmares and filmy hats. Part three was The First Deadly Sin, which featured her bedridden character wasting away while sporting various pukey nightgowns hailing from Aldredge’s sewing machine.
In 1981, Dunaway’s career would take a turn from which it would never fully recover. Anne Bancroft was set to play Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, the hatchet-job account of the star as written by her estranged and very bitter daughter Christina. When Bancroft thought better of it, Faye took the part and, giving it her customary level of commitment, sank into the exploitive and over the top melodrama with gusto and without benefit of another prevailing set of eyes to rein her in. (And this is more melodrama than bio. As several critics have said, the film Mommie Dearest actually plays more like a Joan Crawford movie than a movie about Joan Crawford!) Surely, I’ll go into this film at a later date with much more detail, but for now suffice it to say that it was a total debacle. Scenes intended to be serious were laughed off the screen until the makers began marketing it as a black comedy! The film won bad movie awards, such as Razzies, and emerged as a cult, camp icon for the ages.
Faye did a cover story in People magazine on her experience with the role, and did discuss it briefly with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio (back when that series actually featured actors!), but, for the most part, the role, the film, the very idea of any of it all amount to a subject that is off limits. It’s a shame she can’t take a page from Patty Duke’s book (with regards to Valley of the Dolls) and embrace the hilariousness of it since it has been nearly three decades ago by now. That film alone, while damaging, didn’t completely kill her career. However, the decision to live in England (with husband Terry O’Neill) and then to appear in another role which was virtually the same, only with even more camp attributes, sent her feature film career spiraling into oblivion.
Supergirl was a spin-off of the highly popular Superman films, which starred Christopher Reeve. Helen Slater was chosen to enact his similarly strong cousin and Faye was enlisted to supply the villainy. She played Selena, a small potatoes occultist who discovers a stunning power source that increases her power a hundredfold. A number of factors led to the films failure (though there is a very hardcore coterie of fans who continue to worship it), but one thing was certain. It would be years before Dunaway appeared in any sort of major film and she would never regain her stature in the industry. This is not to say she didn’t work. Dunaway has worked harder trying to rebuild her career than she probably ever did initializing it! Her resume is quite full and there have been some high points along the way.
Barfly, a Mickey Rourke film about alcoholics, released in 1987 did a little bit to rebuild her reputation. She also made inroads with supporting roles in quirky independent films and cable movies and later made the intoxicating Columbo telefilm It’s All in the Game, for which she copped an Emmy Award. This period has yielded any number of opportunities for her to play all sorts of ladies, though it cannot be denied that she is most often hired to portray either flighty, mannered, over-the-top types of people or stern, rigid types. One rare excursion into childrens’ comedy was the orangutan on the loose flick Dunston Checks In, in 1996. She played a sort of composite of Ivana Trump and Leona Helmsley and was delicious (also looking amazing.) In the mid-80s, Faye began digging into the cosmetic surgery barrel and it has been a rollercoaster ride. Compare this 1986 photo for the deliciously trashy TV film Beverly Hills Madam to the way she looked in 1994’s Don Juan DeMarco below. Okay, good enough (and Faye certainly looked astonishing in the camp riot The Temp as a glamorous and exacting office executive), but since then there always seems to have been a new nip, tuck or yank here and there (a blind item once intimated that she had to smear Vaseline on her teeth in order to smile because her lips were pulled that tightly.)
It hasn’t been easy (in fact it’s been gut-wrenching) to witness some of her more recent public appearances with all the Medusa hair, Asian eyes, gnashing white teeth and so on. I mean, I worship her and could watch her read the phone book aloud, but at nearly 70 she could have been portraying interesting older women rather than continuing to hang onto her 40s this way. Certainly, she isn’t alone, however. Are there any real old ladies in Hollywood these days? Jessica Tandy died in 1994! Where does it all end? At least I’ll always have my Towering Inferno, with an impossibly sleek Ms. D. roaming around like a Grecian goddess if I find that I can’t watch anymore of the latest stuff.