By Alan Hurst
It has not been a good couple of years for Faye Dunaway.
In 2017 she got caught in the maelstrom of confusion during the presentation of the Best Picture award at that year’s Oscars, ultimately awarding the Oscar to Moonlight – the true winner – after having already announced La La Land as the victor thanks to a snafu with the envelope she and co-presenter Warren Beatty were given. Not their fault, but the initial perception was that these two veterans had fumbled a simple task and were showing some stereotypical signs of old age.
And then this summer she was playing a latter day Katharine Hepburn in a pre-Broadway run of the play Tea at Five. Her longstanding reputation for diva-like behaviour suddenly became a little too real for the crew of the production, with reports of verbal and physical abuse. Allegedly Dunaway was also insisting that she be fed all lines and blocking through an earpiece. She was very publicly fired from the production.
We’ve heard the rumours of erratic behavior before – they go back to the early 1970’s, most famously on the set of Chinatown when she and director Roman Polanski clashed. All it took was a couple of box-office misfires for that behviour to catch up with her and and knock her off the A list. Dunaway’s career, which was pretty hot in during most of the 1970’s, never really recovered after the release of the camp fest retelling of Mommie Dearest (1981), the film version of Christina Crawford’s trashy but fascinating memoir about growing up as the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford. Dunaway is actually sensational as Crawford, but the movie itself is cliched junk. Suddenly Dunaway was relegated to mostly B movie fare and some TV work. Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn and other major actresses of that era were allowed a misfire or two, but not Dunaway. The unspoken belief was that she wasn’t worth the on-set angst.
It’s too bad. For a brief period Dunaway was one of the most interesting actresses around – beautiful, neurotic, smart, edgy. And she delivered some truly wonderful work in a handful of films, some of them among the most iconic of the era. She eventually did do some good work on television – she won an Emmy for a guest appearance on an episode of Columbo in 1993 – and she was lovely in Don Juan Demarco (1994), a romantic and funny film with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando. But a quick look at her resume shows a lot of sub-standard fare post 1981.
I think these are Dunaway’s best performances:
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
This was her first big success in the movies and it’s a watershed film, with performances to match. We really shouldn’t care about this murderous pair of misfits, but we do. Through the course of the film we watch Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker murder, rob and pillage their way across the mid-west and southern United States. But we’ve also gotten to know them and root for them to get it together, give it all up and lead a normal life. By the end of the film they seem to genuinely want to turn over a new leaf, but we know it probably won’t happen because of the trail of blood they’ve left behind them. A lot of other actresses were considered before Beatty and director Arthur Penn decided Dunaway was the right choice to play Bonnie Parker. It was a smart choice. The southern-born Dunaway may not have looked anything like the real Bonnie Parker, but she nails the character’s yearning for something better, including a romantic relationship with the reluctant Clyde. It’s also through Dunaway’s expressive eyes that you get the foreboding sense that these people are doomed. She wanted something better, but she’s now trapped in a life of crime and the only way out is certain death. In Dunaway’s hands Bonnie actually becomes the film’s conscience, particularly towards the end of the film. In the final shattering scene, the pair pull over on the side of the road to help their gang mate’s father, but we aren’t ready for what’s next. We quickly realize it’s a set-up. The old man they’re helping looks toward some rustling bushes, he then rolls under his truck, there’s a cut to Bonnie and Clyde sharing knowing looks, and then from the bushes a hail of bullets that seems to last forever. It’s a shocking, fitting and perfectly filmed ending to an engrossing story and an amazing film. Dunaway’s wistful look at Beatty before the bullets fly is haunting.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Dunaway followed the success of Bonnie and Clyde with another film built around a crime. But instead of blood and drama, this time it’s a stylish, sexy and very glamorous game of cat and mouse with the uber cool Steve McQueen and the chic Dunaway at the centre. McQueen plays Crown, a bored millionaire who comes up with a scheme to rob a bank, but not do any of the work himself. Dunaway plays the bank’s insurance investigator and you’re never quite sure who is going to win. Directed by Norman Jewison, the film is almost a time capsule of late sixties style and cool. Dunaway was never more beautiful than she is here – her clothes are model chic, and she gives the character a chilly aloofness (with some intriguing cracks) that works perfectly with the very masculine McQueen. There’s a tantalizing lack of emotion from these characters throughout the whole film that makes the bittersweet ending more moving.
This Roman Polanski directed film contains what is probably Dunaway’s best performance. It came after a streak of relatively unsuccessful films, and because Jane Fonda had turned the part down. Dunaway’s neurosis was a never very far from the surface in many of her performances, and here it’s what makes this secretive character so fascinating. It also helps that she’s perfectly matched by Jack Nicholson, giving one of his best performances. Dunaway tended to do very well with a co-star who was as strong – or stronger – than she was. That’s the case here. Set in the late 1930’s, Nicholson plays a detective hired by Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband. It’s presented as an infidelity case, but then Nicholson discovers he was hired by an impostor and that Dunaway is the real Mrs. Mulwray and her husband is soon discovered dead. This is a film that becomes richer with each viewing, as the intricate plot points reveal increasing political deceit and disturbing family secrets. Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is so tightly wound that you think she’s going to snap at any moment. And when you discover why, Dunaway’s choices as an actress – and Polanksi’s direction of her – are perfect. One of the best films and performances of the decade.
The Three Musketeers (1974) and The Four Musketeers (1975)
I’ve grouped these two together because they essentially are a joint and robust telling of the classic Alexander Dumas novel, with the same actors playing the same parts in both films. In fact, they were filmed at the same time. Part way through production producers decided to divide the story into two films, but that plan wasn’t shared with the cast who had been paid for one film, not two. It resulted in a lawsuit and a change to future actors’ contracts. That issue aside, these are both fun, exciting and handsomely mounted films, probably the best of the many film versions of the Dumas tale. Director Richard Lester keeps the action moving with his game cast, led by Oliver Reed, Michael York, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain as the musketeers. The women also fare well here, including Raquel Welch who had one of her best screen opportunities as the accident-prone Constance and Geraldine Chaplin as Anne. But it’s Dunaway who gives the film it’s dramatic spark with her icy, evil, beautiful Milady de Winter. She’s stunning to look at in the period clothes, but she also doesn’t shy away from one of the great villains of literature. Lana Turner also did very well with the role in the 1948 version, but Dunaway takes the prize. She’s wonderfully evil.
After previous nominations for Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown, Dunaway finally won her Oscar for Network, another in her gallery of icy women who are not troubled by emotion. Network is one of the best films of the decade, a searing black comedy about network news that seemed outrageous at the time, but now unfortunately is decidedly tame. It’s the story of a veteran news anchor (Peter Finch) who is struggling with forced retirement. He ends up threatening to shoot himself on air and launches into a rant about the state of the world – and becomes a sensation by tapping into the frustration of his viewers. Dunaway plays Diana, a network executive who seizes the opportunity the on-air breakdown provides and proceeds to exploit it for ratings, and then push through other extreme programming to help prop up the network. Dunaway succeeds here because again she doesn’t shy away from the dark side of this character. She has no problem ensuring this character has no moral compass – she’s driven, she’s focused and probably just a little insane. She’s helped by Paddy Chayefsky’s intelligent and perceptive script, as well as Sidney Lumet’s inventive, energetic direction. They helped ensure that Dunaway stayed clear of creating anything remotely sympathetic with the character. Dunaway also teams very well with William Holden, who plays the head of the news division.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
This was based on the book by Christina Crawford that created a sensation when it was released in 1978, the year after Joan Crawford passed away. It told the story an abusive mother and the reign of terror experienced by her adopted children. It forever shattered Crawford’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s iconic stars. As with all stories, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but that’s not the story that director Frank Perry wanted to tell in this production financed by Paramount. Dunaway seemed to be the ideal choice to play Crawford – Dunaway was among the last of the traditional “movie stars” and both actresses were known for the strong, demanding personalities and their quirky behavior on set. Dunaway was also a good actress who would be able to breathe life into the screen legend. And she did. Dunaway almost succeeds in making Crawford understandable and real. With the help of some expert make-up and a terrific vintage wardrobe, she also looked the part. You can see that Dunaway worked incredibly hard here, trying to give us a multi-faceted look at what drove Crawford, as both an actress and a parent. But the screenwriter and director let her down. Instead of an honest exploration, they defaulted to sensationalism and camp at every turn. Dunaway got some very positive reviews (and was a runner up for the New York Film Critics’ Award that year), but also some extremely negative ones, which meant that she would bear the brunt of the blame and was never able to shake the stigma.
Dunaway’s last great film performance came as a surprise. After a few years toiling in silly international productions like Supergirl (1984) and some cheesy made for TV fare like Beverly Hills Madam (1986), she found herself in Barfly, an excellent comedy-drama co-starring Mickey Rourke. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about writer Charles Bukowski during a time when he was drinking heavily. Rourke plays the Bukowski counterpart, who spends his time drinking and picking fights at a seedy L.A. bar. He meets Wanda (Dunaway), another barfly, and sees her as a kindred spirit and they begin a romantic relationship. There’s not a great deal of plot here – it’s more about the interaction between these two people who have probably seen better days, and the complications that result after meeting other people. It’s surprisingly comic and very well played, particularly by Dunaway. She’s warmer here than we usually see her, and a little beaten down, but still showing the remnants of the classy woman this character probably was at one point.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.