This Week’s Birthday: Faye Dunaway

Faye Dunaway left her mark with three great films... and literally dozens of duds.

Wow. Faye Dunaway. This is one of the most bizarre careers ever in Hollywood, and it confounds and astounds me. Look at her in Bonnie & Clyde, a whirlwind mass of neuroses, and the girl who makes that Sheriff Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), blush–she makes us all blush. She’s the heart of Chinatown, the femme fatale who feels the bite of every one of Jake Gittes’ slaps, who carries the whole of that great film’s pain and suffering, and someone who, in the end, makes you feel deeply ashamed to have thought that this broken beauty was so shallow as to be called a femme fatale. In two great movies, Faye Dunaway was sexy, bewildering, riveting.

Was there an actress as schizophrenic as Dunaway? I don’t mean that in the literal sense, but in the sense of how in the hell do you make Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, and Network, and then 107 other movies or TV programs that, at best, reach only to the lower rung of the ladder of mediocrity? Not only that, but she is pretty damn bad in every one of those titles.

Let me also digress to say that I’d put Network up there with Dr. Strangelove as a totally overrated satire. Moments like “you can’t fight here, this is the war room!” in the latter, and fake TV shows like “The Mao Tse Tung Hour” in the former, two jokes so slap-in-the-face obvious you wonder how the hell Paddy Chayefsky ever got a reputation as a sharp wit (not that he wrote the first, but you get my point.) Dunaway won her Oscar for Network, and I’ll give her credit for holding her own against that onslaught of masculinity–director Sidney Lumet (never good with women), writer Chayefsky (ditto), and William Holden, Peter Finch, and Robert Duvall. Look at the trailer and maybe you’ll see how dated it appears.

Silly me: Dunaway shined in a small and somewhat thankless role in the great Little Big Man. That’s cold comfort, though, when you consider that, outside those movies, her best known role is her cruel and one-note rendition of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Oh, my, I hope you didn’t sit through that whole thing. Given to hysterics or simple mimicry, Dunaway isn’t just stuck in a thankless role, she takes Joan Crawford and makes her into a wicked clown utterly without an emotional center. She seems intent on trying to hurt the memory of Crawford, and you emerge from that wreck wondering if Dunaway had even seen any of Crawford’s movies.

My point is this: the actress Faye Dunaway freaks me out. She starred in and almost ran away with three films that are considered masterpieces, two of which–Bonnie & Clyde and Chinatown–could be their decade’s best. Watch those movies as often as I have and you emerge stunned at her presence. Yes, everyone is great in Clyde and Chinatown, but Dunaway, well, she hurts, and you hurt with her. Yet, outside of those movies (and Little Big Man), she made very bad or very bland movies in which she is as awful as the material she with which she was forced to work. Or chose to work.

Every actor with any longevity makes bad films. Look at Marlon Brando. Christ, that guy made a ton of lousy films. Now take a peek at Don Juan DeMarco, a thoroughly forgettable flick by anyone’s standards. Brando is really lovely in Don Juan, chewing through the script like it’s prime rib at a casino buffet, yet he’s graceful, debonair, funny–one of the few joys in a fairly joyless movie.

Then look at Dunaway. Dull, lifeless, and really you have to admit that any actress could have filled that role. Where’s a touch of Bonnie Parker? Of Evelyn Mulwray? Of Mrs. Pendrake?

Was this the result of laziness? The result of a senseless Hollywood that didn’t know what to do with her? There was a touch–a touch–of the old Dunaway in the misguided Barfly, but that’s a bad movie (Mickey Rourke as Charles Bukowski?!), and the one exception in a long career of duds and dud performances.

I bet there’s a sad story in there somewhere. Dunaway herself argued that Mommie Dearest ruined her ability to get meaty roles, but I personally can’t see that as anyone’s fault but her own.  I guess she won an Emmy for playing a killer in Columbo. But we all know you could probably build a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower with all the Emmys that have graced mediocre performances.

You watch movies and foster a false hope for actors and actresses, hoping your favorites are happy, looking to see them in new movies, eager to share their company. So it is with Faye Dunaway. There’s gossip–that she’s hard to work with, that she adopted a child but pretended to have delivered it herself. I don’t know what’s true or not, except to say that, like Gertrude Stein, I wish there was more there there.  Because those two brilliant moments–Bonnie Parker, Evelyn Mulwray–shine through the decades like the first stars on a cold winter’s night. And then nothing, or next to nothing.

So I ask: Faye Dunaway, where did you go?

Dorothy Faye Dunaway was born on January 14, 1941.

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