News and Commentary – Happy Birthday Faye Dunaway

Faye Dunaway, who can stake a fair claim to the title Lead Actress of the New Hollywood, turns seventy-five on January 14. Dunaway was there from the beginning to the end, with starring roles in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976); she also was above the title in two additional milestones of the New American Cinema, the incomparable Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), and Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975).  Those four films put her toe-to-toe (and more than holding her own) with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and William Holden. 

Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker was a head-turning performance in a revolutionary film, but subsequent work demanded even more of the actress.  Evelyn Mulwray is the most complex character in Chinatown, and the success of the film depends on the nuances of her performance.  As she explained in her autobiography, the challenge was for the audience to perceive hints of her deception, while fundamentally misunderstanding her motivations.  Kathy Hale in Condor presents a tricky role that could easily have gone wrong, and derailed the film.   And Dunaway’s performance in Network was remarkable and brave.  Yes, Lumet warned her that if she gave the character any hint of vulnerability he would “get rid of it in the cutting room.” But it was her daring performance, and she shaped the character, in particular fighting to present Diana (a female executive in a male dominated environment), towards as opposed to away from her sexuality.  “You could have played her unattractive,” Dunaway wrote, but she chose to play Diana “as very feminine, so that you saw it was a woman in power, not an imitation, as Gloria Steinem said, of the last man.”

To fully appreciate Dunaway as a New Hollywood icon, however, is to look beyond the hits, and to see the choices made that reflected the continuing artistic search that was the essence of the movement.  Yes, yes, there was The Towering Inferno, but some movies do pay the bills, and Dunaway is well aware that no one in the all-star cast thought the movie would “add a great deal to our body of work.” But consider those films “that did much worse at the box office, yet had characters with such promise.”  In a two year period, she was featured in Little Big Man (1970), Arthur Penn’s revisionist western; the time fracturing, ambitious character study Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Jerry Schatzberg, 1970); The Deadly Trap (Rene Clement, 1971), a moody, introspective thriller; and Doc (Frank Perry 1971), a re-telling of the confrontation at the O.K. Corral that doesn’t quite hold together but would make a fascinating double feature with My Darling Clementine.  These seventies films don’t reach the heights of the Bonnie, Chinatown, Condor, or Network.  But put them all together (and even toss in a few others for good measure), and you’ve got one of the great acting portfolios of the New Hollywood.    

 

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde

 

Chinatown

Chinatown

 

Condor

Three Days of the Condor

 

Network

Network

 

Bonnie

Dunaway as Bonnie Parker