A New York Post article from 2019 reported Faye Dunaway as being “difficult” in the wake of her being fired from Broadway-bound show Tea at Five for allegedly slapping a crew member. While Dunaway’s personal infamy bears an uncanny resemblance to her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Dearest Mommie, with an Oscar, an Emmy, a BAFTA award and three Golden Globes in her kitty, Dunaway’s acting bravura and filmography is beyond reproach. Star tantrums or not, Faye Dunaway is undoubtedly a star, with a career spanning over more than half a century in films, television and Broadway. In an almost prophetic irony, Dunaway shot to fame playing the infamous gunslinging outlaw Bonnie Parker in the 1967 iconic gangster classic Bonnie and Clyde, a role which also gained her the first Oscar nomination.
While Bonnie and Clyde may have died a gruesome death in a gory shootout, the film immortalised Dunaway and to borrow a phrase ‘a star was born’. Soon she was on the cover of magazines with Steve McQueen who starred along with her in the heist film The Thomas Crown Affair. Dunaway’s reputation for being “difficult” preceded her on the sets of Roman Polanski’s noir film Chinatown and she almost lost the role to Jane Fonda. However, her eventual portrayal of the enigmatic and elusive Evelyn Mulwray won her a second Oscar nomination.
The enigma of Dunaway is perhaps as shrouded as that of Evelyn. In her memoir, Dunaway wrote: “All my life I have been the kind of person who could shatter easily”, and she believes she “is a bit saddled” by her choice of complicated hard-hitting roles. Later, in an interview with Harper Bazaar, she clarified: “They led to an image of me as being not vulnerable, not real, not a feeling caring women”. And although her role as the ruthless studio executive Diana in The Network may not have won her any vulnerability brownie points, it definitely bagged her first Oscar.
As the Hollywood icon turns 80 on 14th January, let’s take a look at the milestone films from the Faye Dunaway filmography.
Faye Dunaway’s 10 best films ranked:
10. Barfly (Barbet Schroeder – 1987)
A self-deprecatory ode to Charles Bukowski by Bukowski himself would predictably insinuate literary acumen and chronic alcoholism as a response to life’s pervasive mediocrity. In that, Barfly which is a semi-autobiography screenplay by Charles Bukowski does not disappoint Bukowski’s on-screen personality doppelganger Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) is a writer with a predisposition for anaesthetising his wounded ego with alcohol, with frequent visits to a local pub, The Golden Horn.
Faye Dunaway plays Wanda Wilcox, a compatriot in alcoholism and another Golden Horn barfly. Rourke and Dunaway’s witty repartees and humour that is drier than a martini saves the film from slipping into solemn sobriety what could have been a diatribe against alcoholism or a sloppy cinematic version of ‘Chicken Soup For The Soul’ but is instead a quietly intelligent film without odious judgement. The film observes Henry’s life in its repetitive alcohol-fueled monotony to an inconclusive end, much like a fly on the wall, privy to but not party to the raucous, buoyant and hilarious encounters of the inebriated regulars of the Golden Horn. Barfly resurrected Dunaway’s repertoire of talent after the hiatus post her mid-’70s success spree.
9. Voyage of the Damned (Stuart Rosenberg – 1976)
In a disaster drama retelling of the true World War II incidents, Voyage Of The Damned is the story of war refugee asylum and political propaganda. A luxury liner carrying Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany is headed to Cuba expecting asylum. In what turns out to be a political hoax, the passengers are not granted entry into U.S.A or Cuba.
Faye Dunaway plays Denise Kreislet the aristocratic wife of a Berlin doctor (Oskar Wesner) whose marital frivolities are interspersed with reassuring calm in the face of impending disaster. Based on Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witt’s book by the same name, Voyage Of The Damned touches upon the reinforced antisemitism of Nazi Germany and it’s ripple effect resonated in geo-political indifference. With religious profiling and war refugee asylum (ahem…Syrian refugee crisis) still being a contemporary issue in global politics, this film still holds relevance and is worth a watch.
8. Arizona Dream (Emir Kusturica -1993)
If absurdist comedy had a love child with magical realism, which then had an existential crisis the saif offspring would be Arizona Dream. Emir Kusturica’s film bifurcated so for from the trope Hollywood plotlines that it derailed its release in the U.S by two whole years.
With a surreal repertoire of reveries featuring have made flying machines and pink flamingoes, Arizona Dream is either completely a psychedelic hallucination or an epiphany depending on who you ask. In an eclectic, if not eccentric character assortment, Johnny Depp plays a fish tagger who can see the dreams of fishes. Faye Dunaway is Elaine, a neurotic nymphomaniac with a penchant for building space ships, while Lil Taylor plays her stepdaughter the according to stringing oddball who would lie to be reborn as a turtle and the mother-daughter duo occasionally indulge in strangulation by pantyhose (don’t ask). However, as Janet Martin wrote for the NY: “What works best for Arizona Dream is that its lunacy is so liberating, impervious to any conventions of cookie-cutter filmmaking.”
7. Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry – 1981)
The controversial status of Mommie Dearest trumps that of Dunaway’s personal infamy, ironically indeed as it is based on the “diva” behaviour of Joan Crawford, based on a book by her adoptive daughter Christina Crawford.
While Dunaway has expressly stated her regret over being part of the film, her impersonation of Joan Crawford added intricate complexity to the character and savaged it from unilateral vilification as achieved by Christina Crawford’s book.
6. Three Days Of The Condor (Sydney Pollack – 1975)
Released in the wake of Watergate, Sydney Pollock’s, Three Days of Candor is a spy-thriller that tapes into the public paranoia with government agencies. Replete with wiretaps, assassinations and seemingly innocuous literary-historical societies that are a front for the CIA this film is the ’70s conspiracy theorists Holy Grail.
Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a mass assassination of his colleagues by sheer luck as he was out for lunch and hides out in the apartment of a woman Kathy Hale (Dunaway) who he is holding hostage. The budding romance between Kathy and her abductor notwithstanding, the film raises a question about the heedless immunity of government agencies like the CIA and in an allegory for the past watergate world on the precipice of distrustful isolation.
5. The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester – 1973)
Richard Lester’s retelling of Alexender Duma’s, The Three Musketeers is so rambunctious it could not be contained in one film and, consequently, Lester released The Four Musketeers within a six-month interval after the release of The Three Musketeers.
In this all-star rendition of the classic tale, Dunaway plays the seductive and formidable adversary of the musketeers, Milady de Winter in a story which is familiar with repeat retelling, the plotline is pretty simple. A young chap D’Artagnan makes his way to the Franch capital and is taken under their wing by Athos, Aramis and Porthos champions of the Queen against the conniving Cardinal Richelieu.
4. The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison – 1968)
Close on the heels of her breakthrough performance in Bonnie and Clyde, Dunaway nose-dived in another classic crime drama, although this time on the right side of the law.
Steve McQueen stars as a businessman who masterminds high stake bank robberies. Dunaway plays an insurance investigator tasked with catching McQueen red-handed but also scripted into playing right into his hand. Equipped with a chess game scene to imply matching of their wits, and long smouldering glances in case anybody missed the implied sexual tension the film is less crime and more drama and certainly no match for the raw brutality of Bonnie and Clyde.
It may not meet the blood lust of the crime genre but lust is not in short supply in this affair. The chemistry between Dunaway and McQueen is indeed its crowning glory.
3. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn – 1967)
Bonnie and Clyde is perhaps the most acclaimed and the most divisive and disruptive move in Dunaway’s filmography. The film that also won her and co-star Warren Beatty Oscar nominations.
Set in the backdrop of the Great Depression this iconic gangster film gave us the gunslinging duo of Bonnier Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and ushered in an era of unflinching violence and gore realism. As Bonnie and Clyde rob and murder their way through America, the romanticism of the American anti-hero flares the imagination of the audience as they are equally fascinated and repulsed by the bodies being blown to bits in the grotesquely bloody details that would leave Quentin Tarantino in awe.
Bonnie and Clyde does not pander to the conservative sentimentality of the ’70s audience but instead hits them like a bullet to the gut.
2. The Network (Sidney Lumet – 1976)
A biting satire about the dystopian world of rating driven journalism, cutting uncomfortably close to predictive reality, The Network is the film that won Dunaway her first Oscar for her third-times-the-charm nomination.
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) a veteran news anchor is fired due to dwindling rating and announces he will kill himself on air. Dunaway plays Diana, the ruthless head of entertainment programming hell-bent on exploiting Howard’s unravelling for increasing TRP.
1. Chinatown (Roman Polanski – 1974)
The noir film Chinatown explores the water wars and corruption that plagued Los Angles in the 1930s.
Faye Dunaway plays the mysterious femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray who engages gum-shoe J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to investigate what is an apparent case of adultery but unravels a much deeper corruption. The pervasive darkness of Chinatown is the sickening tar enshrouding Dunaway’s alabaster skin creating the complex character of Evelyn that gained her the second Oscar nomination.