Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Faye Dunaway

Known for both her captivating performances as lead actress and in character roles, there are few actresses whose oeuvre can compare to Faye Dunaway‘s. Celebrating her birthday yesterday, we chose to write about her films as part of this month’s Retrospective Roundtable.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

By Ben McDonald

Bonnie and ClydeThe titular role of infamous American outlaw Bonnie Parker in Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde was only one of Faye Dunaway’s first screen appearances, but it shot her to instant stardom and landed her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Inhabiting the role with palpable ease, Dunaway brings Bonnie Parker to life as a restless young waitress longing for adventure. When Clyde Barrow (played with just as much swaggering charisma by Warren Beatty) shows up at her door trying to steal her mother’s car, Parker can’t resist joining him on his rebellious quest to rob banks. Although the film substantially simplifies the events and psychology of the outlaw’s lives, Dunaway and Beatty’s magnetic screen presences bring an undeniable authenticity to the roles with their explosive youthful energy. Both actors – but especially Dunaway – are so instantly likable from their first moment of screentime that one can’t help but be swept away into the tragic mythos of their characters’ lives. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde represented a critical milestone in American cinema for its New Wave sensibilities and bold reimagining of on-screen violence, but it’s hard to picture it as such a beloved classic today without the endlessly watchable performances by Dunaway and Beatty as its beating heart.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

By Henry Baime

The Thomas Crown AffairThough maybe not the best received entry into her filmography, The Thomas Crown Affair is certainly my favorite of Faye Dunaway’s films. It’s a heist film with a plethora of innovative visual cues from director Norman Jewison who proved once again- after his work directing In the Heat of the Night and before he took on Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck that he could seamlessly shift from genre to genre to create wildly compelling films. Though the direction is superb, the chemistry between Steve McQueen, the titular Thomas Crown who orchestrates the perfect crime, and Faye Dunaway, as Vicki Anderson the insurance investigator tasked with recovering the money he stole, is what truly brings the film above being simply another heist film and to being one of the greatest films either star took part in. Though the 1999 remake was sleeker and more densely plotted (and once again featured Dunaway, though only briefly), it mostly just served as a reminder of how spectacular the cast of the original was.

‘Doc’ (1971)

By Kevin Jones

DocBy the time Frank Perry’s Doc’ came out, the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the gunfight at the OK Corral had already received a plethora of retellings. However, in this revisionist western, the two classic heroes are shown to be villainous and greedy men. It is a film of dirt and grime with characters covered in filth, either literally or figuratively as they stoop as low as necessary to line their pockets. It twists the well told events to paint the two men as hardly the righteous arbitrators of the law that past films had shown. Faye Dunaway appears as the famous Kate Elder, married here to Doc (Stacy Keach) and working as a prostitute beforehand. It is a fiery, charismatic performance filled with scenes that play on Dunaway’s performative skills as well as her more expressive subtleties. The look in her as she first sees Doc in a seedy bar or the joy that overtakes her face as she sees the home they have say a thousand words. In contrast, her powerful scenes as Kate fights to get Doc to see how much she loves him, dramatically grabbing his head and resting her forehead on his, demonstrate Dunaway’s range. It is a performance that highlights the strength of her delivery, capturing every intent and personality trait that Kate has in each word. Her expressive body language adds to this, making her appearance as the famed figure another well-rounded and impressive performance in Dunaway’s career.

Chinatown (1974)

By Eugene Kang

ChinatownChinatown has definitely been tainted by the crimes of its director Roman Polanski, and it is certainly understandable why many cinephiles will at least feel qualms about watching his films. Yet films are never the product of just one creator and dismissing Chinatown would be dismissing some of the best work of screenwriter Robert Towne, cinematographer John A. Alonzo, and the acting talents of John Huston, Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway. The great accomplishment of Chinatown is how the theme of moral ambiguity and corruption permeates every aspect of Los Angeles and the people who live there. The internal conflict that Nicholson’s Gittes white knight feels towards everyone he meets, but especially Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, provides the foundation for the audience’s connection to this movie. Though Dunaway plays the stereotypical “femme fatale” role, she endows her character with many shades of grey. She is such an enigma, but her allure and the way that she ingratiates herself with Gittes is so masterful that we find ourselves on her side even before the big reveal about her character in the film. Though she is far from a sympathetic angel, she is a charismatic, tragic figure, one who tries to survive in a world where she can trust no one.

Network (1976)

By Alex Sitaras

NetworkFaye Dunaway occupies an interesting space in Sidney Lumet’s Network. Despite possessing the leading role, the most memorable sequences in the film do not belong to her character. Yet, her role as Diane cannot be understated- she is the one who pulls all the strings. Upon hearing that he will be removed from the air because of declining ratings, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces on his evening show that he will commit suicide on live television. His announcement sends the network into a flurry- all except for Diane that is. 

When Howard’s dramatic announcement returns high viewership ratings, Diane sees a means to exploit Howard’s vulnerability and designs an elaborate television show designed around Howard’s outrage, one episode featuring Howard inciting fury amongst his audience to the point of commanding them to stick their heads out their windows and yell in rage. Diane continues to manipulate Howard and the network, everyone under her thumb as high viewership leads to high profits, making Diane indispensable. Simultaneously, Diane begins an affair and Network broaches the idea that a generation raised by television cannot be capable of intimacy or human feeling. Diane becomes Lumet’s case study following the exposition of the film, and Dunaway- while not playing a sympathetic character- grants us insight into the character of Diane and her motivations, as well as her vulnerabilities.

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

By Kevin Jones

Eyes of Laura MarsWritten by John Carpenter and directed by future Star Wars director Irvin Kershner, Eyes of Laura Mars is an interesting slice of late-1970s horror filmmaking. Seen now as an American take on the giallo, it was envisioned as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand only to eventually land with Faye Dunaway cast as the titular Laura Mars. Her eyes are as crucial as that title suggests with Laura being a photographer known for taking controversial photos that blend sex and violence with scantily clad models often reenacting crime scene photographs. What is more, her eyes have been twisted. In waking nightmares, her vision is overtaken by that of a killer who is stalking her friends and co-workers, killing them one-by-one.

Dunaway’s performance, her first film appearance after winning the Academy Award for Network, is terrific. Eyes of Laura Mars is an often cheesy and campy film with an outlandish premise, yet Dunaway sells every scene. Her eyes are, in true form, key to her performance with a terrified look in them that the camera’s repeated close-ups do so well to capture. Exasperation and exhaustion can be seen in her face as well as utter fear as she helplessly watches friends be murdered or lives in dread about when the next attack could come. Dunaway’s ability to believably express these emotions without ever being over-the-top is key the success of Eyes of Laura Mars as a whole. Furthermore, the depth of her performance in capturing the confidence of Laura that is now giving way to insecurity and doubt is tremendous. It is one of small details, whether it is how she grabs her hair from blowing around in the wind, the look in her eye as she starts to feel something happen, or the confused look as she first experiences such an attack, all of which add up to build the atmosphere and nature of Eyes of Laura Mars.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

By Eugene Kang

Mommie DearestThough Christina Crawford’s sensationalist account of her purportedly abusive childhood at the hands of her adoptive mother Joan Crawford have come under much scrutiny, Mommie Dearest has colored the perception of both Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway that neither woman would be able to completely shake. Dunaway, in the few interviews she grants, has disavowed this performance and blamed it for tainting her career. She has also said that she wished that director Frank Perry had had more experience in reigning actors in. Yet anyone familiar with Frank Perry’s movies (The Swimmer, Last Summer) would know that they tend to be heightened melodramas in one way or the other. Also, since the acting from the entire cast is so mannered and artificial, Dunaway’s over-the-top performance is hardly out of place. In fact, she is the one who makes this film like proto-John Waters or even David Lynch, who have both used “bad” acting to great effect in their own works. The scene where Crawford screams at her children about wire hangers is even more shrill and frenzied than a first-time viewer of this film could imagine. Dunaway’s face alone will leave first-time viewers speechless or make them lifelong fans of this movie.  It’s hard to call Mommie Dearest a good movie, but it’s essential if you are a Faye Dunaway completionist or a connoisseur of camp, intentional or otherwise.

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