Exploding onto the American screen with her high impact performance as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (with Warren Beatty, 1967), Faye Dunaway began her career by raising eyebrows for her unconventional roles and startling characterizations.
Bonnie and Clyde romanticized the concept of an outlaw as hero, and for the first time empowered the “bad” female lead with courage and fortitude—all-American virtues. Previously considered best kept as gun molls, leading “tough-gal” actresses had fallen on hard times since the ‘40s and ‘50s with actresses like Barbara Stanwyck performing with calculating coldness in films like Double Indemnity (1945). Here at last, however, was a character custom-made for the sixties: Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker was sexy, smart, capable and totally committed to her man.
The role was also Dunaway’s first nomination for an Oscar. Another followed in 1974 for her remarkable performance in Roman Polanski’s classic, Chinatown. She was garnering a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leads, and her work in Chinatown firmly established her star status. Her “tough-gal” persona however, was pushing itself into her personal reputation as well, and crew members began to talk of her exacting methods and perfectionism. Yet two years later her efforts culminated with a Best Actress Oscar for Network, co-starring Peter Finch.
A decade of work exhausted itself with her acclaimed, although somewhat wasted portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), and wire hangers were never to be spoken of in quite the same way again. It wasn’t until 1987 that Dunaway found another role she could do as much with. She was a study in Wanda Wilcox, the drunk alongside Mickey Rourke in Barfly.
It’s her huge, luminous eyes which seem to have ensnared audiences for over 25 years, and they still stand out as windows to some secret, hidden place. At the Telluride Film Festival last month to promote her recently released film, Arizona Dream, Dunaway’s darkly knowing eyes conveyed greed, sex and emotion in one quick blink; making them the hardest thing to look at as they demanded explanation, rationalization, justification. While she talked, her hands moved with the grace of one who has enjoyed the odd passage of time.
What she hasn’t enjoyed is the treatment some of her films have received by American distributors and studios. A 1991 film entitled Scorchers, starring Emily Lloyd and James Earl Jones, was a perfect example of the kind of ensemble work Dunaway likes to do, as well as being the quirky kind of independent feature distributors are loath to know where to place. Arizona Dream has been a tremendous success in Europe where it started its theatrical run in March of 1993; yet Warner Bros. struggled over its potential audience in America. Apparently, some of Dunaway’s work is so finely crafted but low-profile that no one knows what to do with it. Considering her status as a film legend, it’s a situation which begs the obvious question: “Why are studios so hesitant to release Faye Dunaway films?”
Replies Dunaway, “I have two, no three words to answer your question: Art and commerce. Never the twain shall meet sometimes, right?”
That seemed to be the point concerning the distribution log jam of Arizona Dream, which co-stars Johnny Depp, Lili Taylor and Jerry Lewis. The commercial success in Europe for 18 months notwithstanding, Arizona Dream has been Warner’s nightmare as they struggle to figure out where its audience might be found.
“You know, I don’t like to point fingers—this isn’t the format, and it’s too complicated—but we are in a popular art,” remarks Dunaway. “We don’t have patrons. We’re in this place where people say, ‘How much money can I make?’ And that’s it. It’s fun, it’s risky and it’s just the world we live in. The studio always felt this movie was was too long. We had delays anyway during the movie, and then Warner kept insisting that it be shorter . . . I just think it’s very different for a large studio; for the system to embrace, understand and nourish independent pictures.”
Directed by Emir Kusturica (who also directed When Father Was Away On Business and Time of the Gypsies), Arizona Dream is at the least a coming-of-age story, as well as a love story and a visual flight of fancy. Kusturica traditionally works in a unique way, redefining his vision as he shoots, seamlessly interweaving surreal material. It was this method of filming which so troubled the studio and was so loyally supported by Dunaway.
“If we don’t have people making these idiosyncratic, sometimes flawed but interesting views and characters . . . I mean my character is fantastic!” the actress exclaims. “Sometimes you just glean a part. Get into the swim of it; into the river of it. And she is very childlike. She doesn’t think about tomorrow. She’s very intent on the moment . . . I’ve never played a more deep character, I don’t think. Maybe Chinatown.”
Filmed on location in Arizona, at a house Kusturica found in a picture book, Arizona Dream was an ensemble experience with a very tight company. When the studio started to ask Kusturica to cut scenes in order to shorten the movie—scenes he didn’t feel comfortable cutting because he hadn’t finished the film yet, and these were important sequences evolving as he got to know his cast—the entire cast and crew simply stopped production for a few months.
“What I liked is we were very connected to the director,” explains Dunaway. “An ensemble cast is so much better. The star thing is not what people are interested in. They’re really interested in how people interconnect with each other. I think Arizona Dream is nutty, it’s almost a farce. There are scenes American audiences will never have seen the like of before. That dinner scene; it’s unbelievable. You don’t imagine that people behave that way. And yet real people behave with incredible idiosyncrasies. I think the audience may see some of themselves on screen. There is that great freedom among normal people to not be like the people on screen.”
Dunaway is a very generous interview; sitting close, those constantly moving hands seemingly pull you into her confidence. I remark on her beauty and wonder out loud if she’s able to watch herself on screen. She smiles. “I like to watch with an audience, actually. I need to watch rushes; so I get used to myself.”
She speaks with sincere respect for Johnny Depp—“He’s good, every time he works he gets better,”—and reverently calls Marlon Brando (her co-star in her latest film Don Juan DeMarco) an “icon.” Yet it’s when Faye Dunaway, film star and Oscar winner, attempts to define Arizona Dream that you get a sense she’s only sharing half the story. That famous smile grows wider. “It’s fresh—it’s extreme and eccentric. It’s funny, touching and poignant much of the time.”