Nobody with all his buttons really wants a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad. But when conventional morality decided that girls should fall into bed before they fall in love, something got lost—and that loss, along with everything else, has been grossly exposed in movies the last few years. Now in Chinatown, a period thriller directed by Roman Polanski that has become the hot new film of the summer of ’74, the image of woman is reestablished on the screen in all its mystery and fascination by a gifted actress named Faye Dunaway.
Dunaway’s woman is a victim in the grand romantic 1930s gothic manner. Her father rapes her, and her husband is murdered. Through most of the film, Dunaway is in effect playing four parts—a traumatized neurotic, a tiger mother, a passionate mistress, a possible murderess. Manipulating all the ambiguities, Dunaway displays a mastery of her craft and a talent for smoldering that may rank her right up there with Theda Bara and Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood’s great succession of enchantresses. Like most enchantresses, Dunaway isn’t really a pretty woman. Her figure, though sensuous, is angular. Her shins would cut butter. The face is the thing. Bones as bold as Dietrich’s, lips as tender as a baby’s, teeth that glitter hungrily, eyes huge and tragic—one wise, one crazy. Her voice is deep and melodic and her expressions move like mist. She looks Irish and she is.
She looks vulnerable and she is. “Faye is appallingly open to feelings and impressions,” says one of her directors. “She cries a lot, innocently, like a hurt child. If she gets too much pain, the way Garland and Monroe did, I see danger. People like Faye are never far from the self-destruct button.” But Jack Nicholson, who stars with Dunaway in Chinatown, thinks she’s a gossamer grenade. “That lady doesn’t hang back. She’s not saving anything for later. She’s open to the big jolt—she wants it. She gets hurt that way, but it’s a useful kind of hurt. She’s a brave woman, a very free woman.”
Born 34 years ago in backwoods Florida, Dorothy Faye Dunaway grew up in army posts in Germany and the U.S. Wherever it was, home was an anxious place—her parents are now divorced—and the child took refuge in make-believe. “I can’t remember not knowing I was going to be an actress.” Success came early, but Dunaway worked hard for it. She did two years in Boston University’s drama school and three years in New York’s Lincoln Center Repertory Theater before grabbing the lead in an off-Broadway production of Hogan’s Goat, and she suffered a picture (Hurry Sundown) with Otto Preminger before she careened into stardom as the cigar-puffing heroine of Bonnie and Clyde.
“In those days I believed in the American dream,” Dunaway remembers. “Success meant happiness. Well, I found out.” Her next 10 films—from The Extraordinary Seaman to the current romp, The Three Musketeers—were either well-roasted turkeys or feathers in other stars’ caps. As for the American dream of love and marriage, Dunaway couldn’t seem to make it come true.
Quivering with need and pitiably anxious to please, Dunaway plunged into a series of affairs. The most spectacular of these involved Marcello Mastroianni. They met when they co-starred in A Place for Lovers and began to rehearse their love scenes after hours. Overwhelmed by his Latin passion, Dunaway asked him to give her a child. Mastroianni refused; after all, he said, he was a married man with children. The affair concluded with a screaming match in an Italian hotel room. What Faye learned from all this, “is that I gave too much. I gave things I have to save for my work.”
No doubt now that her work comes first. The woman who played Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown is a dedicated professional. Dunaway worked for two months on the character before the cameras turned, and arrived on the set with a richly detailed vision of everything but the director. “I hear you’re difficult to work with,” were the first words the arrogant Polanski addressed to Dunaway. She does have a reputation for temperament, is seldom available before noon, and is sometimes over-insistent on her interpretation of a role. But most directors agree with Nicholson that “about anything to do with acting Dunaway is usually right.” Polanski later told a reporter for Rolling Stone that he considered Dunaway “a gigantic pain in the ass,” but added that he had “never known an actress to take work as seriously as she does. I tell you, she is a maniac.” Artistically, the abrasion was creative; but when the film was finished Dunaway was bled white. Seven months later, halfway through production on Towering Inferno, she is 15 pounds underweight and, according to an actor in the cast, looks like “a used bolt of lightning.”
She lives quietly in a Malibu beach house with rock star Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band. Onstage Wolf is a hairy tornado. At home he is the gentlest of nurses, who gives his lady-love round-the-clock intensive care—brewing tea she barely sips, building sandwiches she scarcely nibbles, fielding the phone while she crashes up to 18 hours a night. As soon as Inferno is finished Dunaway plans a six-month flake-out. Then she wants to do a Broadway play. “Movies destroy me as an actress,” she says. “The stage builds me up again. I’ll do both as long as I’m around.”
“She’ll be around a long while,” says Robert Evans, who runs Paramount studios and personally produced Chinatown. “She has everything—beauty, talent, neurosis. She’s one of the great strange ones. When the lights go out and that face comes out of the dark and she looks at you with those big mysterious eyes, I tell you, it’s a very compelling thing. She has something we haven’t seen on the screen for a long time. She has witchery. She’s a femme fatale.”