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On Her 70th Birthday, a Tribute to Faye Dunaway

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It's been nearly two years since the kerfuffle when Faye Dunaway made the admittedly unfortunate, off-hand remark on hearing that Hilary Duff was playing Clyde's moll Bonnie Parker, a role Faye after all originated. Her reaction: "Couldn't they at least cast a real actress?"

Rather than rise above it, Hilary, a performer who has every reason to be insecure about her talent, went for the jugular: "I think that my fans that are going to go see the movie don't even know who she is, so you know... I think it was a little unnecessary but I might be mad if I looked like that now too."

True, Faye started it, but what a nasty piece of work this Duff proved herself to be. First, she assumed her fan base would be totally ignorant of a major screen actress who appeared in some of the signature films of the past half-century (say it ain't so!); then, she simply went after Dunaway on her age and looks. Real classy!

My own reaction, truthfully, would be the same as Faye's, though I might not say it aloud (or then again, maybe I would). The reason is that Faye Dunaway's best work is indeed a mighty hard act to follow, and it ought to be done carefully and reverently.

But then today's Hollywood doesn't really care about such lofty considerations anymore, if there's a fast buck to be made. Hence the ascendancy of cardboard wannabes like Miss Duff, whose "Bonnie and Clyde" remake, incidentally, has yet to be released. (We're on pins and needles here!)

Incidentally, later Miss Duff reasoned that since she attained fame at a younger age than Miss Dunaway, there was every reason to believe she might surpass her talent one day if she keeps working at her craft.

To paraphrase a famous quote: "Hilary- I've seen you act, and I've seen Faye Dunaway act, and Miss Duff- you're no Faye Dunaway."

This truth is of course self-evident if you watch Faye in her prime alongside, say, "Cheaper By The Dozen 2" or, if you prefer, maybe "Material Girls".

This past Friday Ms. Dunaway turned seventy, a milestone we perversely tend to downplay in our youth-, Hilary Duff-obsessed culture. To a relative old-timer like me, it feels like the perfect moment not only to celebrate her best work, but also pay tribute to all she did for the portrayal of women in film.

History lesson for Miss Duff: Faye actually turned down a lucrative gig on the TV soap, "The Guiding Light" in 1965, because she was determined not to be just another blonde bimbo and wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Some tough, unglamorous seasoning in the New York theatre followed.

This steely, uncompromising spirit and clear-eyed sense of purpose reportedly came from Faye's mother. Married to an inconstant, career enlisted man, she instilled in her daughter the idea that better things were possible even as the family led an itinerant, rootless life. Faye left a rough childhood (spent mostly in rural Florida) with an intense yearning to prove her mother right as an actress.

Several years later, she had paid her dues and was ready. In 1966, when Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty were casting the original "Bonnie and Clyde", they first approached most every bankable female star, including Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood and Tuesday Weld, but for one reason or another they all fell through.

Finally, they took a chance on a newcomer who likely ended up bringing more to the film than any of those others could have. As Diane Keaton did in "Annie Hall" a decade later, the blazing young Dunaway merged seamlessly with her character, and as with "Annie", her wardrobe (particularly the beret she donned) even started a brief fashion craze.

Overnight, Faye Dunaway was a movie star, with an Academy Award nomination to prove it. In truth, with apologies to Katharine Hepburn- who received the award on largely sentimental grounds for "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner", with hindsight it's clear Faye should have won it.

From that first role, and extending through the five additional classics she'd complete over the next decade, Dunaway consistently projected a powerful combination of mystery, vulnerability, and toughness. Viewers sensed immediately that this was a woman you trifled with at your peril. She was strong, formidable, even dangerous- in short, a match for most any man. Her physical beauty notwithstanding, she was the perfect heroine for the feminist seventies.

Duff's rather pathetic crack about Faye's relative obscurity and loss of looks today unwittingly reinforces the lingering problem of how female stars continue to advance in their careers after a certain age, a challenge male actors never face to the same degree.

Faye has continued to work over the 30+ years since she won her one and only Oscar (for "Network"), but the roles, including her over-hyped turn as Joan Crawford in the 1981 biopic, "Mommie Dearest", have never lived up to her best work from the late sixties/early seventies.

On this special birthday, I hope Ms. Dunaway derives as much satisfaction from having done these six timeless films as we take pleasure in watching them.

(And Hilary- if you can, watch, listen and learn.)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)- Loosely based on the real-life exploits of the infamous 1930's-era bank-robbing couple, this film follows cocky outlaw Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and renegade moll Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) from love at first heist to their legendary demise in a blaze of gunfire. Embarking on a cross-country crime spree with Clyde's brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), Clyde is hailed as a Depression-era hero, but the gang's days are numbered as they try to outrun and outgun the coppers. With its gritty outlook and unapologetic celebration of anti-authoritarianism, Arthur Penn's brilliant "Bonnie and Clyde" helped usher in the New Cinema of the '70s. Skittish about the film's violence, Warner Bros. almost soft-pedaled the movie's release into an early, anonymous grave, but producer/star Beatty fought to make sure audiences got their say--and of course, they loved it. In just her third film role, Dunaway captivated men and women alike, holding her own scene by scene with veteran star Beatty. Her costumes also set off a brief retro-twenties fashion craze. Ocar nods went to Penn, Beatty, Dunaway, Hackman, and Parsons, but only Estelle took home the prize. Also look for Gene Wilder in a key supporting part.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)- After suave tycoon Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) plans and executes a bank robbery for his own amusement, crack insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Dunaway) is assigned to the case. As Crown and Anderson cautiously circle each other, suspicion mingles with the laws of attraction. Will romance or justice win the day? This sleek, stylized movie's chic trappings and star chemistry still comprise a winning formula. It's fun to see the usually scruffy McQueen dressed to the nines in the title role, but Dunaway's the revelation. Stacked up against the wily, macho Crown, Vicky is his match in looks, confidence, and brains, so the inevitable seduction feels balanced and mutual. "Crown" is a sexy, suspenseful cat-and-mouse game waged between equals, with a nifty surprise finish. Innovative split screen cinematography from Haskell Wexler and a romantic Michel Legrand soundtrack make this one of the top "sixties time capsule" films. Don't miss that chess game sequence!

Little Big Man (1970)- Arthur Penn's incomparable western epic details the (fictional) reminiscences of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), the last remaining survivor of Custer's Last Stand. The expansive story sounds more like the lives of ten men, as Jack gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians, then assimilates to white, and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while encountering Western characters Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer himself. Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our treatment of the Indians, "Man" is a dazzling accomplishment, a vivid tapestry of all the opposing qualities that made the old west the basis of so many great movies. In a virtuoso turn, Hoffman plays Crabb from teenager to 121-year-old man, and early on, even gets a bath from a sexually repressed Christian lady (played winningly by a stunning Faye). Don't miss this offbeat, tongue-in cheek gem- it's a Western with a difference.

Chinatown (1974)-
Hired by glamorous Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) to snap incriminating photos of her husband, private dick J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he's on a routine investigation of spousal infidelity. It turns out Evelyn is actually the daughter of powerful baron Noah Cross (John Huston), and the seamy revelations only mount from there, drawing Jake deeper into a hornet's nest of incest, betrayal, and corruption in seedy 1930's Los Angeles. Cynical, brooding, and knotted with mystery, Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" is not just one of the best films ever made about the City of Angels, earning a dozen Oscar nominations--it's also one of the most superbly crafted, post-'40s noirs you'll ever see. The cast, of course, can't be beat: Dunaway is at one jittery, seductive and impenetrable, Nicholson is at the top of his game as the Chandler-esque former cop Jake, and Huston delivers a titanic performance as the arrogant Cross. Watch for Polanski himself as a knife-wielding thug with a grudge against nosy people.

Three Days Of The Condor (1975)-
After his colleagues are assassinated in their anonymous Manhattan headquarters while he's at lunch, CIA analyst Joe Turner (Robert Redford) goes on the lam to ensure he's not next. Forced to provide Joe with cover, innocent photographer Kathy (Dunaway) is at first a frightened hostage, but eventually comes to trust Turner as he tries to discover why he and his team were targeted. Sydney Pollack's tense spy thriller ranks as one of the best conspiratorial dramas of the '70s, a time when- not surprisingly- government mistrust was at an all-time high. Redford is in his prime as baffled, low-level spook Turner, and the sparks fly with co-star Dunaway, whose initial terror and eventual thawing happen with finesse and subtlety. With excellent supporting turns by Max Von Sydow and Cliff Robertson and great Manhattan location flavoring, "Condor" delivers gripping suspense all the way.

Network (1976)- Diana Christensen (Dunaway) is a type A network television executive who rides the wave of an unfolding ratings sensation broadcasting deranged televangelist Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final performance). Beale hits a chord with disillusioned Americans, urging them to chant his mantra: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." But the Beale phenomenon may not last, as Howard's ever more bizarre rantings signal an emotional breakdown in the making. Sidney Lumet's devastating, disturbing satire of the modern broadcast age (written by Oscar winner Paddy Chayefsky) still has a lot to say thirty years after release. Beyond portraying a business that bypasses quality in single-minded pursuit of the dollar, television serves as metaphor for a society mired in sensationalism and greed. Dunaway is commanding in a caffeinated performance as the ruthless Diana, an aging William Holden unusually affecting as a washed-up veteran of TV's glory days, and Finch a revelation as the unbalanced Beale. Both Faye and Finch snagged Oscars for their work here; Finch's was awarded posthumously.

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