Playing the Diva

Faye Dunaway turns out to be as capricious in person as she was onstage in Los Angeles recently playing Maria Callas.

It says something of my high regard for Faye Dunaway that, minutes after meeting her, I blurt out an apology. "I wanted to look nice for you," I say, smoothing down my new Ralph Lauren jacket. "But I don't, do I?"

Thankfully, Dunaway hears none of this. She's summoned to the phone as I start to speak and rushes from the room much the way, minutes earlier, she'd rushed into it. Dunaway rushes a lot. And when she isn't rushing—poised on the edge of her seat, trying to suppress her nervous energy—you can tell she's wishing that she were. This is a woman who has trouble being still, a woman—in the words of movie director Elia Kazan—who goes through life ever wrapped in clouds of drama.

Kazan is only partly right. Clouds of drama don't just envelop Dunaway: They envelop all who cross her path as well. I'm a case in point. It's taken months to set up this interview at the home she's renting in Los Angeles. But then, just hours ago, she's had a change of heart—the first, it turns out, of many.

At 10:30 a.m. I called to confirm I'd be seeing her at four that afternoon as we had arranged. I assumed an assistant would answer the phone, but to my consternation—I'd yet to don my new jacket—I found myself talking to the star herself. And she wasn't in the best of moods. "Not at four," she said in imperious, Lady Macbeth—like tones. "Three-thirty."

Flustered, I asked her to confirm the address I had been given, but she cut me short. "I can't talk," she barked. "I'm on the other line." And with that, she was gone. Metaphorically speaking, Faye Dunaway had just rushed from another room.

I was off to a bad start. Romantic that I am, I had imagined I'd get on famously with Dunaway. Although a mere 15 in 1967, when Bonnie and Clyde was released, I promptly fell in love with her. And with each succeeding movie, my passion grew: After seeing Chinatown in 1974, I'd have died for this woman; and when Network opened two years later, a friend reminded me recently, I announced with great solemnity that were she ever to give me the nod, I'd kill for her as well. I'd got Dunaway at a bad moment, I assured myself. We'd smooth things over once I reached the house.

I left my hotel room at 11 o'clock, not to return until 7:30 p.m. In my absence Dunaway's publicists left three messages. At 11:32 publicist one called to announce a change of plan: I was now to meet the actress at the Doolittle Theatre at five o'clock and, he added, I'd be spending 45 minutes with her, not the hour I'd been promised 10 days earlier. At 12:35, another message, this one from publicist two: My "in-person interview with Faye Dunaway" would now take place at 4:30. At 2:42 it was the turn of publicist one again, concerned that I hadn't returned their calls: "If you get to Faye's at three-thirty," he said, "she'll turn you away."

Oblivious to all this, I turn up at Dunaway's—sweating a little; it's abominably hot—at exactly 3:30. When I passed the house yesterday, it struck me as so shabby, I thought it abandoned (which is why I wanted to check the address): Much of the lawn was burned a bright yellow, the trim needed painting, and—unusual for Beverly Hills—there wasn't a car in sight. But now, as I step inside, it proves much more pleasant. An amiable Brazilian woman, Dunaway's cook, shows me into a large, wood-floored room with several Shaker-style chairs, an aging beige-colored couch, and a massive television set. (There's another, just as large, in the room across the hall.) On a coffee table are old copies of Variety arranged neatly in a row and a book about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the so-called father of efficiency. The windows are open, and a single fan is running.

Faye Dunaway enters. With those long legs of hers, she strides into the room as if walking onstage: intense, focused, about to play Medea. Although 56, she is still a great beauty. Her shoulder-length hair is a glossy light brown, and her face has the kind of delicacy Botticelli was so good at capturing. She does not extend her hand. Which is probably just as well. I might refuse to let it go. She's dressed to go out in white slacks, a black top, and a gray-green linen jacket. And she's thin. Gym thin. No-dessert-for-me thin. Massive-self-control thin. I get a tiny premonition: This isn't going to be at all easy.

"We have been trying to contact you all day," she says, her voice less imperious now, albeit still commanding. But she's smiling, which makes me relax a little, even though it's a tight smile—the kind that you learn in acting class. And then she utters three words writers hate to hear. "Something's come up," Dunaway says. "Why don't we do this in the morning?"

I really don't think this is such a good idea: Dunaway is notoriously elusive; if I agree, this will be the last I see of her. Changing tack, I ask politely what's preventing our talking now.

"I have to go to the manicurist," Dunaway explains, glancing down at her perfectly sculpted nails.

"That's no problem," I say. "Why don't I come along?"

For a moment Dunaway looks like Garry Kasparov outfoxed by Big Blue. "That's a good idea," she says none too happily. "Why don't you?"

I find myself listening to her voice. It's the kind Eleanor Roosevelt had—aristocratic and intended to ward off challenge.

The Brazilian cook brings Dunaway a glass of pink lemonade, which she declines. "We're going out," she says, pushing up her sleeves in the manner of one with work to do. "Give me a diet Coke for the car." The cook seems perfectly comfortable with Dunaway, which is not the way I'd describe the actress' two assistants. Young, female, and obviously apprehensive, they scurry about, eyes averted. They remind me a little of nuns. It strikes me suddenly that Faye Dunaway is probably not someone I'd want to work for: This is a woman who, whether she is aware of it or not, likes to intimidate.

Leaving isn't easy. Dunaway's 17-year-old son, Liam, is staying with her, and one of his friends is visiting. (Liam is her son by her second marriage, to the photographer Terry O'Neill. The couple is now divorced.) It's been agreed that all three should meet somewhere later, but just where no one can decide. Several places are suggested, and then Dunaway and I get into her Mercedes-Benz roadster. Immediately she remembers something.

"I will only be a minute," she says getting out of the car. "I want to give Liam a cell phone."

She gets back in the car once more, but only briefly because she's mislaid a list of some sort. A search is instigated, in the middle of which I have an attack of claustrophobia—those roadsters are tiny—and I get out too. It's several minutes before I'm breathing normally again.

Dunaway is on the front porch issuing orders. "Meet me at the theater at six- thirty," she tells her cook, and then hands Liam's friend a pocket computer. "Check what time I should be at the manicurist."

"How?" says the girl.

"Type N-A-I-L-S and press enter."

Her two assistants are looking decidedly harried. And at one point, her son—a reserved young man who doesn't speak much, got most of his schooling in England, and is very close to his mother—rolls his eyes in what appears to be mock exasperation. The cook alone is unaffected—the still, calm center in all this hubbub. I find myself growing irritated.

"You say in your autobiography that you've simplified your life," I tell her, sounding more curt than I intended. "This doesn't look simple at all."

Faye Dunaway is in Los Angeles to appear in Terrence McNally's Master Class, a play about the great opera soprano Maria Callas. When you do a play, that's all you do, Dunaway is on record as saying. You perform, sleep, eat; perform, sleep, eat. "About four in the afternoon, you begin to feel the character descend on you." I check my watch. It's already four-thirty. Any minute now, she is going to metamorphose into La Divina, and I'll have come 1,500 miles for nothing.

Now we're both sitting in the roadster again and Dunaway becomes flirtatious, leaning over and touching my hand. "I've been thinking," she says. "The manicurist is not the best place to talk. Why don't you come by at nine-thirty in the morning? I'll give you half an hour."

"Half an hour? I read your autobiography all the way through."

"In that case I'll give you an hour. But be warned," she says, playfully raising an eyebrow. "You may find me dishabille."

"I've always thought people at their best dishabille," I answer, as gallantly as my claustrophobia will allow.

She offers to drop me at my hotel and starts the engine. Thank God, I think, we are finally going to get out of here. But before we do, there are last-minute directions for the cook regarding dinner: "Give me two ounces of mushrooms and four ounces of bean threads." And then she changes her mind. "Make that four ounces of mushrooms and two ounces of bean threads."

"If you don't eat properly," she tells me, "it affects your energy level. You are an athlete when you're onstage. You can't get tired."

We are driving down Santa Monica Boulevard now, and I start to relax. Here I am in Beverly Hills, I think, sharing a car with Bonnie Parker. Since it's a 15-minute drive to the hotel, I suggest that we talk on the way. I begin with a few innocuous warm-up questions to put her at her ease. Why, when they worked together, on Chinatown, did Jack Nicholson name her "Dread"? She thinks for a moment and laughs. "You know," she says. "I've really no idea."

I then ask about an uncle of hers—he's mentioned in Looking for Gatsby, her 1995 autobiography—who, when she was a child, would push her on the porch swing if she let him "thump" her big toe. (The incident is important, she writes, because it taught her that nothing in life is free.) "What does toe-thumping involve?" I want to know.

"It was a joke," she says, sounding a little chilly. She's no longer smiling.

"No toes were ever thumped?"

"No, they weren't." She's frowning now. I've managed to annoy her. So to play it safe, I return to Chinatown: Wasn't it interesting that despite her difficulties with Roman Polanski, the director, it would turn out to be one of her greatest films? But instead of being appeased, she bristles.

"You've asked three questions now," she says, "and all three have been negative. If you don't mind, I'd rather we discussed Master Class."

Although I'd been warned that Dunaway could be uncooperative, I felt suddenly resentful. This woman treated Dennis Rodman with more respect than she was treating me. A few weeks before our interview, Rodman was her fellow guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and I worried that the basketball star might do or say something that would embarrass her. He didn't. She and Rodman, she told Leno, had talked backstage, and she had liked him. He was, she said, a very sweet man.

Well, I'm sweet too. So why is she behaving so badly? But my anger is momentary: This woman has an ego as big as the Ritz, and yet as hard as she tries to browbeat people, there's something fragile about her, something that needs protecting. So I swallow hard and discuss Master Class, now on the Los Angeles leg of a national tour. (A film based on the play, which Dunaway will not only star in but also produce, goes before the cameras later this year.)

Dunaway, who describes herself as "a poor Southern girl from the wrong side of the tracks," has made a career of playing sacred monsters: driven characters consumed by a will to succeed. Bonnie Parker was one; Diana Christensen of Network a second; and Joan Crawford of Mommie Dearest a third. Callas, in whom the actress sees aspects of herself, is yet another. Speaking of the singer's mother, Dunaway says, "By all accounts she was a woman who pushed her daughter from an early age. And then you have this incredible hunger in Maria, too, that I think was also there. So where one began and the other took up is hard to know sometimes."

The parallels are striking. Dunaway's mother pushed her, too, insisting that if she worked hard and refused to compromise, "I would achieve my dreams." Born in the Florida panhandle in 1941—she weighed a mere four pounds at birth—Dunaway's great desire growing up was to escape her impoverished background. (For weeks at a time, dinner consisted of tomato gravy.) As she puts it in Gatsby: "My mother's passion for something more, to write a different destiny for a dirt-poor farmer's daughter, was to shape my entire life."

But an even greater influence on the young girl was her often-absent, philandering father who, after he left farming, became a cook in the U.S. Army. It's because of him, she feels, she has trouble trusting people. (Dunaway has been married twice—first to Peter Wolf, lead singer of the J. Geils Band.) Many of the problems people experience, she tells me, are the result of taking into adulthood "things that should have been taken care of when one was a child. Unless you come to terms with your past . . . it haunts you, and you never leave it."

Success came quickly to Dunaway. After attending universities in Florida and Boston, she joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Company in 1962 and then, just four years later, made Bonnie and Clyde, the film that would make her an international star. Numerous movies followed, among them The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Little Big Man (1970), The Three Musketeers (1974), Chinatown (1974), and Network (1976). In the last named, she played a ruthless television executive with only one goal: "a thirty share and a twenty rating." The performance earned her an Oscar.

Taking a corner just bit too quickly—I glance down and notice that my knuckles are white—Dunaway makes the point that, as much as she's explored the character of Maria Callas, onstage she is not re-creating the soprano.

"Sometimes I feel I fall into her, sink into her. It's a balancing act, acting. She's always there, and I hope I sound like her. I hope I move like her. I hope that I am somehow interpreting who she was without impersonating her."

Dunaway has special reason to make this distinction. She blames Mommie Dearest, the 1981 film in which she played Joan Crawford, for stalling her career. Though many praised her performance in that movie—Debra Winger is said to have watched it six times—it produced a backlash, many confusing Dunaway with the character she played and deciding that they didn't much like either.

The hostility left Dunaway shaken, and in the early 1980s she and her son and husband moved to England for several years. She was tired of Hollywood, she said, and tired of celebrity. She wanted to reinvent herself; what she craved now was simplicity. She stopped wearing expensive clothes, she trimmed her staff, and she began analysis again. By the time she returned to the States she was, she felt, a new woman—more mature, more accepting, and more at peace with herself. She credits her son, Liam, for much of this. He taught her to laugh more. "I'm still not too good at it, but I'm getting better."

We've reached my hotel now, and Dunaway drops me off. "I like the Four Seasons," she says. "It's a nice hotel."

"Yes," I reply, adding for no reason I can think of: "And it is very discreet." You're an idiot, I think to myself as she speeds away. Now she thinks you were trying to lure her to your room. I go straight to the bar.

It's 7:30 when I finally get to my room. Several messages are waiting: the three I've already described, and a fourth that arrived at six o'clock. It's from publicist number two: "I apologize that the interview didn't happen today and that you only had twenty minutes with her. Call and let me know your schedule tomorrow and possibly we can do this over the phone due to Faye's very busy schedule."

Well, that's that. But I'm wrong. I go to bed about 12:15 and have just fallen asleep when the phone rings. That Eleanor Roosevelt voice again. Faye Dunaway Superstar. But a less commanding Dunaway this time. She sounds—I can hardly believe this—contrite? Yes. She has called to apologize. She can't see me at 9:30 tomorrow morning because something's come up. (Not another manicure, surely.) She hopes I'll understand. Maybe at some point we can talk on the telephone. She sounds tired and cast down and, for the second time that day, I feel a sudden rush of sympathy. This is a woman under the gun, a woman who returned to the United States in the late '80s intending to turn her career around. As she demonstrated in Barfly (1987) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995), her skills remain prodigious. But her other recent films have been beneath her. The second blossoming has yet to materialize, and Dunaway must wonder sometimes if it ever will. I say "sometimes" because, for all her setbacks, she remains an optimist. Like Gatsby, whom she's fond of quoting, she clings to the belief that "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—"

Eric Lawlor wrote about Horton Foote in the March/April 1997 issue.