Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Biggest Mother of Them All

This ain't your first time at the rodeo; some of you recognized our latest Mystery Guest as full frontal Faye Dunaway! The mask was made for the film adaptation of Christina Crawford's poisonous memoirs, Mommie Dearest (1981), which effectively killed off two careers: Joan Crawford's, and Dunaway's. In spite of its critical drubbing, unintentional hilarity, and general ineptitude, the film's bizarre, fascinating hold on the public's imagination ensured that Crawford's regal reputation would go into a tailspin from which it still hasn't fully recovered; and that Dunaway would spiral from Oscar-winning superstar to straight-to-video industry joke almost overnight. Thirty years later, the names of both Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway are still inextricably connected with Mommie Dearest.

"I really hate talking about Mommie Dearest! It is like an obsession with people! Why do people need to focus so much on one film I made over 20 years ago? It was not a great time in my life and the film was not an experience I want to think about. Period!"

In all fairness, even before the biggest mother of them all came along, Dunaway's career was marked by wild inconsistency. Her one-two knockout punch of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) was followed by the disastrous A Place for Lovers and The Arrangement (both 1969); the brilliant Chinatown (1974) and Dunaway's Oscar-winning turn in Network (1976) were bookends for such glossy, all-star pap as The Three Musketeers (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Voyage of the Damned (1976). But Mommie Dearest really ensured that Hollywood was Dunaway with Faye; her next film was the costume flop The Wicked Lady (1983), and such was Dunaway's infamy at this point, it was decided to not show her face in the advertising!

One can only imagine Dunaway thumbing through the script for her next picture, Supergirl (1984), and thinking to herself, "Why not? They want camp -- I'll give 'em camp!" Perhaps looking for a silver lining in the Mommie cloud, Dunaway decided to send up her over-the-top image by purposely camping up a storm as the villainess, Selena. Unfortunately, intentional camp almost always falls flat, and Supergirl was a super-flop.

Since then, Dunaway has had the occasional minor success -- a Golden Globe nomination for her downbeat, deglamorized performance in Barfly (1987); an Emmy win for a guest appearance on Columbo (1993) -- and very public disasters of epic proportions. Dunaway's own, highly-touted sitcom, It Had to Be You, premiered in 1993, and was yanked after only four, critically-reviled episodes. The following year, Dunaway was set to make her musical theater debut in what promised to be her best role in years: Norma Desmond in the Los Angeles production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard. Dunaway was to take over the role from Glenn Close, who had triumphed as Norma on Broadway. It never happened; Lloyd Webber abruptly decided to shutter the musical after Close's final performance, rather than possibly subject Dunaway to "great embarrassment," due to what he deemed her inadequate musical chops. Ouch.

An oddly static ad campaign for Norell fragrances in 1998 introduced the beginnings of some seriously wonky plastic surgery to Dunaway's public; within a decade, her once-fabulous face had become virtually unrecognizable. Another high-profile misfire was The Starlet (2005), a short-lived reality competition show about young Hollywood hopefuls. Faye was the bitchy celebrity judge, a la Janice Dickinson; her would-be catch phrase was "Don't call us; we'll call you." Unfortunately, Dunaway's own phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook.

Today, Dunaway continues to make small films which no one ever seems to see (Say it in Russian? The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi?), as well as the occasional television spot. And in spite of the spectre of Mommie Dearest which continues to loom, Dunaway just can't seem to stay away from other complicated, highly-strung, iconic women: her next role is playing no less a diva than Maria Callas in the long-awaited film version of Terrence McNally's Master Class, which Dunaway successfully toured with in 1997.

The enigmatic Klee was the first to recognize the lifelike visage of Miss Dunaway; we are caught without a proper prize, but hey -- we never promised you a rose garden!

We love that you seem to get into these Mystery Guest segments; if you have any photos of potential future guests that you think might stump the panel, please send them to us. As always, thanks for playing, darlings!


  1. But what of The Eyes Of Laura Mars, surely one of the greatest films of all time? How could you not mention THAT? (To quote Dunaway in that film "I don't buy it!")
    Actually, despite her complete inappropriate-ness as JC, I always feel very tender for Faye re MD. She did her best...
    "But Mommie Dearest really ensured that Hollywood was Dunaway with Faye". Hahaha, very good!

  2. Tough but fair on Faye. I love that photo of her with the phone. She was great in an 80s play 'Circe and Bravo' in London - but I didn't attempt to see her at the stage door afterwards! She was very nice and chatty on an interview here in UK about 2 years ago (on Jonathan Ross show) promoting a movie that never even opened here - but he only wanted to know about her famous co-stars,so she gamely went on about Paul, Steve, Marlon, Jack, Robert, Warren etc. I hope her Maria Callas project finally gets done - like Julie Christie and 'Away from Her' Faye deserves one last roll of the dice before she hits 70!
    PS: did you ever tell us who wore that dress from a while back?

  3. and a bit more: I think Faye became too associated with the 70s and that hollywood excess period. I love her late 60s goddessy glamour (The Arrangement, A Place for Lovers, Thomas Crown). Her Milady in the Musketeers fims is a terrific villainess but she shouldntg have done The Wicked Lady remake, it trashed her career even more than Mommie Dearest!

  4. I have been told by more than one theatre friend that her performance in Master Class was the best thing they'd ever seen EVER and they can't forget it. (And I hate myself for not finding a way to see it. She toured in my town!) I presume that's why she's been pushing for a movie version of it ever since, but it would take very strong direction and good production values for it to really amount to anything. And what works on the stage doesn't always translate well to celluloid. I wish her luck!

  5. NEVEH! In a million yeahrs would I have guest (in my best impersonation of my inlaws Boston accents) this is Faye!

  6. I've always felt bad for her about her busted career. To have starred in several iconic movies and then to make "Supergirl"? Did she lose a bet? dDid she just need the money? Did someone have incriminating photos?

  7. Have to admit, looking at the mask, I still can't see Faye in it. Nevertheless, I'm even more hesitant to admit that I LOVED Mommie Dearest. I remember being a little boy in the 80's and watching it everytime it was on HBO. I suppose that natural attraction to camp explains a lot that came aferward...

  8. Rob - With a rock theme song by Barbra Streisand, no less. I'll have to revisit that one soon.

    Michael - The dress reveal is here .

    Poseidon - I've heard two extremes: that her Callas was the best thing they'd ever seen; or that it was the worst thing, ever. The criticisms mostly stem from the overt "hardness" Faye brought to the characterization, without any of the wit or humor that the brilliant Zoe Caldwell had (I saw her on Broadway, and was enthralled), and which the real Callas often displayed in her interviews. From what I understand, Faye's film version of Master Class is self-financed and [gulp] self-directed, which makes me wary of the whole affair -- and also would seem to indicate that she still can't people to work with her, or studios to back her.

    Cookie - Watch the opening scene of MD again, where her make-up free face is being painted for Ice Follies of 1939. Then you'll see the resemblance.

    Topaz - It's been a long time, but I seem to remember that Supergirl was intended to be a pretty Big Thing at the time; it just didn't quite work out that way. And it would seem that Faye was at least trying to have some fun with her Camp Goddess image in the wake of the MD debacle.

    Scooter - Oh, honey, I loved MD as a kid, too! And every now and then, I revisit it. But it disturbs me what potential was wasted on it, and the horrific repercussions it's had. These are my major faults with the film:

    1) It has no clear point of view. Is it pro-Joan, anti-Joan, or neither? The abuse scenes paint Crawford as a gorgon, yet she's also drawn as oddly sympathetic.

    2) The supporting cast is subpar. Faye is over-the-top in the best of circumstances, but she really seems off-kilter when the rest of the cast seems to be under heavy sedation. Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid, as young and adult Christina, are both so wretched, annoying, and sullen, you wind up rooting for Faye/Joan to whack 'em even harder.

    3) The production values aren't what they're cracked up to be. Despite its vaunted costume and set design, the whole thing looks cheap and slapdash to me. It looks more like a high-budget television film than a major motion picture. And Joan would never have worn some of those costumes.

    4) The direction is pitiful. Not only do the sets look cheap, but often claustrophobic because of the static set-up. Fred Perry allows Faye to go completely bonkers, while allowing the rets of the cast to woefully underplay. And there's no continuity whatsoever -- it seems like a series of vignettes edited together, rather than a linear story.

    5) It's become the definitive (for some) reference on Joan Crawford, which is a tragedy and a shame -- especially because I don't think that either Faye's resemblance to Crawford, or her characterization in general, really captured the actual Joan. Faye looks like Faye Dunaway with weird eyebrow wigs rather than Joan Crawford. And even her bravura "Don't f*ck with me, fellas!" scene is much more Faye than Joan: Miss C had some brass balls, but I seriously doubt she ever used the "F" word at a Pepsi board meeting.

    There are flashes of pure brilliance in Faye's performance, and if the film had had a better screenplay, and a more capable director, true magic might have been made. What we're left with is a cartoon which made a travesty of one Great Star, and completely derailed the career of one who might have been a truly Great Star.

  9. I actually appreciate the way that MD veers from anti-Joan to pro-Joan, at least to an extent. I think that was the film's attempt at fairness and at nuance, though, clearly, it fails miserably in the latter respect. Overall, I think that's what it needed most, and a director that could have told Faye to pull it back a little. It has moments of great cinema in it, and I tend to take it a little too seriously myself, but I don't think its as bad as people think it is. It's more sad than campy to me, and I think the fame of the wire hangers scene truly killed it before it even opened. I bet it was used heavily in the trailer and got people laughing before they gave the film a fair shot.

    That being said, Joan clearly deserves a better biopic that would get more at the heart of her personality (but please no "childhood incident that explains it all!!!"). She was terrible, but she was also fabulous, strong, could be generous, and was well liked by certain people.

  10. I too was waiting for "Eyes" to be mentioned since it's one of my faves. I agree with you about MD. It's a dreadful film. But it struck a nerve, for better or worse. What used to gall me was how often the scene where she slaps her daughter was shown on video in gay bars for years, with a sickening repeat-trick that showed the kid getting pummeled over and over again. I once asked the vj why he thought it was necessary to subject people to images of child abuse and he said "because it's funny." It was NOT funny. But the fact that people think it is is even more sickening than the scene itself. P.S. Supergirl ruined Helen Shaver's career as well.

  11. boy was I wrong! I said Marcello Mastrioanni. Loved Three Days of the Condor with beautiful Robert Redford. And can't forget the original Thomas Crown Affair with the sexy Steve McQueen. Yum!

  12. Wow, I didn't know she hated Mommie Dearest so much.. it makes me sad. And I don't even remember The Starlet.. I will have to check that out asap! I DO however remember Supergirl.. so great. I think Faye is really on her way to becoming a VIP eccentric diva and I love it!!


  13. No prize needed. I just got myself a brand new MD DVD at BigLots for $3.00! (Love my word verification: "roysperm"!)

  14. Saw Ms. Dunaway in Master Class when she was doing the tour. She was fabulous.........I have always like her and to see her on stage was grand.

  15. my my, it seems klee won big time. well, good for you honey, you earned it! i just hope that roysperm was all it's cracked up to be.

    once again tj, wonderful drama! enjoyed your musings regarding MD, can't say i don't agree with you. wasn't anne bancroft originally offered the role? would've been such a different movie.

  16. I also saw her in Master Class and she was a force of nature. I was very moved. I also loved her mix of sophistication, cool and vulnerability in 3 Days of the Condor.

  17. Perfect comments on MD, TJB - it is indeed a cartoon with no linear narrative ...

    I also love Faye's telephone rant (as broadcast on the internet and youtube) and one roots for her here as she is indeed correct about others trashing her.

    She did a nice little french thriller too in 71 - The House Under The Trees (or The Deadly Trap?) but it was thrown away as a supporting feature, with Barbara Parkins and Frank Langella.

  18. Have you seen some of the recent photos of her, showing her without makeup? Astonishing. Great post, and thoroughly and very well done. Thanks.