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- March 28, 1977
- Vol. 7
- No. 12
Will She Win the Big O?
She Wants the Oscar but Her Marriage to Rock Musician Peter Wolf Comes First
The woman was Faye Dunaway, and within moments she coped gracefully with the oily ogle of an Arabian sheikh, the nosy questions of a reporter, and a hasty jotting brought by a waiter from the ABC board chairman, who sat at a nearby table. "Congratulations!" the note said—as well it might. After a decade of irrational sprints and skids, Dunaway's career is burning up the Glory Road. Las Vegas odds make her a 5 to 8 favorite (over Norway's Liv Ullmann) to win an Oscar next week as Best Actress of 1976 for her supercharged but eerily subtle study of a TVirago in Network. Box-office reaction to that picture and to such recent Dunaway vehicles as Chinatown, The Towering Inferno and Three Days of the Condor has boosted her fee for each film to the "magic million" that denotes the superstar.
Rattlesnake cheekbones, swampfire eyes, huge stealthy energy: At 36, the boy-girl of Bonnie and Clyde has evolved into a mysteriously disturbing image of woman. "She has the greatest face of them all," says a photographer friend. "You can watch it for years and never see the same expression twice." And behind the face a big, dangerous talent spins webs of gleaming illusion that can hold an audience breathless while she works her will. "She has that twice-as-big quality," says Network's scriptwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. "She belongs up there with the great ones—Hepburn, Davis, Garbo."
Greatness did not always appear to be Dunaway's destination. For five years after Bonnie she chose roles as emotionally as she chose lovers, but after Oklahoma Crude and Marcello Mastroianni something happened. One night at a rock concert in San Francisco she heard Peter Wolf, the songwriter and lead singer with the J. Geils Band. "His performance electrified me. His movements were incredibly fast and unexpected. I felt I had to get to know him." She did; the voltage stepped up. "He was so dark, so vivid. That pale skin against his black hair! And his velvet eyes! I thought, 'he's a Black Prince.' He was intense but gentle, wild but kind."
He was also three years younger, but they found their interests matching, their temperaments complementary. Faye, despite her success and experience, was still at heart an Army brat who grew up on military posts and spent her teens as the survivor of a broken home in a small southern town: shy in company, naive in practical matters, anxious to please, depressed when she failed to. Peter, the product of a stable upbringing in the Bronx, had a street sensibility and was witty, upbeat, widely read, many-talented. Before taking up music, he spent three years on scholarship at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
One day in late 1974, after two years of closeness, Faye and Peter took a long walk on the beach at Malibu. "We had both been afraid that two careers would be too much for one marriage," Faye remembers, "but we both wanted to try. So we talked about what we dreamed of being and doing, what we were afraid of. At one point I stopped and turned to Peter and said to him, 'I believe in you.' That walk was a turning point for us."
Next day they were married, and for a year Faye turned down all offers of work. "We had a 12-month honeymoon. I was in the clouds." But the second year she made Voyage of the Damned, Network and Sister Aimee, a TV drama about Aimee Semple McPherson. She and Peter were both busy, preoccupied, separated for weeks at a time. They missed each other, made demands, resented it when the demands were not met. They began to quarrel. One day in Canada, where Peter was performing, they took another long walk, this time along a river that had dried up into a bog—"My God," Faye says with a shudder, "was that symbolic!" The tension became unbearable. "Suddenly I saw we were wrecking our marriage. 'Peter!' I said, 'we've got to stop this! Right now! It will destroy us!' That was another turning point. We both saw how much we meant to each other and how little our irritations were in comparison to that. We also saw that marriage was something bigger than we had bargained for, that it was time to make a deeper commitment. That was when I really began to change."
Faye says marriage has changed her "through and through," and Dunaway watchers agree. The change began at home. With the help of a psychoanalyst, Faye was able to experience marriage as the root of her life, her career as an essential branch. Systematically, she reorganized her career to fit her marriage. "When you stay apart," Faye believes, "you grow apart." She and Peter also decided to set a wide moat between their public and private lives. First off, they agreed to live away from Hollywood—"I can't grow," Faye says, "in a company town." Then they decided to keep two apartments, one in New York, the other in Boston. (Faye had also studied there; she took a B.F.A. in theater from Boston University.) New York was a base for doing business; Boston was home.
In this contemporary tale of two cities, the New York chapters are usually shorter. Once every week or two, alone or together, they hop the shuttle to New York to "do a blitz," as Peter puts it—see lawyers and accountants, take in shows, cruise the shops. All last week, for instance, Peter and his band were shut up dusk to dawn in a Manhattan recording studio "mixing" their next album. Faye flew down twice to see him at the New York flat, a spectacular but not glossy seven-room affair with a postcard view of Central Park, a wall of Rauschenbergs and a Duchamp print in the bathroom. Both times she grabbed the 9 p.m. shuttle back to Boston.
"I love Boston," says Faye. "The heat's off there. People recognize me on the street, but they allow me my privacy." Peter adds: "And where else can you have the Celtics, Indian pudding and Yankee sensibility?" To visitors the Boston residence comes as a shock. "You just don't expect," says a friend, "to find a screen queen and a rock star living together in a four-room apartment." Faye and Peter chose it for its tight security, a must for the famous these days, and its heart-of-the-Hub location. "Home to me," Faye muses, "is a womb, a quiet, closed space where I re-create myself. I unwind here. I putter. I garden. I cook a veal-and-chicken dish Peter loves. Sometimes when I'm not on a picture I don't turn in till 4 or 5 in the morning, then I may sleep till 2 in the afternoon. I work at home too, thinking out the projects and parts I want to get into. I live here on all the deepest levels."
For breakfast Faye usually has tea (but sometimes a Coca-Cola), and she usually has it in bed while talking long-distance with Peter if he's away. When she talks she waves her arms and frequently splashes the quilt. In the evening one of the five other J. Geils Bandsmen might drop by, or a friend like Tennessee Williams when he's in town, or Marie Cosindas, the photographer. Faye and Peter often have dinner at the home of William Alfred, a Harvard professor-playwright who has been Dunaway's mentor since she starred in his Off-Broadway hit, Hogan's Goat. He makes a spectacular burgoo (Depression stew).
Marriage and a quiet home life have not altogether sedated the tempestuous Dunaway. She still executes some mighty swift lane-changes in her rented Aspen, still wears expensive clothes with slapdash unconcern, still impatiently empties her purse on the floor of an elevator when she can't find her house keys. Recently, after a long hard day, she peeled back the Hamadan rug on her living-room floor and, giving a sharp right turn to the volume knob, rocked through a grinding, growling, sock-it-to-the-cheap-seats imitation of the old Elvis Presley.
Nor has the amorous tigress lost her hunting instincts. "Something in me," she admits, "wants everything—and in my business there are a lot of very attractive people. But you can't have everything and keep the one who matters most." As for the Oscar: "Yes, I'd like to win. It would be a nice present. But my life doesn't depend on it. What matters more is that I know where I'm going in my work." Faye's instinct for career management has in fact grown since her marriage. "Over the years I've lost a lot of money. Peter showed me where I'd been manipulated—in fact just plain lied to. He went with me to a big meeting and he was amazing. Quiet but devastating. I got everything I wanted."
Faye also found a new lawyer, a new accountant, a new agent. "Nobody has power of attorney now. I sign everything. I'm in control." She has set up her own production company and is developing three properties, among them her own screenplay. Her longer-range plans include directing, producing, helping to establish an American National Theater—a subject on which she buttonholed Jimmy Carter last August in Hollywood.
"A star today has to take charge of every aspect of her career," Faye says. "There are no studios left to do it for you. Yes, you have immense freedom and financial rewards, but the risks and responsibilities are on the same scale. As the star, for instance, it's up to me to take responsibility for the mood on the set, and since my marriage I've developed the steadiness to do this."
Faye's new calm has also strengthened her performances. "My deepest feelings have always frightened me," she confesses, "but now I can face them more easily and use them in my work. As the feelings well up, I feel somehow bigger. I want to play bigger people now. Large, vital, mainstream characters who live on a lot of levels at once and are going through dramatic changes, just as I feel I am.
"I feel my work and my marriage nourish each other and reflect each other. They are two ways of living, exploring, growing. When I work I work like a demon, but before very long I would like to take 18 months off and have a child. The human heart is for me a labyrinth that goes on and on, and I want to explore its turnings as far as I can go."
November 23, 2015
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