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She's been the glamorous monster often enough—tyrannizing bank tellers in Bonnie and Clyde, TV execs in Network and even Argentina in NBC's Evita Perón last February. But nothing Faye Dunaway has done before comes close to perfecting the illusion the way she does it as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Playing the neurotically compulsive screen legend in the scathing film treatment of Christina Crawford's 1978 best-seller, Dunaway, at 40, eerily captures the Crawford whose charms turned into disgraces under pressure.

And yet for Dunaway the characterization of Crawford was much more complex than the book allowed. Adopted (and disinherited) daughter Christina painted her mother as a raging egomaniac—a pathologically clean, sex-crazed, alcoholic child abuser who adopted her children as publicity ornaments. Dunaway does all of that; her triumph is that she found—and conveys—a reason for Crawford's bizarre behavior.

Without condoning the abuses, Dunaway sees Crawford as a Hollywood victim. "She was getting older, had suffered a number of miscarriages, her career was sliding. She had to fight," says Dunaway. "Christina may disagree, but I think Joan must have felt that Christina was undergenerous of heart. Crawford was born poor and grew up scrambling, Christina didn't." Still, the sight of a berserk Dunaway angrily hacking off Christina's golden locks, whacking her with a wire hanger and choking her to near unconsciousness leaves audiences bruised and critics hot or bothered. The New York Times touts Dunaway as "an Oscar winner," while Variety flogs her for a "high-camp" desecration of a star. The film, like the book, unsettles, disillusions, provokes.

Nor was Dunaway herself immune from its discomforts. The mother of a 16-month-old son with English photographer Terry O'Neill, 42, her lover of four years, Faye found it practically impossible to beat her movie child as the script required. "She used to wake up at night petrified," reports O'Neill. There were other nightmares. "If your mind is on a woman who is dead and you're trying to find out who she was and do right by her, you do feel a presence," says Dunaway, who read obsessively and interviewed Crawford cronies like Myrna Loy and director George Cukor to prepare for the role. "I felt it at home at night sometimes. It wasn't pleasant. I felt Joan was not at rest."

Sometimes it seemed unpleasant for everyone. Though Christina (now recovering from a stroke in August) only once visited the set and Faye avoided a meeting, they fought for their respective interpretations through the men in their lives. At Faye's request, O'Neill was named executive producer and Christina insisted on the same deal for her spouse, film producer David Koontz. Wails producer Frank (Silver Streak) Yablans: "I had two husbands to deal with. David driving me crazy that Faye was trying to sanitize Joan, and Terry worried we were pushing Faye too far and creating a monster."

Like Crawford, Dunaway is known as a fearsome perfectionist. Her Chinatown director, Roman Polanski, labeled her "a gigantic pain in the ass." "She's incredibly demanding," says Yablans of reports that she made the Mommie Dearest set a battleground, "but I'll take her any day over someone who doesn't care. I would work with her tomorrow and forever." Faye freely owns up to her flaring temper. "I really like things to be done right. I'm like Joan in that way."

Faye admits to certain parallels in her own life and Crawford's that contributed to the fierce ambition common to both stars. "I was very driven," she states. Both poor and from broken homes, each developed an early self-sufficiency. Faye's dad, a Florida farmer turned Army career man, moved out when Faye was 13. The divorce was bitter. "I don't see him now," says Faye, though she has only praise for her mother. Thanks to her encouragement, "My brother and I are the only two in a family of 24 grandchildren who finished college." Brother Mac, 38, is a Washington lawyer who handles her business. "We're all very close," she says proudly.

Always determined to be an actress, Faye graduated from Boston University and put in three years at New York's Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center before attracting attention in off-Broadway's Hogan's Goat in 1965. Bonnie and Clyde, her third film, followed in two years and made Faye a star. But bad pictures and the wrong men followed. Her well-publicized romance with the married Marcello Mastroianni, her co-star in the 1969 flop A Place for Lovers, ended in part because he refused to father her child.

"I was very much a victim of the American Dream," explains Faye, who discovered success doesn't "guarantee that you meet the right man, love the right person, have a family life. I realized I had been consummately driven and involved in work only." In 1974 she married rock singer Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, but career commitments caused frequent separations, and Faye entered analysis.

Then O'Neill showed up to photograph Dunaway and Wolf for a 1977 PEOPLE cover story. "We fell in love," says Faye simply. Of her failed marriage, she explains: "It was finished before I met Terry. It was just a question of two lives that we'd hoped would come together and didn't on any real level."

Faye credits Terry with being "the one person responsible for helping me grow up to womanhood and a healthy sense of myself." What's his secret? "Just loving and understanding her, I guess," says Terry. "The film world is the toughest business. Now she's started to see more of life and have more of a feeling for the world."

Neither claims things have been perfect. "Obviously there was a lot of disruption in both our lives," says Faye of their mutual divorces. Dunaway claims the secrecy about her pregnancy and son Liam's (the name in Irish for William) birth was to smooth Terry's divorce from actress Vera Day and to protect his relationship with his own two children, Keegan, 8, and Sara, 15. "I can be very quiet when I want to," she smiles, though the press did note her growing chubbiness, putting it down to a bad diet. The secrecy was so complete that reports circulated suggesting Liam was actually adopted. O'Neill denies the assertions, but the adoption rumors persist. "I've always wanted children," Faye says now, "but my relationships always seemed so complicated. As it happened I'm happy I did wait because I'm glad Terry's the father." They'll soon try for a sibling for Liam. "I've still got a few years," grins Faye, "and we've always loved the name Claire for a girl."

There are even prospects for the wedding they said would take place last June. "We're hoping to arrange it before Christmas," Faye enthuses, "but I haven't had time to plan it. We've been working nonstop for six months." Although born a Protestant of Scottish, Irish and German descent, Faye is considering converting to Terry's Catholic faith, which could further delay the wedding date. "We have to have my first marriage annulled even though it wasn't a Catholic ceremony," she explains. "I want to raise my son in a religion I truly believe in." And that's certainly not the Hollywood faith. "I would hope Liam wouldn't be involved in that world," she says. "But, God knows, I wouldn't forbid anything. I just want to give him a normal, varied life."

These days she's sharing all decisions with O'Neill, who is moving from photography (he received more than $20,000 for shooting Ringo Starr's marriage to Barbara Bach) to a new role as a producer. They have several projects in the works, including film versions of John Jay Osborn's novel The Man Who Owned New York and the quartet by Ford Madox Ford (a Dunaway favorite), Parade's End. They are also considering a remake of another show business corruption tale, 1957's Sweet Smell of Success. Particularly intriguing to Faye is a possible return to Broadway this spring in a play based on the life of 1920s actress Jeanne Eagels, who died of a heroin overdose. "I began on the stage and I will go back there," she insists.

In the meantime, Faye and Terry (aided by a nanny, secretary and maid) hole up in the New York apartment she's rented for 14 years. Overlooking Central Park, the eight-room aerie contains various bird, plant and animal etchings, Degas and Rockwell posters, ancient wooden icons, Faye's Oscar for Network and piles of scripts that neatness-crazed Crawford would have filed away long ago. They own a New York town house. "I'm house mad," Faye confessses. "Terry and I share that, plus a love of history, architecture and travel." They also have a flat in London and recently sold an $800,000 Connecticut mansion because Faye prefers staying in the city. Their social life tends more to intimate restaurants like Laurent and Mr. Chow's than to gaudy niteries ("We don't go to discos").

Today Faye sees herself "as starting on a second phase of my professional life, just as Crawford did, but," she adds quickly, "with more help and less agony. It has worked with Terry, thank God, and I'll certainly be with him for the rest of my life, which I hope is a lot of years." There's no hint of the movieland Medea when she adds, "I'm the healthiest and happiest I've ever been."