Faye Dunaway

Tough Act to Follow

UPDATED 05/08/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/08/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

At 54, a difficult diva shows off her sunny side

FAYE DUNAWAY IS IN A BIT OF A mood—and who can blame her? It's Oscar evening in L.A., there are just a few hours left to get ready for the post-Awards party at Morton's, and she's stuck in rush-hour traffic. After seven hours at a photo shoot, Dunaway, 54, is peeved that she's missing the televised entrances of her fellow actors. And her assistant won't stop sniffling. "You've got to do something about those allergies!" she tells the young man at the wheel. "Surely there's something you can do."

He doesn't bother answering, and Dunaway soon loses interest in his upper-respiratory distress.

"What are we doing at Wilshire Boulevard?" she asks. "Where are we? Where were we?"

Wherever they are, Dunaway is soon certain the other lane is the place to be. "Get over there," she instructs. "Now. Go. Get over!"

The young man obeys, turns a corner and, before long, starts to slow for a red light. Big mistake.

"Go! Go!" Dunaway commands in her gravelly baritone. "You can make it!"

Clearly, riding shotgun is not this girl's game. Dunaway, who first shot her way into stardom 28 years ago in Bonnie and Clyde, likes to be in control—even if only in a supporting role in a small ensemble movie. In the just-released Don Juan DeMarco, Dunaway plays the gentle, retiring wife of Marlon Brando (a friend whose recent family tragedy left her, she says, feeling heartsick) with consummate skill. "When someone suggested Faye to play this warm, rounded homebody," says director Jeremy Leven, "I did not think, 'Yeah, Faye is perfect,' because I didn't think she was. She's always got this edge to her." Her audition—she traded her usual Armani duds for a plain cotton dress and reading glasses—changed his mind. But then, what Dunaway wants, Dunaway gets.

Usually. Her attempt to tackle weekly TV on last season's sitcom It Had to Be You lasted through four episodes—a long run compared with her shot at the musical stage. Hired last May to replace Glenn Close in the Los Angeles production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, Dunaway worked doggedly to prepare herself for her singing debut—only to be fired a couple of weeks before her July opening because, Lloyd Webber claimed, her voice wasn't up to the role.

The actress sued Webber for defamation, fraud and breach of contract, and walked away with a settlement presumed to be hefty. (She's not saying how hefty, but Patti LuPone received a reported $1 million to $3 million when she was told she would not take her starring Sunset role from London to Broadway.) Dunaway also feels she gained the support of the Hollywood community. "I felt a kind of empathy and rooting for me," she says. Still, the experience did not leave her unscathed. When her friend and then business manager Bob Palmer first broke the news, he says, "she was kind of stunned and disbelieving. She said, 'No, there must be some way to salvage this.' " Then, "as it sank in," says Palmer, "it really hurt her."

Ironically, it was her desire to show such real-life emotions that led Dunaway to risk trying comedy, a musical and the uncharacteristically gentle Don Juan role to begin with. "I'm not comfortable with the forms that I've been pushed into at various times in my career," she says, alluding to her image as a Really Scary Superstar. Her standoff with director Roman Polanski in 1974's Chinatown (she had to be kept off the set for three weeks after they got into an argument about an out-of-place strand of hair) is a cornerstone of the Dunaway diva legend. Her turn as a ruthless TV executive in 1976's Network (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar) and her campy-cruel portrayal of Joan Crawford in 1981's Mommie Dearest reinforced her reputation. Says Dunaway of the larger-than-life women she has spent a lifetime portraying: "They were so far from who I am."

Who, then, is Dorothy Faye Dunaway of Bascom, Fla.? To the photographer's crew with their light meters and cans of hair spray at the pre-Oscar photo shoot, Dunaway was every bit the prima donna—whose contact with the little people amounted to "Don't stand there, love. Shoo! Don't be where I can see you." To Don Juan costar Johnny Depp, though, Dunaway is a misunderstood artist. "She's just uncompromising as an actress," says Depp (who, after all, has occasionally been misunderstood himself), "and I think that's a positive thing." After leaving her employ last year because he found her too difficult to work with, Bob Palmer sees both sides: "Most people she's worked with will say something like, 'I love her, but of course she's a pain in the ass.' "

Dunaway views herself somewhat differently. Like the character she plays in Don Juan, she says, she is simply a real woman. She had a real mother, Grace, a devout Methodist housewife, and a real father, John, now deceased, an Army sergeant who moved his family (including her brother Mac, now 52, a Washington lawyer) across the country from base to base. As in many other families, says Dunaway, there were real problems: "It wasn't a very happy marriage." Her parents divorced when she was 13. She, her mother and brother settled in Bascom; her father stayed in the Army and later remarried.

Grace, who now lives in South Carolina, wanted her daughter to stay and marry her high school sweetheart. Dunaway had other plans. "I had this hunger to be an actress," she says. She enrolled in the University of Florida to study theater, then headed to Boston University, where a teacher passed on what has become the actress's professional mantra. "If anything can stop you," she told Dunaway, "let it."

Nothing could. In 1965 she got the lead in William Alfred's Off-Broadway hit Hogan 's Goat, and the next thing Dunaway knew, she was sitting in a getaway car next to Warren Beatty, spraying lawmen with bullets. "It was massive what happened to me with Bonnie and Clyde," she says of her first Oscar-nominated role. "Everywhere I went, people looked like me, wearing berets or whatever I was wearing. It was strange. But it was great too."

Less great was the family life she struggled to create for herself. In 1973 she met Peter Wolf, then the lead singer for the J. Geils Band. A year later they married. "We had a 12-month honeymoon," she told PEOPLE in 1977. "I was in the clouds." In '77, succumbing to the strains of dual careers, the couple divorced. Within months Dunaway met husband No. 2, British celebrity photographer Terry O'Neill. In 1980 they had a son, Liam, and later they all moved to London. "Faye went over there for Terry," says William Alfred. "She did everything to make things easy for him." Yet the couple split in 1987. "I really don't know what happened," says Dunaway. "With both Peter and Terry, we grew in different ways."

Back in Hollywood the last eight years, Dunaway has done her share of dating. But the only significant guy in her life is the strapping high school sophomore who calls her Mom. "Liam has a really good sense of humor," says Dunaway. "And he's a good basketball player." She visits him at boarding school in Massachusetts as often as she can. Liam stays with O'Neill in London during part of the summer, but when he comes to L.A., he and his mother hang out, shooting hoops at home and going to the movies. "Being a mom is really important to Faye," says Palmer. "Of course, Faye being Faye, she probably goes overboard on that too, sometimes."

Oh, that again: Dunaway Dearest. The actress might not deny moments of mischief on the job. "I think I must have made every mistake in the book," she says. "But you learn from your mistakes. I think I'm a more reasonable person now." In keeping with the downscaling of her diva lifestyle, she recently moved out of her New England-style home in Beverly Hills and into a smaller Mediterranean rental in West Hollywood. There she works out with a trainer five times a week, reads (she just finished Anita Brookner's Dolly) and waits for good things to come: the party at Morton's; a game of one-on-one with Liam; and maybe, someday, a different sort of one-on-one with a grown-up guy. "I haven't managed to make marriage work yet," says Dunaway with a laugh. "But I haven't given up."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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