Faye Dunaway: Sometimes Cloudy, Sometimes Clear
All of us have, Tenn believed, a set period of time during which we can do what we do. We have a few stories, a few characters, balls in the air. We can juggle them only so many times, so many ways. The balls begin to drop. One gets lost, and then another. "I was," Tenn told me, "in that year of 1973, a playwright with one ball, and I no longer juggled with it, but slammed it against a wall, and it kept bouncing back in my face."
William Inge sat, wealthy and insensate, in a chilled house in the Hollywood hills, without a ball to his name. "I laughed at his inventory of characters and plots all those years," Tenn confessed, "but he worked with as much material as I did, but in failing to surround himself, as I did, with colorful people and alarums and chants and lies, he stopped lying to himself much sooner."
As producers and actors came to him with set designs and motivations and "new ideas" for A Streetcar Named Desire, Tenn met a young Juilliard-trained director named James Bridges, who showed him notes for a twenty-fifth anniversary production that would star Faye Dunaway and Jon Voight, two blond, well-meaning film stars, "ambulatory boiled icing," who no longer had any concept of how the theatre worked.
"And," Tenn quipped, "neither did I."
When she was first announced as a possible Blanche, Faye Dunaway was not so much an actress or a woman or a person to Tenn, but a construct, a prop that one rented or leased from some vault on the Fox or Warner Bros. lot, and it had been overused, over-tested, placed in too many hands to judge its effectiveness, attractiveness, relevance.
While she had been trained for the stage, and while Tenn had seen her in small parts in Elia Kazan's Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center and in William Alfred's Hogan Goat, as she took on the role of Blanche DuBois, Faye Dunaway had been lost to us. She had stepped down the most treacherous road there was, looked into the most beguiling mirror of them all. "We had lost Faye to Hollywood," Tenn said. "A lot of people work there, and a lot of people like it there, but some people commit to it fully, and nothing good happens. That had happened to Faye."
Tenn thought of her as a dirt-road girl, born to an Army man and a housewife in Florida in 1941. Tenn imagined her hometown to be Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings territory: Rawlings, the author of The Yearling, wrote of simple, poor people, working the land, searching the skies, praying for rain. Tenn imagined a bored and restless young girl, whose good bones and strong will got her out of the sticks and into the graduate program at Boston University, and then an offer to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
"Faye is an artistic grind," Elia Kazan told me. "She is the theatrical equivalent of the student who reads all the books in the syllabus, checks all the source notes, and then goes beyond that to read other supplementary materials. Her sense of comfort is threatened if she feels that she can't know the most about a subject, control it, command it."
In an eerie appearance on the Tony Awards program of 1980, on which presenters discussed their early employment as understudies, Dunaway told the audience that, as Barbara Loden's understudy in After the Fall (under Kazan's direction), she had crept among the catwalks, watching every move the actress made, slack jawed in wonder at the performance. In reality, Kazan told me, Dunaway was envious of the actress (with whom Kazan was intimately involved and would soon marry) and literally subsumed her performance, should she ever assume the role. "She was obsessive," Kazan said, "and that often works, but it is often debilitating."
Dunaway dabbled in analysis, looked at all of the methods of acting instruction, and she took what she felt worked, argued about it, felt it intensely. When she was cast in Hogan's Goat, in 1965, she adopted the play's author, William Alfred, as her literary and intellectual mentor, returning to him and his comfortable, cluttered home in Boston (where he taught at Harvard) to discuss her scripts, her take on roles, her place in the theatrical firmament. Her mind, according to most of the people who worked with her in these times, was good, but Anna Sokolow, who taught Dunaway for a time, was appalled at the lack of control or interest the young actress took in her body, its movement, appearance, and care.
"I can spot a rigid mind by looking at the body," Sokolow told me. "Everything is ultimately manifested in the body, and it all stems from the mind. A person who has true control over the mind, who has balance and discipline, who cares for the mind, will have a body that corresponds: It will be limber and open to movement....[her] body only responded to touch and to dieting. She will have problems. She has no sense of her body and how it works, and she cannot simply command it to do as she wishes."
Stardom came to Dunaway with the release of Bonne & Clyde, a film Tenn loved, and he marveled at her voice, rich and creamy, its tones both musical and white-trash Southern. "I love it when she begins her seduction of the hapless partner [Michael J. Pollard]," Tenn remembered. "She looks at him and says 'We rob banks,' and each word is a different tone, a different intonation. She's a little girl playing big, putting on airs, showing off, and she's also knowingly sexual, giving the ugly hick a good time."
Tenn lost interest in her film work after Bonnie & Clyde, and he could only stomach snatches of The Thomas Crown Affair, The Arrangement, Little Big Man, Doc, or Puzzle of a Downfall Child, a film of such unceasing badness that it became riotously funny to him. "So,"Tenn concluded, "here we are in 1973, and Faye--and to some extent Jon--were given to me with their expiration dates showing--as was mine. There was a very clear sense that the trajectory was off, they had taken some bad detours on the road they had followed, and my play, this fragile play, was their reclamation project, their good-faith effort, extra-credit work to get back into the good graces of their employers. To prove themselves. And I, ironically, was in a similar position."
James Bridges, a soft-spoken "sweet boy from Arkansas," had completed the film The Paper Chase, and he was full of good intentions and ideas, but he was not, as Tenn remembered, in a position to take on this play with these actors at that time. Bridges had limited stage experience, and he came to his role as director of Streetcar far too open, far too amenable to ideas from everyone, particularly Faye Dunaway.
"I think that Streetcar, more than any of my other plays," Tenn said, "requires a very strong person, in any role that is taken--acting, directing, or otherwise. It is a very uncomfortable play. It asks tough questions, and it reveals unpleasant things about people, about all of us watching or reading it. I got the feeling that serious commitments were not involved in the production."
Tenn liked Dunaway; was, in fact, fascinated by her. Only thirty-three years old when they met, she already had a keen sense of time and its effects on people, its perpetually slipping away. Tenn noticed her rigidity, her insistence on keeping to schedules, to routines, but only those that directly applied to her: she had no problem missing appointments that mattered to others. "She had the star's system of telling time and tracking time," Tenn told me, "which is to say that she told time by when she got somewhere or needed something or did something. That is when time mattered, began, counted." Dunaway had fashioned a religion, a set of circus-show mirrors, that helped her get through life and work. Her religion did not involve prayers or good works or deep contemplations, but a thorough examination of daily trade papers, box-office grosses, trends among ticket buyers, polls on the desirability or disabilities of her peers. "I'm in the business of making deals," Tenn once overheard Dunaway telling someone, and that is how she saw every opportunity: a package to be maximized or amortized to her greatest benefit, aimed for a payout or a prize. During the time Tenn and Dunaway knew each other, she was on the verge of a comeback, although she would never have used that word. Dunaway did not, and perhaps still does not, see that she has made poor choices or might not appeal to people: the fault is with others, with poor perceptions, with people who failed to adequately "sell" her work, make it known, explain its intentions.
Tenn had wanted to write a profile of Dunaway, for the book that he felt he could write, and he dictated words to me about this "fascinating, mercurial" actress.
There is about her at all times the disconcerting but gripping spectacle of seeing her mind operating, one moment cloudy, then blindingly clear, crystalline, focused. My faith in her stems from having seen the intelligent, instinctual actress she can be, perhaps wants to be, and my affection remains because I have seen the frightened, insecure little girl--Carson McCullers physically perfected--afraid of what she can't know or might be found to lack. When she is seeking, when she is truly curious, she is sweet and open and pliant, but knowledge transforms her; the acquisition of whatever she sought changes her, and she moves on, frightened, combative, fleeing the time knot. In this regard, I understand her completely.
Dunaway's approach to Blanche perplexed Tenn, and he compared it to a paint-by-numbers canvas that might have been designed by a mentally challenged, color-blind child. "The blocks of space--numbered and waiting for paint--that she placed on her idea of Blanche were many," Tenn told me. "The colors did not match. There were too many colors, and the colors were techniques. One scene was redolent of Michael Chekhov; another pure Stanislavsky; another Method acting by way of the Comèdie Française. So many methods, procedures, and my Blanche was extruded through all of this, painted on this wild canvas." Tenn wanted nothing more than to throw turpentine on the canvas and clean it up. "My turpentine," he explained to me, "would have been reason and human understanding. I would have liked for Faye to try to understand the woman, the human, that was Blanche, but I felt that everything was a career move, a stunt."
"And yet," he continued, "I love and admire her. There is talent and potential and worth in that woman. I have seen it; I have experienced it; I have loved it and benefited from it. Away from the worlds we inhabit--the pernicious theatres that have claimed us--she is wildly smart and fun and giving. I have laughed with her and thought with her as deeply as with Magnani. I have discussed life and its many, shall we say, appurtenances, with as much dark humor and understanding as with Mo [Stapleton]. Faye has unleashed in me something very rare--a desire to protect and nurture. I would like to write plays for her, and be up deep into the night with the right director and the pure intentions I know are buried deep within her. There have been abuses in the personal and professional life of this woman, and I want to somehow erase those and bring her forth as the artist she wants to be, and which I have briefly glimpsed."
In talking about Dunaway, Tenn came upon the idea of a profile on what he called the "raw girls, the girls who came to the art of acting smart and scared, wild and ambitious," but who got lost, who became mired in the "seductive cults that appear, at first, to be stepping stones to art, possible escape from the pain they have known, aid and comfort," but which are, in fact "dead ends, blind alleys, dances of delusion."
Tenn asked me for a favor: "Please tell Faye that I love her and would like to talk to her, that I am reaching out and want to work with her, learn from her. Most of all, tell her that I love her."