My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1967: Faye Dunaway in "Bonnie and Clyde"

One aspect that is often criticized about Meryl Streep’s career is that she never starred in a true classic. Sure, this topic is debatable – The Deer Hunter or Out of Africa have surely secured a place in movie history and Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, The Bridges of Madison County or The Devil Wears Prada are small classics to some extent. But would one of those movies truly enter a ‘greatest movies of all time’ list? Maybe The Deer Hunter would but even if it did – Meryl Streep would be hardly the reason for it since her character is always put in the second row behind the male stars of the movie. But if there is an actress who has a large share of movie classics on her resume, it is certainly Faye Dunaway which seems so strange considering how completely downhill her career went after her peak in the 70s. Still, three leading roles in Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown and Network are much more than many other actresses would ever dare to dream of. But even though Faye Dunaway clearly played an important part in this decade, she is hardly ever considered one of the definite actresses of her era as the 70s seem to belong to Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn or Diane Keaton. Maybe the iconic status of her movies overshadows her actual work in them and make her a just one part of many in these classics, not exploring her actual contribution and the quality of her work itself. And it’s easy to see Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown or Network as movies that exist as a whole and that make it difficult to point out a specific factor that contributes to them. It seems that, like co-nominee Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, the images of her screen performances are more famous than the performances themselves – Bonnie Parker holding a gun and putting a cigar in her mouth, Evelyn Mulwray wearing a black had with a veil in front of her eyes or Diana Christensen following moments of insanity on TV with a thrilled combination of scheming delight and ruthless calculation. But it’s not difficult to go beyond those images and discover the rich, complex and intelligent creations that Faye Dunaway realized and how she left her mark on these classics, not only playing a part in them but actually adding to them with her work which was always shaped by her domineering and uncompromising screen presence that could express joy and vibrant energy as well as mysterious aloofness or cold, icy and uncaring emptiness. And all these qualities helped her enormously to achieve one of the most definite star-making turns in movie history – her electric confidence on the screen, her ability to turn herself into the unchallenged image of a well-known character and the iconic nature of her movie all resulted in a performance that is as noteworthy for its contribution to the overall tone of the movie as well as its dedication to be a part of its style.

Even though Bonnie and Clyde is another movie that turned 1967 into one of the most celebrated years in movie history, a mile stone most noteworthy for the way it brought new angles, perspectives and styles to Hollywood, the idea of putting an infamous gang of criminals into the center of the plot, portraying their point-of-view and not only following these people but actually turning them into a kind of anti-heroes, left a bad aftertaste for many contemporary critics but Bonnie and Clyde never intended to be the kind of biopic that audiences were used to but deliberately took a loosely approach to re-interpret a familiar theme for a new are of filmmaking. Bonnie and Clyde is an almost joyful presentation of crimes and murder, mixing the seriousness of various situation with unexpected comedy, providing a soundtrack that gives car-chase scenes an entertaining feeling and turns Bonnie and Clyde into likeable, charming, attractive and adventurous characters that can easily convince the audience to follow their side and create a strange, sometimes uncomfortable but still strong connection. Bonnie and Clyde never pretends to be a completely fact-based presentation of the life of these two people and the eventual members of their gang but always puts greater emphasis on the way it presents their life, taking deliberate freedom to tell their story in an experimental way, challenging the audience with a combination of entertainment and alienation. And while Bonnie and Clyde may start out as an experimental and romanticized presentation of this story, the second half of the picture clearly and drastically shows their eventual downfall, de-humanization and deaths without trying to evoke any pity or sympathy. So the picture does give some answer to the mystery of Bonnie and Clyde – even if it’s not an honest one. The characters of Bonnie and Clyde are not only mystified outlaws but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway also added various other aspects to bring the audience on their side – dissatisfaction with their lives, a complicated love and a glamorous appearance that nonetheless hides complex and fully developed characters. Therefore Bonnie and Clyde is not the kind of biopic that depends on actors to not only re-create their real-life characters but rather copy their voices, looks and mannerisms. The names Bonnie and Clyde might be well-known but their actual behavior, characters and even looks are not. And so, like the picture itself, the actors could take a lot more artistic freedom, rather creating themselves a picture of these characters and shaping the viewers’ opinions and thoughts instead of fulfilling their expectations. And all this seems to be especially true for Bonnie and Clyde’s leading lady as Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker almost stands as a symbol for the film itself – but also for the real-life character. The image of Faye Dunaway, modeling 30s outfits and always ready to shoot if necessary, has by now basically become the image of Bonnie Parker, too. As stated above, it might be easy to overrate these images and forget Faye Dunaway’s efforts behind them but the way she immediately establishes these images is an important part of her overall performance creates a chilling and intriguing atmosphere of both authenticity and make-believe. It’s a rare case when a performer almost replaced the real-life character, re-defining it completely instead of re-telling its story. Faye Dunaway and Bonnie Parker have become one – but the reason for this is less her actual acting but rather this creation of images and the strong standing of Bonnie and Clyde as a film classic that seems to have a patent on their story and characters, even more so than the actual characters themselves. Bonnie and Clyde has somehow created a version of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as how they apparently should have been, that made it possible to follow their crimes and murders and yet still find them fascinating. And while Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway benefit from a movie that does everything to help them in this aspect, their charm, star personality, joyfulness, honesty and ultimately dramatic tension makes it clear that Bonnie and Clyde is not only a certain style or theme but also completely depends on its actors to realize this message and bring the central characters to life in a way that supports the movie without letting them be overshadowed by it.

Looking at Bonnie and Clyde’s Oscar nominations, both the importance and the success of the cast becomes visible very quickly – with 5 acting nominations, Bonnie and Clyde joins a handful of other movies that share this record, movies like All about Eve, On the Waterfront, The Godfather Part II, Mrs. Miniver or Tom Jones. And this honor makes perfect sense – the dynamic between the whole cast is the motor that keeps Bonnie and Clyde going and every actor adds to the overall success of the movie with dedicated precision. Estelle Parsons won a well-deserved Oscar for portraying Blanche, the neurotic member of the gang and the anti-Bonnie who lacks everything that her sister-in-law displays so easily. For Gene Hackman, Bonnie and Clyde was the same kind of star-making picture as it was for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and while Michael J. Pollard might be the least-known member of the cast, his work was just as deserving of the Academy’s recognition. But while the whole cast works on an equal level, Faye Dunaway somehow emerges as the most equal among them. The reason is that, more than any other member of the ensemble, she becomes a symbol for the tone and atmosphere of the story – radiant, romantic and glorious in the beginning, tragic and miserable in the end. She may always have to take a step back to Warren Beatty’s Clyde as the most central and deciding figure but Faye Dunaway’s screen presence and natural instincts work extremely well and help her to show Bonnie’s influence as well as her independence and self-determination – Bonnie is always as much her own person as she is a part of a team. In some ways, Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie is influenced by the situations around her as much as she influences them themselves – when Bonnie is playful and relaxed, the movie also has a very content feeling, when she explodes with anger, the tension of the scene grows, when she cannot find a way to deal with Blanche, the impossibility of the their situation begins to become more apparent and when death and fear begin to haunt their lives, Bonnie’s desperation becomes the overwhelming vessel for the approaching tragedy. Both the movie and Bonnie Parker benefit from Faye Dunaway’s ability to constantly almost explode with energy while always working very hard on the continuity of her characterization which works in perfect harmony with the development of the picture. In her first scenes, Faye Dunaway quickly portrays boredom, dissatisfaction and anger combined with a fake superiority that seems to make her think that she is somehow above her surroundings. In these moments, Faye Dunaway uses her unique beauty and sharp personality to portray a certain distinctiveness in Bonnie that makes her sudden attraction and dedication to Clyde believable but also finds room to portray the ordinariness of Bonnie whose life as the inexperienced und uneducated daughter of poor parents in a little town during a time when almost everybody was suffering from financial problems would usually offer her not much more than an unfulfilling life as a wife and mother. But Faye Dunaway finds an appealing combination of Bonnie’s ordinary life of which she is a clear part of while not belonging into it at the same time thanks to her distinct personality and her desire to be someone else. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty had only a couple of scenes before Bonnie jumps into Clyde’s car, thrilled by his looks, his character and his crimes. And so both actors had to build the foundation of their whole relationship in these couple of scenes and both simultaneously succeeded in portraying their inability to become a part of their environment, finding unexpected fulfillment with each other. Faye Dunaway’s radiant beauty both fits and doesn’t fit into her environment and in this way she is the perfect match for Warren Beatty’s Clyde – he, too, seems to be too handsome for his surroundings, too out of place on the almost deserted main road they are walking on. Bonnie and Clyde are outsiders even before they meet. It’s always clear that these first couple of scenes are only meant as a quick set-up for the rest of the story but it was important that both actors would portray their mutual attraction and willingness to go away together to form the strong relationship that will shape the rest of the picture. And thankfully they both did succeed. Faye Dunaway’s sudden joy when she runs down the stairs, her teasing of Clyde, her embarrassment when he states that she works as a waitress and her sexual excitement over his looks, his talks and his action make it believable from the start that these two are destined to be together and Faye Dunaway’s sudden aliveness as she witnesses Clyde’s crime shows how quickly and willingly she becomes a part of his way of life. She makes it clear that two things attract her to Clyde – his looks and his crimes. Faye Dunaway’s acting style show all this in just a few moments at the beginning and keeps it believable for the rest of the movie.

Following those scenes, Bonnie and Clyde gives Faye Dunaway the chance to create Bonnie Parker as a woman who used her looks to maybe tease and play with Clyde but gets strangely insecure the moment she realizes that he will not respond to her sexual advances. Faye Dunaway used these moments to shed a different light on her Bonnie, slowing down the relationship with Clyde while deepening it at the same moment. She knows how to portray the confusion of Bonnie, her initial rejection and ultimately acceptance of his words – again Faye Dunaway has to use a short moment to show a fundamental shift in Bonnie and succeeds in it. From these moments on, Faye Dunaway uses her charm and bubbly personality to turn not only Bonnie but also Clyde into the adventurous, glamorous and almost adorable couple the movie wants them to be. For this, she uses an acting style that combines stylized moments which fit into the celebration of the central characters and a stark realism that adds to the believability of the overall story. Bonnie and Clyde is caught between old and new Hollywood and all performances combine an almost old-fashioned over-the-top approach with modern acting choices. Like few other actresses Faye Dunaway can create a certain danger in and around the characters she is playing, raising her voice to a threatening volume, switching her soft face into a hardened mask in one second. But Faye Dunaway wisely avoided to turn Bonnie into any kind of femme fatale – she always remains a very understandable character, acting out of primitive urges without any mystery hiding inside her. Faye Dunaway shows that Bonnie can be a stern killer, feeling no remorse or sympathy, and yet she is also a loving, kind and dreaming person, infusing her with shades of sadness and regret. But this does not mean that Faye Dunaway ever asks for any sympathy – instead, she is entirely honest in her interpretation but she is able to find different sides in Bonnie, demonstrating that killing and robbing is not a thrilling kick but instead she is driven by her desire to lead a different life, even if it means to kill to maintain it. And even when Bonnie is writing poems and reads them to the other members of her gang, Faye Dunaway never appears fake or anything else than sincere – in her work, Bonnie became a very honest person and therefore she also acts with a striking honesty in all situations. In addition, she always displayed a certain longing in her portrayal, displaying that Bonnie is a woman who never finds true fulfillment in life. And step by step, Faye Dunaway is changing the tone of Bonnie and Clyde after Clyde’s brother and his wife Blanche join the gang. As the life with Clyde, that used to be exciting and new, slowly turns into everyday life, Faye Dunaway displays how Bonnie begins to lose some of her spark and energy – but unfortunately, also Faye Dunaway herself begins to lose some of her fascination in these scenes. Faye Dunaway is an actress who needs a character and a script that constantly finds new angles and shades of her character, that supports her screen charisma and her ability to captivate the audience – but Bonnie becomes too straight-forward after the first unique impression begins to settle. Faye Dunaway knows how to portray Bonnie’s annoyance about Blanche, her frustration about never being alone with Clyde and her growing fear as the gang becomes more and more chased by the police and their lives change drastically over the running time of the movie – but her Bonnie doesn’t find the same captivating quality any more. She also has to face the disadvantage that, as Bonnie becomes more and more frustrated and begins to distance herself from the others, the movie shifts its main focus to the other players and allows the other character to unfold themselves, letting Bonnie slip in the background without letting her combine and display so many different shades again. Still, even in those moments, Faye Dunaway displays a great array of emotions and is able to turn Bonnie’s sudden desperation or her breakdown after having been shot at into quietly haunting and heartbreaking moments. And especially during the visit of her family when Bonnie realizes that she will never be able to get her old life back, Faye Dunaway finds the uncertainty and weariness of Bonnie in very silent, restrained moments. And her final close-up beautifully sums up her whole character even in the most serious situations – a comforting lock of love and understanding without any regret or self-pity.

Most of all, Bonnie and Clyde lives from the chemistry between Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Not just during their first scenes but for the entire movie the two actors craft the most important aspect of the movie, showing a doomed love that doesn’t work and yet still keeps these two characters together. Bonnie’s sexual frustration and clear admiration for Clyde finds logic in Faye Dunaway’s performance that throughout the movie underlines Bonnie’s inexperience and dependence on Clyde but also her strength and inability to completely comprehend his intentions and needs. But even if the love life of their characters might be complicated, both actors leave no doubt that Bonnie and Clyde would do everything for each other and need their mutual support and presence. Bonnie and Clyde are lovers, partners, friends, companions, accomplices. And Faye Dunaway finds the right balance to let Bonnie follow Clyde, guide him, support him, give him strength and demand his full attention. She gains Bonnie’s strength from her own work, turning her into a woman who exists on her own, is shaped by her relation to Clyde and influenced by her position in the gang. Overall, she plays her part with the right amount of emotions and a combination of over-the-top and subtlety that creates truly unforgettable moments of an unforgettable character. Faye Dunaway certainly benefited from the legends surrounding the real Bonnie Parker but she also created a legend on her own and bursts with confidence and energy to catch all the different sides of her character, naturally running a wide array of human emotions and catching the comedy and the drama of the movie, even if she might lose some of her impact in later parts of the story. It’s an almost playful but still grown-up performance that takes itself quite seriously but not too seriously to ever become pretentious.


Anonymous said...

Agree on Danaway's performance here. Interesting post. Dunaway actually (along with Fonda) was definite actress of the 70s. There was great rivalry between them. Tomas Crown affair, Little big man and three days of condor are also small classics. And for Meryl's career, i dont know... its impressive and unimpressive at the same time. Actually, her longevity is more impressive than quality of her movies.

Fritz said...

Thanks for commenting. Yes, in some ways Faye is one of the definite actresses of the 70s but I somehow think that it's more her movies instead of her performances that helped her to make such a hugh impression (no matter how great the performances are). In the case of Diane, Jane of Ellen I think it's more their actual performances that people remember...but it's just my opinion :)