Norma Dearest : Faye Dunaway became a star just as 'old Hollywood' was disappearing. With that perspective, who better to play Norma Desmond, the greatest star of them all? She's ready to risk the drive on 'Sunset Boulevard'

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

For Norma Desmond, aging silent screen star in "Sunset Boulevard," the advent of talking pictures spelled the end of her career.

Faye Dunaway saw Hollywood unofficially relieve her of her movie-star crown in the 1980s as she entered her 40s; looking back, she said she sometimes feared her own career might take Norma Desmond's downward spiral. Rather than face that crisis, in the early '80s she headed to England with son Liam and then-husband Terry O'Neill, spending nearly a decade away from the aggressive youth culture of the United States. Although she made occasional transatlantic treks to take roles in U.S. productions, she remained a virtual expatriate for most of the '80s.

Now 53--three years past Norma Desmond's age in "Sunset Boulevard"--Dunaway is getting ready to face one of her biggest career challenges. A month ago, she was named to replace Glenn Close on July 5 in her critically acclaimed role as Norma Desmond in the Los Angeles production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Sunset Boulevard," based on Billy Wilder's 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson.

Despite her escape to England, Dunaway always kept a hand in the U.S. film scene, taking occasional film roles, and doing plenty of work in television. Among her many TV credits was the critically acclaimed 1989 TV movie "Cold Sassy Tree" for TNT cable.

She stayed big. It was the screen that got small.


Now Dunaway has gone back to doing things big. She has landed one of the juiciest musical stage roles for women past ingenue age. Despite having no professional singing experience, Dunaway was the winner out of an illustrious list of candidates rumored to include Meryl Streep, Diahann Carroll, Shirley MacLaine, Diana Ross, Raquel Welch--and even Zsa Zsa Gabor. Dunaway now is busily training her voice in marathon sessions with vocal coach Bob Corff, and for the moment, she refuses to let outsiders hear her sing.

Dunaway said that, with a few additions, she will wear the same sumptuous Anthony Powell wardrobe Close wears in the show, but said she may go "bigger" with the character, and added that she has been in discussions with Lloyd Webber about how to make the character her own. "I won't be Swanson, I can't be Swanson, I'm gonna be me," she said. "But, maybe, it's going to be closer to what they did in the movie than what's currently being done onstage--I don't quite know yet.

"But I've already evolved certain things in terms of age, and (a desire to create) a kind of gossamer thing about her. Anthony has already given me more veils, more than I can play with, so there's illusion and reality--there's a face, but it's hidden."

Since it opened in London a year ago, the show has been a constant source of rumors. Patti LuPone, who portrayed the role in London and was originally signed for Broadway, got some negative reviews--leading to speculation that Close, not LuPone, would go to Broadway. Initially, Lloyd Webber and LuPone, as well as Close herself, denied it, but now LuPone has been paid off, and Close is packing her bags for New York.

Dunaway often turned up in gossip columns as a contender, but then so did many others. "Every time someone else's name was mentioned in the gossip columns, I'd get a hundred phone messages saying, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,' " Dunaway said with a frustrated laugh during a recent conversation over breakfast at the Hotel Bel Air.

"But it's because this is such an event , you know? I want to send a note to Glenn that says, this is because of you and Andrew (Lloyd Webber), who have made this such an event that people are just sort of . . . nuts!"

Dunaway said that, like any woman faced with getting older in Hollywood, she empathizes more than a little with the desperately fading Norma Desmond. Despite a career highlighted by acclaimed films such as 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde," which launched her career, 1974's "Chinatown" and the 1976 "Network," for which she won a best actress Oscar, Dunaway said that there have been enough failures, misfires (most notably portraying Joan Crawford in 1981's "Mommie Dearest," a campy celebration of black eyebrow pencil, shoulder pads and coat hangers) and dry spells in her career to make her know the fear.

"That whole decade of the '80s, I was really out of sight, out of mind," mused Dunaway. "I came back (from England) because I think I missed my country. So I think that was a period when I thought, well, I'm going to have to really see what I can do with this, sort of, final chapter.

"It (the role of Norma Desmond) is kind of a natural for me, in a way. I'm going to play her as 50, the age she was in the movie. I think there's something that Wilder was trying to say about a 50-year-old woman in Hollywood that does not apply to a 50-year-old woman in any other walk of life. You can be a great journalist when you're 50; you can be a senator when you are 50. You can be almost anything, except a model or an actress.

"I remember when I was 18, all I wanted was to be 25, or 30. And, I remember, as a New York Times article said then, that Barbara Stanwyck, for example, always seemed to be 38. The stars weren't young. You didn't see stars that looked like Julia Roberts. The fashion until recently was that the leading ladies were more, kind of, womanly.

"They used to be women, not girls. But then, by 50, they still weren't working."

And, Dunaway added, she connects with Norma Desmond for another reason--she knows a Hollywood lifestyle that may never exist again.

"I came in on the tail end of the star system, I think," Dunaway said. "The costumes, for example: For 'Chinatown,' for 'Bonnie and Clyde,' they were all handmade. . . . It was still like the old Hollywood. You don't get much of the old Hollywood anymore. I'm sort of a 'bridge' character in a funny way, you know. It's a whole arena that I'm familiar with."


Since "Mommie Dearest," Dunaway said, "I've absolutely shied away from doing a larger-than-life movie-star role. Because I'd attempted it once, and . . . I think my work was good in that movie, but it didn't tell the story of what really happens."

Music and lyrics provide Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" with the subtext "Mommie Dearest" lacked, Dunaway said. "More than the speech . . . it does reveal the soul of the woman," she said. "It's like a close-up in the movies. In an instant, you can reveal it. People don't say their emotions."

Dunaway said she hopes that playing Norma Desmond will, in some way, give her a chance to rethink the star syndrome of "Mommie Dearest." "It didn't work, it didn't come out the way we initially hoped, but we wanted to get at this thing that is stardom, and how insidious and powerful it is, you know," Dunaway said. "Judy Garland was killed by this star system--it was pills to keep you up, and pills to bring you back down."

While she considers herself a survivor, Dunaway said she knows Hollywood's power all too well. "You have people who perpetuate the illusion," Dunaway said. "People who will be able to get a raise in salary on your next movie if they keep you feeling that you're the biggest star. It's part of the business. And it has happened to me. I've had people in my life at times who (helped me) ostrich myself up, and I didn't really get to see what was happening. But (those people) live off you.

"You have to be strong in this business, you really have to be strong. I mean, the whole movie-making business is tough. It's very tough. The hours are really long, and what fracturing it does to your own reality is very tricky. I think there are some people who have it mastered, but there are tragedies.

"What happens is, in Norma's case--and I'm sure for me in some degree--there was a period in my stardom . . . where you are in kind of a cocoon, away from reality. But she was told that no, she was still the greatest star. She was still the greatest star.

"And when you live in an illusion, and that illusion is stripped away from you the way (Norma's younger lover) Joe Gillis does in the final scenes, you cannot accept it. And the truth smacks up and breaks you--and breaks you.

"In the end, her dream enfolded her. Just took her. It was the pain of having to face the truth."

Dunaway--whose speeding train of thought takes frequent detours, stops and occasional complete derailments--took a contemplative pause. "Maybe I will touch what I'm trying to say here if I can just be quiet about trying to find it," she said.

"This is the tragedy, I think. . . . What is the tragedy of Hollywood, of movies and of stardom? You live in a certain reality, and that reality is very heightened. And it's the best of everything.

"They used to bring trays of real jewelry for (Norma) to choose which one she wanted to wear in the scene, you know. And the garments were all hand-sewn. They were immaculately fitted. It was just like royalty, (the stars) were our kings and queens. She says this wonderful thing: 'We taught the world new ways to dream. To dream.' So it's great. It's big, what they did."

Dunaway is attracted to big dreams. If you've never sung a note in public, what more logical next step than to audition for a starring role in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?

"You know, it's been a dream of mine to sing," Dunaway said. "I'm from the South (born in Bascom, Fla., she has lived throughout the South); I used to sing country and western whenever I could. And with my first husband, (former J. Geils Band singer) Peter Wolf, we used to sing a lot. But I never studied it seriously. I never had a reason. This gave me a very important reason."

When she first became interested in the role (she says her decision to approach the "Sunset" people was concurrent with them approaching her ), she was invited in to sing. "They said: 'Just come in, and let's see if you can carry a tune; we'll get you a great coach.' And I said, no, let me work a little bit on my own first. I worked for only two or three weeks. Every day. Long hours. And then I auditioned for (musical supervisor) David Caddick. And then we spoke, and, because I had no real training, he said, 'I don't know if (pursuing this role) is what you want.' "

It was what she wanted. So Caddick suggested that Dunaway work with Corff, the voice coach who trained Close in the beginning. Dunaway worked with him "for four weeks straight, between two and nine hours a day, every day." Then she auditioned for Caddick again. "The second time I auditioned, he kind of sat back and said, 'Well, that's quite a difference!' "

And then came "the most terrifying thing I've ever done"--an audition for Lloyd Webber. Afterward, he called Dunaway personally to tell her she had the part.

"It's a technique. It's still a very new discipline for me, but you know, you can learn to sing," she said. "And then I guess how good you get depends on a lot of things. But it seems like I can carry a tune, and I know notes. I can hit a note when I hear it. So my ear seems to be good."

With stage microphones, Dunaway said, "you don't have to have a big voice . . . but you have to be able to sustain notes, and you have to be able to hit big notes and hold them. (LuPone), for example, has a very big voice. . . . I'm not so immodest as to believe I can ever sing along those lines. But I intend to keep trying, and to see what I am capable of."


Upon being cast as Norma Desmond, Close, in her mid-40s, admitted she had some fears about playing an older character, and one so much defined by age. For Dunaway, the concern about finding herself identified with this role might be a little different. She has been strongly identified with tough, cold movie roles such as Bonnie Parker, "Network's" ratings-crazed TV executive Diana Christensen and frosty Joan Crawford; psychotic screen queen Norma Desmond also fits neatly into that weird mold. Moreover, Desmond is the quintessential "difficult" actor--and Dunaway, rightly or wrongly, has developed her own reputation as the movie star from hell.

Dunaway has no problem acknowledging that she's 53. She baldly admits such career mistakes as "Mommie Dearest." She has relished unsympathetic and unattractive roles, jumped with ego-less ease from movie stardom to TV sitcoms. She's maintained that kind of experimentation, leading her to include a "Columbo" movie with Peter Falk among her credits. And, of course, there's the Lloyd Webber audition.

She speaks with cheerful resignation about her failed TV series last fall, "It Had to Be You." The CBS show cast Dunaway as a successful book publisher who falls for a widowed carpenter (Robert Urich) with three kids. It lasted four episodes.

"I really wanted to try comedy. And I still do, and I still will," Dunaway said. "I think that kind of comedy doesn't seem to be right for me. It's like snapshots. It's jokes. I think the comedians do best in it. You cannot work the way I normally work--I mean, how detailed I get, and how intensive the research is.

"I think everyone who tried it did the best they could do. It really wasn't meant to be. I don't think it's anyone's fault--not the writers, not me, not Urich. In retrospect it just wasn't the right place for me. All of them were great, but you just can't get your hands around it. I felt like water was just going through my fingers."

Yet, despite steely nerve, as far as career choices are concerned let an interviewer suggest that Dunaway has a press reputation for being "difficult" and she dissolves into a panic almost like Norma Desmond does when she loses Joe Gillis. One might think by now that Dunaway would have become hardened to celebrity journalism. Not so.

Raise the issue of her well-known reputation to Dunaway and she, quite simply, shatters. She is shaken. She is angry. She is upset enough to threaten to end an interview. "If that's what you want to talk about, I would like to leave," she said. "Now--I would like to say what I want to say in this article."

She leaves abruptly for a few minutes to pull herself together. She returns, however, and gamely continues. And while she remains evasive about her reputed bad-girl behavior in Hollywood, she hints that a failure to click with director Roman Polanski on the set of "Chinatown" just may have set the tone for a reputation that lingers two decades later.

"The need to build you up is equaled only by the need to bring you down. . . . You can't have all good experiences in life, and you're not gonna come off great sometimes," she said.

"And there would be exaggerations, and sometimes there will be exaggerations and everything else is false," she continued slowly. "There will be a kernel of truth, and everything else has been embroidered over it.

"I mean, it was just an unfortunate connection between me and Roman. He is a great filmmaker. I think he respects me as well. I just think we met at a time in our lives when neither one of us could kind of give, and say: 'Hey, wait a minute, let me step back.' Which is what I do now, all the time."

Those who have worked with Dunaway recently are not sure from whence her dragon lady reputation springs. Jeremy Leven, writer-director of the upcoming film "Don Juan de Marco and the Centerfold," called Dunaway "charming and gracious and a real doll."

While one individual associated with her failed sitcom noted cryptically that "there are two Fayes," Terry Corigliano, director of CBS' media relations, said that Dunaway had personally called the network and asked to meet with the marketing and publicity staff who would be handling her show--turning down their invitation to a frilly lunch at Maple Drive to hunker down over a sandwich in a CBS conference room.

"She asked us questions, and really wanted to learn about TV," Corigliano said. "I don't think we've ever had a star do that before. By the time she was ready to start promoting that show, Faye Dunaway knew what she was supposed to know."

When the freshly divorced Dunaway returned to the United States from England, her first film role was with Mickey Rourke as two down-and-out alcoholics in Barbet Schroeder's 1987 film "Barfly." Rourke--whose reputation for temperament possibly outshines Dunaway's--offered an unsolicited advance review of "Sunset Boulevard" when Dunaway replaces Close: "It'll be a much better show."

"Before Faye and I got together, I heard horror stories about her, and I'm sure she heard the same thing about me," Rourke said. "But everything I heard about her was not true--and, I guess, vice versa. I can honestly say I don't think I have worked with anybody who is as professional as she was. I appreciated it more because I am usually talked about as being difficult, in the same way."

Rourke also applauded Dunaway for daring to be ugly in "Barfly." "This wasn't this leading lady type; she had to play a character who didn't have very much makeup on, one who wasn't really glamorous. She was secure about that; it was sort of a bold chance she took.

"She is, like, one of the last true movie stars. Faye Dunaway has been a movie star since 'Bonnie and Clyde.' . . . She's a big screen actress, and she always will be."

Joan Tewkesbury, who did a rewrite for Dunaway on the 1978 film "Eyes of Laura Mars" and directed "Cold Sassy Tree," said that "both as a director and as a writer, you are thrilled to have someone who will go to the mat for a shared vision. Her work was fine--there were no problems once the rules of the game were laid out, that you have a very short shooting schedule for TV.

"What people call difficult--the same thing happens with Streisand--any of the women who come through the difficulties of this business, and God knows they have had to endure all kinds of experiences, have very rigorous criteria of who they are, and how they are going to do it. And they have done it for some of the best people in the business."

As for that unpleasant Polanski period, Tewkesbury said, rather cryptically, "That was a very difficult time in her life. People are allowed to go through their passages; God knows, everybody has them. These women are called upon to be incredibly strong, and sometimes you just can't do it that day, or that month or that week.

"Actors have a great regard for Faye; they understand the struggle, and the baggage that comes with being a celebrity."

Was Dunaway, then, a terror in the early days of her career who somehow mellowed out during the '80s? "Network" director Sidney Lumet said that, circa 1976, Dunaway was "a joy to work with. She's a completely creative actor; she is brave, she is fearless, she is true to the character. She doesn't worry about whether it's sympathetic or not sympathetic.

"I heard she was difficult before we started, and she just wasn't. It just never happened. I'm not hiding anything from you. I do know that, in some instances, when these kinds of reputations develop, it's because the actor is working with people who don't know as much about their work as the actor does. That's the one thing that the actor needs."

Added Lumet: "I think, generally, that people are always surprised that such an incredible beauty has that much talent. Usually there is that kind of condescending thing, especially for actresses--assuming, looking at a beautiful woman, that she can't have any brains. And there she is. She's beautiful, and she can act."

Even though Dunaway will never quite come right out and say she was ever . . . difficult, she will guardedly acknowledge that perfectionism can sometimes be misinterpreted--and that, over the years, she has come to more easily accept human flaws.

"I'm in the business of trying to achieve something wonderful, and so you use all of your wit and courage and mind and try to make it special," she said. "I mean, that's what art is--that's what people come to movies or the theater for, to see something special.

"They say that you only grow through trial and error. And I believe that. You only grow by doing something wrong. So, anyway, I feel that I am at a place where I'm the best I've ever been, hopefully, for my mind, my emotions and the way I live my life.

"I know that what I wanted at this moment in my life was some material that I really cared about . . . something I could sink my teeth into and I could really be happy about. And it's very hard work. But I really got more than I asked for because I also have to sing. So I just wanted a great big old challenge."

And, Dunaway added, "You can't fake it to an audience. They have very good truth barometers. They don't have an ax to grind, and they're ready to like you--as opposed to sometimes in our (Hollywood) world where there are middlemen who say, 'Well, if I'm nice to her, and tell her she's wonderful, I'll get the job on her next movie' or something.

"It's a nice connection. And it's an honest one."*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World