Dearest Chinatown: The Intensity of Faye Dunaway

|John Blair|

Faye Dunaway in character as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown. Evelyn is a light-skinned woman with curly chin-long hair and thin eyebrows. She looks into the distance unimpressed, wearing a grey dress suit and hat.

Chinatown plays at the Heights Theater Thursday, February 1st. Visit or for tickets and more information.

At 6:14 am on February 27, 2006, Faye Dunaway called the producer of a documentary on her life. When the call went to voicemail, Dunaway started immediately on a breathless two-minute monologue, touching on everything from her personal relationships to her disappointment in how her current films were sold in the United States to her experience with the failed Sunset Boulevard musical. It is worth a listen both as a cultural artifact and as a performance of someone living theatrically. The commitment shown by Dunaway to getting her points across in the voicemail points to a fairly well-known aspect of her approach to acting. As she wrote in her memoir, Looking for Gatsby, “If you have a vision, the only way to protect it is to fight body and soul, to go to the mat time and again … go through brick walls. It’s intense determination.” 

Faye Dunaway in character as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown. The image is a close-up of the character at a restaurant.

After one of the more notable breakout performances of the 1960s in Bonnie and Clyde, which earned her her first of three Best Actress Oscar nominations and set a style trend that is recognizable to this day, Dunaway went through a self-described fallow period. “I sort of dropped the ball after ‘Bonnie and Clyde’”, she told the New York Times in an interview discussing her role as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown.1  Along with Bonnie and ClydeNetwork, and, yes, Mommie DearestChinatown is one of the peaks of her career. While Dunaway was praised and nominated for an Oscar for a performance that drives the story’s mystery as much as the investigations of corruption, her subsequent roles showcased a dramatic shift in style. Her tour de terror in Mommie Dearest and wild-eyed, grandly gesticulated performances in Supergirl and Evita Peron circulate today as memes and instant cultural signifiers of bad acting, overacting, camp, disastrous choices, you name it. The later work puts her performance in Chinatown in a unique position, a fulcrum point where you can see the seeds of what would flower in her later work. I don’t think it’s necessary to pity what happened to Dunaway’s career. Few actors get one shot at immortality, let alone several. Instead, you can see her later work as a natural build from what pokes through in Chinatown when looked at in the context of her full body of work. 

Chinatown: “Why can’t you be obsessed about positive things?”

Dunaway’s appearance in Chinatown was seen at the time as a rebirth, a reminder that she was a major star on the level of Jane Fonda, who was frequently on the same casting shortlists and even turned down the role in Chinatown. There are two mysteries in Chinatown, one civic and one deeply personal. The script manages to control the first, but the second requires Dunaway to reveal enough for the viewer to be interested without indicating that she cares about anything more than her dead husband and his involvement with her father’s business. Her entrance into the movie is almost subliminal when she materializes in Jake Gittes’ office as he concludes a racist joke. She is still and practically floats into the room, keeping her voice placid, even when threatening legal action. You can see her thinking through each response when she meets Gittes at a restaurant for an afternoon meeting. The truth of her situation is hidden under the surface, and once you know the full story, it is informative to look at that scene again—it is the key to unlocking Dunaway’s approach to the character. The gestures are small and considered. On first viewing, the main tell in the scene is when she lights a second cigarette while her first is still going. Gittes points this out—it is text. The subtext is evident in the double meaning of each answer and the hesitation when the words “my father” come out of her mouth. 

Faye Dunaway in character as Evelyn Mulwray meets Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, in Chinatown.

The full horror of the personal mystery surrounding Evelyn and her past comes after the scripted plot has mostly resolved with Gittes’ discovery of the scheming of Evelyn’s father Noah Cross. Something happens in Dunaway’s performance in the final act. The large, demonstrative work she displays in Network and films made after the 1970s starts to poke through. Two line readings in particular are worth mentioning. The first and most obvious is, “She’s my sister and my daughter.” The second is the final scene’s near-operatic “He OWNS the police” bellowed as she is trying to escape. It is close to the level of intensity that she shows in some of her line readings in Network and Mommie Dearest. However, the build-up to these scenes, the concealed turmoil beneath the surface of her character demonstrated throughout the movie, creates a ramp to these explosions. The context is also critical. This is a tragic story about generational trauma and deeply ingrained power structures that abuse and discard women. Within that context, Dunaway’s explosions at the climax and denouement of Chinatown amplify the tragedy as opposed to standing outside of it. 

“Dilly-dallying and tarrying over Mommie Dearest

Chinatown is a movie that can contain and harness Dunaway’s inherent intensity. The obvious counterpoint is Mommie Dearest, which seems to shatter and reconstitute itself under the overpowering dynamism of her performance. It is one of the few cases where you can see in pure form how a career and reputation can be changed in seconds. Regardless of how things turned out, the intentions of Dunaway in entering the project were no different than other A-list actors who wanted to showcase the depth of their abilities and commitment to their craft. 

There are two ways of looking at this performance. The classic and most obvious is that both the film and the performance are “bad.” The idea of a “bad movie” shifts over time, but what I think people mean is that it draws attention to itself through mistakes that anyone would notice, even if they couldn’t articulate them. The second way, and the way I have come to prefer, is that it is a grand, epic piece of work that succeeds in externalizing the inner turmoil of a complex, abusive, and incredibly ambitious woman. This is not a unique position. A handful of New York-based critics praised the performance and Dunaway was on the shortlist for both the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Actress. The issue, of course, was that the film built around it has no idea what to do with the performance. Unlike Network, which can withstand massive performances from Peter Finch, Ned Beatty, and Robert Duvall as well as Dunaway, Mommie Dearest has no central core that can keep them from spinning out of control under that weight.

Faye Dunaway in character as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The image is a close-up and she is crying.

Dunaway’s performances in Chinatown and Mommie Dearest point to the fact that there should be a place in movies for performances that go outside the bounds of “Will this win an Oscar” or “Were they believable as (insert famous, well-known person)?” The question is really, were you entertained and moved? Another is to ask how many singular performances are still discussed and debated decades after their first premiere? 

At the end of the phone message, Dunaway hangs up without saying goodbye or anything else. I hope that while there is still time, she will embrace and acknowledge that there is a serious audience that would love for her to delve seriously into the process of creating one of her major, lasting contributions to acting.

  1. Gussow, Mel. “Only Faye Dunaway Knows What She’s Hiding.” The New York Times (October 20, 1974). ↩︎

Edited by Finn Odum

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