Driven and manipulative Evelyn Mulwray in "Chinatown."
Driven TV executive Diana Christensen in "Network."
Driven and abusive Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest."
For years Faye Dunaway has been fighting the pushy, larger-than-life stereotype, insisting she is not the roles she plays. But now that she's playing driven opera star Maria Callas, Dunaway embraces the comparison.
Local theatergoers can see how well the role fits beginning Tuesday, when the touring production of "Master Class," Terrence McNally's play about Callas, opens at the Lyric Opera House.
"People who are quote larger-than-life I think are more intensely alive, more committed, less lackadaisical, maybe a little less accessible, capable of incredible commitment and devotion to something, and all of those things she was, or I am. Does that make her larger-than-life or does it make her intensely alive?" Dunaway asks, clearly pleased with her own thesis.
"I think there's a lot like me in Maria," she says. "A lot of her is about working-class girls, the same hunger and determination that she had, and I think I have it."
Even her description of McNally's Tony Award-winning play -- based on a series of classes Callas taught at Juilliard a few years before her death in 1977 -- ends up sounding as if Dunaway's talking about herself. "The play is about what it takes to do it. What it takes to have the career this woman had, this great artist, and what it takes to live every moment of your life. It's the kind of commitment you need to get anything done in this world, and you do have to pay complete attention to every detail, have a real discipline," she explains.
In her autobiography, "Looking for Gatsby," when Dunaway discusses her acrimonious relationship with director Roman Polanski during the filming of "Chinatown," she points out that strong women get labeled "difficult," while difficult men are applauded for trying to do good work. "Another way to say [difficult]," she writes, "is 'perfectionist,' you know. God is in the details. I do want to get it right."
But while she may share the temperamental Callas "perfectionist" trait, she explains that there's more to the character than that. "What's so nice about Terrence is that he's given you this tough-minded professional who knows what it takes, and then he's given you this very vulnerable artist and very vulnerable woman and, if anything, I'm focusing on those latter categories."
"Master Class" is 56-year-old Dunaway's first stage play since she portrayed a former first lady in a 1986 drama called "Circe and Bravo" in London's West End. The offer to take "Master Class" on tour came from producer Robert Whitehead, husband of Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony Award for creating the role of Callas last season. Part of the appeal for Dunaway was that it gave her the inside track on the movie version, in which she will star as well as serve as executive producer.
A class of her own
In some cities where "Master Class" plays multiple-week runs, Dunaway conducts master classes of her own. Besides giving graduate acting students a chance to work with the star, the classes help Dunaway's performance. "That night it's a little [more real] in a certain sense," she says. "It just makes it a bit fresher."
Her teaching style is less threatening than that of the Callas character, who reduces two of her students to tears. "I can't be so tough. I'm more of a pushover," Dunaway says.
In fact, when she began rehearsing the part, Dunaway took a softer approach to Callas until McNally convinced her that toughness was essential. "Terrence said in the first rehearsal, 'If she's anything less, she'll make them mediocre.' " Dunaway explains.
Her approach now is "all business in terms of what I'm doing when I first come out there. Clear, to the point, fast, quick, no dalliances. There was something very direct about her, the way she walked, the way I'm told she talked. It's not Germanic, but it's the voice. I have it, too," she says. "It's the voice we have when we want to achieve and we're not going to take no for an answer."
"Master Class" producer Whitehead, who sought her out for the role, is also the producer who gave Dunaway her Broadway debut in "A Man for All Seasons" in 1962. Of all the actresses who have played Callas (Patti LuPone and Dixie Carter succeeded Caldwell on Broadway), Whitehead says, "I felt that [Dunaway] probably came closer to looking like Maria than anyone else. Her age was right. Physically she was right, and her height is right. She's slender and tall."
So how does Whitehead feel Dunaway is doing in "Master Class"? "I think that she's marvelous in it most of the time. It depends where her frame of mind is. She can be very moving and very powerful in it," he says, adding that when she becomes distracted by technical details and by the movie, "I say to her: 'Stop worrying about all that and concentrate on Maria.' "
But Dunaway believes in sweating the details. A trained Method actress, she always does her homework. Though the world of opera is relatively new to her and she never saw Callas perform, she says she has made up for lost time by listening to recordings, "reading everything" and watching "all the videos I can find."
Maria Callas may seem light-years away from bank robber Bonnie Parker, the character that established Dunaway's career, the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde." But Dunaway believes they shared a similar motivation -- the desire to escape their humble origins. Though Bonnie was only her third film role in a career that now numbers more than 40 films, Dunaway still feels closer to her than to any other character she's played.
Like Bonnie, Dorothy Faye Dunaway is a product of the rural South. She was born in a "ramshackle old house" on a peanut farm halfway between the Florida Panhandle towns of Two Egg and Bascom, as she describes it in her 1995 autobiography. Before her parents' divorce, when she was 13, she spent much of her early childhood moving from place to place whenever her career Army father was transferred. (Her brother Mac, 18 months her junior, is a Washington attorney.)
At age 5, out of the blue, she announced to her grandmother that she was going to be an actress. By the time producer Whitehead saw her audition for "A Man for All Seasons," she had studied at two Florida state universities and Boston University. She turned down a Fulbright Scholarship so she could join the theatrical company Whitehead founded with director Elia Kazan at Lincoln Center in the 1960s.
"She read very intelligently. She had great beauty," Whitehead recalls of her audition. "I felt she had a talent."
Over the years, Dunaway's personal life, like Callas', has received almost as much attention in the press as her professional life. Married twice -- first to J. Geils Band lead singer Peter Wolf and then to British photographer Terry O'Neill, the father of her 16-year-old son, Liam -- she was also romantically involved with comedian Lenny Bruce and the Italian film star Marcello Mastroianni.
"It gets very complicated when you have a career of that size," she says, comparing herself to Callas yet again. "I find it myself. They don't treat me as a normal person. I think she suffered from that particular minefield of stardom."
Dunaway was already an international star by the time she won an Oscar for "Network" in 1977. It was her third nomination (after "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Chinatown"). "The Oscar represented the epitome of what I had struggled for and dreamt about since I was a young child," she writes in "Looking for Gatsby."
Those long-standing aspirations are one more trait she shares with Callas, a trait that helps fuel Dunaway's performance. "You recognize the muscle memory, the feeling. When she says, 'My own ambition,' I know what she means by that -- the fight you have to have in the beginning because you keep getting knocked back. You get knocked back in the beginning and the end. The middle is kind of glorious," she explains.
In addition to her larger-than-life film roles, Dunaway has played forceful females on the small screen, including Eva Peron and Baltimore's own Wallis Simpson.
Recently, however, she has portrayed some more modestly scaled women. Last month she played a Jewish mother in the Showtime teleplay "Twilight of the Golds." Tonight, Masterpiece Theatre will broadcast the final installment of its two-part remake of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca." In part one, Dunaway played Mrs. Van Hopper, a gossipy social climber. "I made her kind of brainless, kind of an ex-showgirl mentality," she says, "this kind of creature with not very profound tastes at all, sort of grasping, beady-eyed."
Of course, there is one mega-diva role that has eluded Dunaway. In one of the most highly publicized events of her highly publicized career, Dunaway was fired in 1995 by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had hired her to portray Norma Desmond in the Los Angeles production of his musical "Sunset Boulevard." Reportedly, the composer felt she could not meet "the musical demands of the role." The terms of her settlement with Lloyd Webber prohibit her from discussing it. Her autobiography merely reprints the official press release.
"Master Class" requires her to sing only a few lines, and those in a voice that is "cracked and broken," according to the stage directions. Even so, isn't there some satisfaction in playing one of the greatest opera singers of all time after being fired from a Lloyd Webber musical? Dunaway's response is as diplomatic as it is concise. "It's a wonderful role on stage," she says of the opera star who was known as "La Divina." "That's the only way they compare."
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Pub Date: 4/22/97