Looking for Gatsby

Read between the lines — hell, read the lines — of Faye Dunaway’s tiger-lady autobiography, Looking for Gatsby, and it’s apparent that when confronted with a director or costar who threatens to damage her performance, Dunaway can be a royal, um, asserter of opinion. Or, as she tells you herself, hauling out a modern actress homily that’s becoming worn from overuse, ”the fact is a man can be difficult and people applaud him…a woman can try to get it right and she’s ‘a pain in the ass.”’

It’s a good bet that the nervy, nerve-racking actress Jack Nicholson once called a ”gossamer grenade” can probably be both difficult and a pain in the ass. But applaud her anyway, because for Dunaway, you suspect that the showdowns are indeed about getting it right, and most of the people she disembowels probably had it coming. In this engaging, serious, mostly polite memoir, Dunaway doesn’t go out of her way to make enemies. But if you’re in her way, watch out. She mows down Otto Preminger (”he doesn’t know anything at all about the process of acting”) and Roman Polanski (”cruel…domineering and abrasive…what he did to me throughout [Chinatown] bordered on sexual harassment”). As for Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose decision to drop her from Sunset Boulevard deprived theatergoers of a star who, even if she couldn’t hit the high notes, would have played Norma Desmond’s grandiose loneliness from the depths of her soul — sorry, gossipmongers: A really juicy chapter about the whole brouhaha in the original manuscript did not make the cut. Damn! You just know it was a good brawl.

There isn’t much else that Dunaway (aided by her skilled coauthor, Betsy Sharkey) is unable to write about. Looking for Gatsby covers her fabulously eccentric up-and-down career with crispness and intelligence. Carefully measured tablespoonfuls of her personal life (which included romances with Lenny Bruce, Marcello Mastroianni, and J. Geils man Peter Wolf, her first husband) are served with dignity. And when the subject is work, she’s rarely less than interesting. This is, after all, a woman who has known the highs of Network and the lows of the USA Network, who has starred with (and liked) both Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rourke. And she has reserves of cool unpredictability. One of her dreams is ”to have a library like Susan Sontag’s.” (Try to find a sentiment like that in Loni Anderson’s new opus.)

Looking for Gatsby isn’t always that high-minded. Dunaway occasionally extends a well-manicured claw (about Bette Davis, with whom she clashed on a TV movie, she writes, ”She seemed like someone caught in a death throe…. I was just the target of her blind rage at…growing old”). She can also be overscaled: After Bonnie and Clyde, she trills, ”there are those who elevate the craft of acting to the art of acting, and now I would be one of them.” And much of Gatsby is told in the serenely becalmed, slightly opaque manner of someone who has come out on the other side of years of analysis and is now enjoying the hum of her own inner peace.

But why complain? Faye Dunaway is a rarity in the land of stars (and star bios) — a tough, smart, committed pro. To read her accounts of her Oscar-nominated performances as the taut, sexy, neurotic femmes fatales of Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, and Network is to learn from an expert about the instincts, collaborations, and compromises that go into great film acting. And Dunaway’s rueful discussion of her underrated work as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest is admirably gritty and unsentimental. The movie was ”camp that had gone way over the edge” with scenes that had ”no boundaries and no modulation…it just overpowered me.”

Dunaway hints at what it cost her personally to play Crawford — to enact the paranoia and insecurity and vanity and drive that go into being a movie star — and it’s clear that she understands and doesn’t fear it. After Mommie Dearest, she dusted herself off and moved on to whatever looked to be worth her time and exploration, from a Marlon Brando movie to a Robert Urich sitcom. Late in Gatsby, she expresses a desire to try her hand at a detective series in which she’d play a Columbo-like sleuth. What a waste that would be. We don’t watch Faye Dunaway to see her ferret out other people’s secrets; we watch her in the hope that we can discover hers. She is most fascinating when she’s alluring but aloof, and the seductively shaded Looking for Gatsby is just that: a trademark performance.

Looking for Gatsby
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