Documentary about Faye Dunaway polishes the star’s reputation, with all its faults

Documentary about Faye Dunaway polishes the star’s reputation, with all its faults

Legendary actress Faye Dunaway is as mercurial as ever in “Faye,” a new HBO documentary about her life and work that premieres this Saturday. Even before we see her, as elegant shots of New York appear on the screen, we hear Ms. Dunaway impatiently giving instructions to the documentary’s filmmakers to start shooting.

Then, when we see her sitting on a sofa and director Laurent Bouzereau reminds her that it’s the anniversary of her Oscar win for Network and the famous pool photo taken to commemorate the moment, her demeanor changes. Her eyes light up and her jaw relaxes into a smile as she recounts a career highlight.

A few minutes later in the film, after hearing several commentators express their admiration for her and her work, we witness another testy moment. As she repositions herself for more questions, she admonishes an off-screen assistant, “I need a glass of water, not a bottle.”

As far as iconic Dunaway quotes go, it may not be as good as her “No wire hangers” yell from “Mommie Dearest” or even “Could you please leave? You’re right in my line of sight,” a clip of which made the rounds on social media a few months ago. But the water demand oozes the same mix of severity and intrusiveness that characterizes Ms. Dunaway’s personality both on screen and off.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes glimpses, Monsieur Bouzereau uses a standard mix of documentary devices to tell the performer’s story: film clips, photos, archival footage, commentator observations, and both current and dated interviews. Although this format painstakingly goes through every phase of her life, the narrative is nonetheless compelling due to the brisk editing and eloquence with which Ms. Dunaway tells it. It also helps that many of the films she has starred in are worth multiple viewings.

Born in Florida in 1941, the actress recounts her childhood as the daughter of a noncommissioned officer and an ambitious mother. As is common with a military parent, the family moved around a lot, and her parents eventually divorced. Young Faye acted in theater to escape the depressing aspects of home life, such as her father’s alcoholism, although she makes it clear that her childhood was not only a miserable one. She later also claims that “success is freedom,” and it’s refreshing to see a celebrity speak so intelligently and challenge prevailing narratives about unhappy childhoods and fame.

After graduating from Boston University with a degree in theater, Ms. Dunaway went to New York to study under Elia Kazan. From there, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. When the story arrives at “Bonnie and Clyde,” the classic 1967 film about the notorious Depression-era bank robber pair, the documentary details that several films in which Ms. Dunwaway appeared reflected the turbulent times of the late 1960s and 1970s.

In “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Oklahoma Crude,” “Chinatown,” and “Network,” Ms. Dunaway not only embodied the new, independent woman of the time, but the films themselves also reflected the increasing violence, commercialization, and corruption of the country. But entertainment films such as “The Thomas Crown Affair” also showed her flair for modern and sexy scams. Journalist Robin Morgan described the wordless chess game scene in this film as “the most erotic piece of cinema ever made.”

While her love life is occasionally touched upon, such as her affair with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, and Ms. Dunway’s status as a fashion icon is mentioned only in passing, the subject that receives the most attention – aside from her indelible acting, of course – is her reputation for being difficult.

After discussing the little-known film “Puzzle of a Downfall Child,” which tells the story of a dissolute, unstable model, the actress has a candid moment of admitting to being bipolar. She mentions a “biological imbalance” and helpful medication, but at the same time takes responsibility for her past actions. Still, the film implies that her performances would not have been as poignant without her sometimes hurtful, demanding intensity. And she doesn’t really regret her behavior, saving her remorse for her starring role in “Mommie Dearest.”

The film’s analysis of Joan Crawford’s biography proves to be quite astute and unexpectedly poignant, as some of her co-stars are also involved. Indeed, as the filmmakers continue, one concludes that the 1981 film deserves its own documentary, examining its production and cultural influence. By the end of the film, one also wishes for a lighter, alternative documentary that allows time for observations of Faye’s more peculiar career choices, such as her egg-eating commercial for a Japanese luxury retailer and her foray into reality TV with “The Starlet.”

Scenes with Ms. Dunaway’s adopted son, Liam, now grown up, give viewers a glimpse into their relationship, and the documentary touches us with their devotion to one another. Ultimately, though, the famous actress’s dedication to her craft is the film’s greatest takeaway, with the judicious selection of footage showing that Faye Dunaway was both a movie star and a character actress, a force of nature and a sensitive soul in her prime.