Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Faye Dunaway in Chinatown

Faye Dunaway received her second Oscar nomination for playing her signature role of Evelyn Cross Mulwray, a mysterious femme fatale in Roman Polanski's masterpiece, Chinatown. In 1974, Faye was still at the height of her fame, which could have helped in securing that Oscar win for her, but I believe she could only be the dark horse of the race, considering the overdue Ellen Burstyn and art house favorite Gena Rowlands playing more showy roles and grabbing all the attention, despite the fact that Faye's performance as Mrs. Mulwray turned out to be the most remembered of the insanely exciting Best Actress race of 1974. 

Chinatown, for me, is one of the greatest masterpieces of cinema, with absolutely no flawed elements about it. Roman Polanski's overwhelming, sinister and eventually devastating vision is probably his strongest (along with his work on The Pianist), which, in my opinion, would have deserved the Best Director Oscar. Equally brilliant is Jack Nicholson's charismatic turn as Jake Gittes though I would be more hesitant to give my vote to him in that very tight Best Actor race (he'd narrowly edge out Art Carney for me).

One of the numerous things that I find fascinating about Chinatown is that everybody is equally important in turning this movie into an absolute masterpiece and yet remaining outstanding on their own. The vision of Polanski probably would have worked with lesser actors or a less perfect score by Jerry Goldsmith and the music would have been just as awesome in a standard film noir. You can say the same about Faye Dunaway's performance: even when I didn't consider it marvelous achievement, I still found Chinatown a masterpiece (but enjoyed her worked a lot). However, as I embraced her more, her rich, stunning character only added to the overwhelming experience of Chinatown. 

If we look at the character of Evelyn Mulwray, we can immediately spot the mystery about her and the screenplay provided so much freedom to the actress playing her. People like to wonder about how Jane Fonda would have played this woman had she not turned down the part (note: she never turned it down, actually, she was never offered the part, but it makes a good line in I'll Eat You Last), because it takes so much imagination to picture the hard-edged, tough Jane Fonda of the seventies as Evelyn, playing the fragile Mrs. Mulwray. However, if we take a closer look, it can be easily seen that Faye Dunaway made this role her own so much that it's almost impossible to think about anyone else attempting to play Evelyn. We cannot imagine her any other way, then this fragile, deeply tragic character with a spot on her iris. It's like Faye has become this spot on Evelyn's iris, leaving her mark on this woman forever.

Faye turns virtually everything about this character to her favor: she uses the lack of screentime to strengthen the mysteriousness of this woman, making a lasting, dazzling impression and she also establishes everything about Evelyn that the (perfect) screenplay simply didn't have the opportunity to do. As a result, Evelyn never becomes a character whose mystery and iciness is actually covering up emptiness and one-dimensional personalities. Faye created one of the most human and relatable portrayals of a femme fatale. Although nowadays many would refer to Kim Basinger's performance in L.A. Confidential as the example of creating such a character with a background and more dimensions, Faye's performance goes beyond that: as I stated earlier, Dunaway left her mark on her character, not simply giving a great performance that any talented actress can give. Evelyn Cross Mulwray belongs to Faye Dunaway.

For me, Faye Dunaway has always been the most effective, where she can display her distinct acting style in more quietly tragic characters, like Bonnie Parker and Evelyn. She's also impressive in her more "out there" performances like Network and Mommie Dearest (I actually think that her work in Network goes over the top much more), where she can sell scenes that other actresses simply would have overacted, but Faye's unique persona shines through everything. Joan Crawford famously said that only Faye had "the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star" and all that is best displayed in Chinatown. That was essential to make Evelyn the iconic character that she is.

Faye's chemistry with Jack Nicholson is one-of-a-kind and it's not hard to believe that the smart, no-nonsense character of Jake Gittes can be fooled by this fragile woman with pencil-thin eyebrows who's actually way stronger and more determined than one would initially believe. The only way to beat this woman is physical violence, because all your senses are confused by her beauty and personality (just see how Jake forces the truth out of her). It's not only Jake (and everyone else in Chinatown) who's confused by all her actions and what she's hiding, but also the audience: although Faye plays with our emotions like little puppets, we are constantly sympathising with her character. Faye fabulously uses the symbol the spot on Evelyn's iris to reveal the darkness and the burden of a terrible secrets on Evelyn.

Many would say that the daughter/sister scene is the highlight of Faye Dunaway's performance, where all the layers of mystery are forcefully removed from her and yet she's not beaten until (SPOILER) she's killed . The obsessed shouting of "She's my sister. She's my daughter." is devastating, equal to the effect of Barbara Stanwyck crying "I'm rotten" in Double Indemnity (SPOILER OFF). That being said, my personal favorite of Faye here is the scene in bed with Jack Nicholson and especially the way she delivers the line "Cherchez la femme.", which is so evocative and bitterly ironic from Evelyn's mouth. It's a tiring cliché to say that Faye tells more about her character in that sentence than other actresses could with long monologues, but sometimes you have to turn to clichés to express your awe.

In the end, Faye Dunaway's performance is one of the key elements in making Chinatown the chilling, harrowing masterpiece that it really is. With one look or a sentence, she evokes the tragedy and sadness behind the mysteriousness and the iciness of Evelyn Cross Mulwray, gradually removing all these layers and revealing what a terribly human and flawed person that she really is behind the surface of the femme fatale. She brilliantly plays this old-fashioned character with her fresh modern approach that reminds us of the greatness of the real golden age of American cinema. Faye's talent has never been used better than here and even if it was working with Polanski difficult proccess for both of them it was worth it.

What do you think?

As you see, I'm back. Later, I will do a post on the changes that will take place on this blog. I really took my time to figure out what to do next but it's done. :) 


Fritz said...

Yay, great to see you back! I am currently doing a bit of re-writing, too. I'll go on holiday soon and hope to find the time to finally finish 1949...

dinasztie said...

Thanks a lot! :) I look forward to hearing from you, too!

Louis Morgan said...

Very glad to see something from you again, I am very much looking forward to seeing more.

As for Dunaway I agree completely with your review and I would give her my win.

mrripley said...

What happened to 99.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't she remind you of kim novak in Vertigo

joe burns said...

This is such a wonderful and richly written review!!! I'm so glad you're back!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blog because of the recommendations and insights. I hope you'll be able to continue writing soon. That being said, I do understand that you're busy though!