Faye Dunaway has a reputation for being difficult, but she should take comfort in the fact that nobody's ever gone down in history for being easy to work with. And Dunaway has surely secured a place for herself in America's cultural history. The star of a string of memorable films that began in 1967 with the release of "Bonnie and Clyde" and continued through "The Thomas Crown Affair," "Chinatown" and "Network" (for which she won an Oscar in 1976), the Florida-born actress has never stopped challenging herself.
Dunaway took one of her biggest risks in 1994 when she signed on as the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Sunset Boulevard." Before Dunaway made it to the stage, however, Lloyd Webber found fault with her singing and fired her in a highly publicized falling out. So the stakes for Dunaway are higher than usual with "Master Class," the Terrence McNally play about opera singer Maria Callas, which opens Monday at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood.
"Master Class," which does not require Dunaway to sing, is set in one of the classes Callas taught at the end of her career, at the Juilliard School in 1972. Like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, Callas was a greatly loved and tormented singer who was a channel of pure feeling: She opened her mouth and life poured out. McNally's play is an inquiry into what it cost Callas to sing as she did. During a recent interview in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Dunaway offered her thoughts on that and on several other subjects.
Question: Let's get the important question out of the way right off the bat. With whom did you share your most memorable screen kiss? [Editor's note: The formidable list of contenders includes Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Johnny Depp, Steve McQueen, Mickey Rourke and William Holden, among others.]
Answer: Steve McQueen in "The Thomas Crown Affair." Johnny Depp is also a very good kisser.
Q: Having cleared that up, on to "Master Class"; what do you hope to make audiences understand about Callas?
A: I want to show the human being, the artist and what it takes to achieve something great. When one is good at something, they convey a sense of ease, so people assume what they're observing is easy to do. Many people think it's easy to work in the film industry, for instance, but it's tough to stay on this playing field. You don't gain weight, you stay fit, you challenge yourself unsparingly in order to do good work, and it all requires discipline and rigorous attention to detail.
Q: Callas once said, "My biggest mistake was trying to intellectualize my voice. I tried to control an animal instinct instead of leaving it as it was--a God-given gift." Were the problems she encountered with her voice a result of becoming self-conscious about her talent?
A: No, it had to do with the fact that she was a willful artist who was completely reckless with her voice. Maria could've had a solid career based on her pretty voice, but she chose instead to transform it into an instrument capable of conveying extremes of human feeling, and she went all over the place with her voice. One night she'd sing Wagner, which is singing on an epic scale, and a few nights later she'd do "I Puritani," a bel canto opera that uses the voice entirely differently.
Callas is a tragic figure, but not because she lost her voice, which is subject of some debate. Even those who insist she never lost her voice concede that she lost her nerve when her affair with Ari Onassis ended. Maria was raised by a stage mother who pushed her relentlessly from an early age, and she'd spent her life in the pursuit of her art. Then she met Onassis and realized she wanted to become a woman. He didn't want her to sing, so she pretty much gave it up for him, and they had nine years together. She never had a child with him, which she desperately wanted, and his marriage to Jackie Kennedy devastated her.
Maria's parents split up when she was 13, and her father didn't understand the opera and he never quite got her. When a woman grows up feeling unfathered, she goes out into the world looking for things that should've been taken care of in childhood. That may have something to do with the hold Onassis had on her.
Q: Speaking for yourself, does romantic love fuel your creativity, or is it a distraction that dissipates your energy?
A: At the moment the latter seems to be the case. I'm in a period when I'm focusing on my 17-year-old son and on my work, and though I yearn for a personal relationship and believe it will come again, I needed a break from all that. I've been on my own for three years.
Q: Is it possible to be a greatly accomplished artist and be complete as a woman?