A Difficult Woman

Image: Some People Call Faye Dunaway "Difficult." She Calls Herself A Perfectionist.

April 20, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

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.' "

The Method

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