It seems as if everyone who lives in West Hollywood has a Faye Dunaway story. I have heard of sightings at the cheese counter of Whole Foods, Faye berating some poor soul because they don’t have the manchego she likes. I have heard of sightings at the Virgin Megastore (remember CD stores?), Faye accosting a manager because she was displeased with their classical selection. I have heard of sightings at local coffee shops, Faye mistaken for one of West Hollywood’s Russian babooshkas. But despite living in West Hollywood for fifteen years, my Faye Dunaway story happened long ago and faraway from the city of Angels.
Wallingford, CT. 1994. After two years at the tony New England prep school Choate Rosemary Hall, I had finally come out of my shell and started to express myself. And a big part of that self-expression came through Mommie Dearest. You see, I somehow turned the gay camp classic into the favorite film of a small subset of the lacrosse-playing, classic-rock-listening student body. Not all were fans of course. When my friend Sarah Blodgett and I were given stage time in our American Studies class to re-enact Mommie scenes, one classmate complained. At the time, I found the complaint ridiculous, though in retrospect I suppose I understand why one might resent being subjected to seventeen-year olds playing the Crawfords when one signed up to read Horatio Alger.
The culmination of Mommie mania came when I hosted a screening party in the basement I lived in. Back in those days, students were not allowed to have televisions or telephones in their rooms. I, a longtime movie lover, couldn’t stand this media deprivation and decided to live in faculty housing. My senior year, my roommate and I had a basement all to ourselves. I plastered the walls with posters of Marilyn and Hedy and hosted macabre parties, including one to watch a TV movie about the Menendez brothers. But the party that beat them all was no doubt the Mommie Dearest party. Theme cakes were made. One student arrived with wire hanger marks drawn all over body. Another friend molded a wire hanger to say Mommie.
The seniors in my basement that night were not your typical high school cool kids, and yet, perhaps by virtue of being so damn strange, we fascinated the campus. Which is the only I reason I can think of for a sweet freshman to approach me one day and utter the five words that could change my life forever: “Faye. Dunaway. Is. My. Godmother.”
I went into overdrive. Here was my chance to communicate directly with Faye, the woman whose voice rang in my head daily: “Don’t FUCK with me fellas, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” “I should’ve known you’d know where to find the boys… AND the booze.” “Tear down that BITCH of a bearing wall and put a window where it OUGHT to be.” I could go on, and on, and on… In her demented incarnation of Joan Crawford, Faye even made mundane lines like “Let’s go” and “I’m not acting” quotable.
The sweet freshman told me she would be seeing Faye during spring break. What I really wanted to do was sneak into her suitcase. I would surprise Faye with my dead-on impersonation of her and she would adopt me, taking me shopping for manchego cheese and classical music. But instead we decided I would write Faye a fan letter. This couldn’t be any boring fan letter. I wrote at length about the Mommie mania that had swept our manicured campus. I wrote to her about prep schoolers drawing wire hanger marks on their bodies, of education interrupted by re-enactments of her performance. But I didn’t stop there. I contacted a store in Los Angeles (this was pre-internet) and ordered a complete set of original Mommie Dearest lobby cards. I chose my favorite one – Faye in a white bathrobe with a towel draped over her head – and included it for her to autograph. I burned the edges of the letter for dramatic effect, and then wrapped it all in imaged of old movie stars – Harlow, Bacall, perhaps even Crawford.
And then I waited anxiously, breathlessly, for spring break to be over so I could proudly display my autographed lobby card.
The sweet freshman came back sans lobby card. She explained that she had indeed seen Faye and delivered the letter. She described Faye marveling at the creative wrapping paper. And the she described Faye reading the letter, with a smile that slowly turned into rage. Then Faye uttered the seven words that she has no doubt uttered time and time again: “Never. Mention. That. Movie. To. Me. Again.”
I never got the lobby card autographed. In fact, I never even got the lobby card sent back to me. For all I knew, Faye had torn it up with the wild abandon she displayed when pruning a rose garden on screen, leaving a devoted teenage fan with an incomplete set of lobby cards.
Years later, I attended the 25th anniversary screening of Mommie Dearest at New York’s town hall. Christina Crawford was in attendance. Lypsinka memorably recreated Joan’s final Town Hall interview. And Rutanya Alda, who brilliantly played Carol Ann, read from her on-set diary, including a scathing entry in which she described the delight she felt at seeing Faye in her coffin for the final scene. I thought what a shame it was that Faye herself wasn’t in attendance. What she would have found is a rapturous audience that adored her. Sure, we might be laughing at her kabuki performance, but we knew the depths of her talent. We had seen Network and Bonnie and Clyde. We knew she deserved that Oscar and many more. But instead Faye showed that she lacked the all-important quality that even Joan Crawford possessed: the ability to laugh at oneself. It was in the 1949 film It’s a Great Feeling that Joan most memorably mocked her persona. In the film’s best scene, she runs into Jack Carson and Doris Day at a clothing store and, playing herself, delivers a hard-boiled monologue straight out of Mildred Pierce before slapping Carson. When he asks why she did that, she coolly replies, “I do that in all my pictures.” If only Faye could’ve had a good laugh at her own expense, I think she might have that other Oscar she deserved, and I would have an autographed lobby card framed above my toilet.