Faye Dunaway’s 10 best performances – ranked!

Ahead of the Oscar-winning actor’s 82nd birthday this weekend, we mark her finest moments, from camp histrionics to the most archetypal of femmes fatales

10. Dunston Checks In (1996)

A kleptomaniac orangutan wreaks havoc in a posh hotel, leading to some inspired farce involving bananas and small dogs. But the highlight is when Dunaway, as the snobbish hotel owner, falls backwards into a big cream cake with an orangutan on top of her. No apologies for including it in this selection since it is one of cinema’s finest moments.

9. Little Big Man (1970)

Dunaway plays the sexually frustrated foster mother of the picaresque protagonist (although Dustin Hoffman was actually four years older than her in real life) in one of the funnier episodes in Arthur Penn’s epic deconstruction of western myths. It’s a supporting role, but a memorable one, particularly when she is singing Bringing in the Sheaves while soaping him down.

8. Mommie Dearest (1981)

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford with Mara Hobel as her daughter Christina in 1981’s Mommie Dearest
Dunaway as Joan Crawford with Mara Hobel as her daughter Christina in 1981’s Mommie Dearest. Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

Poor Joan Crawford was only three years dead when Dunaway went heavy on the eyebrow crayon for this biopic based on Christina Crawford’s memoirs, which outed her mother as an abusive monster. Her co-stars alleged that Dunaway went full-method on set, and the film flopped, but her histrionic performance and one-liners such as “No wire hangers!” helped turn it into a camp classic.

7. Network (1976)

Dunaway won an Oscar for her performance as Diana Christensen, an ambitious TV news programmer who will stop at nothing in the quest for ratings in this smug, sloppy but prescient satire. Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay bulges with the sort of speechifying that impresses award-givers (and won him an Oscar too), although it’s a pleasure to watch Dunaway and her co-stars perorating away.

6. Barfly (1987)

Obviously there’s nothing funny about alcoholism, but Barbet Schroeder’s film of the writer Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical screenplay is objectively hilarious. Mickey Rourke is a hoot as Bukowski’s alter-ego, with Dunaway matching him all the way as greasy-haired Wanda, who shows off her legs and beats up her love rival (Alice Krige) after snarling: “I’m gonna peel you away from your perfume!”

5. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Steve McQueen plays a jaded millionaire who dabbles in robbery, just for a laugh. Dunaway plays his would-be nemesis Vicki Anderson, an unfeasibly glam insurance investigator (29 changes of Theadora Van Runkle costume and a Ferrari Spider!) who plays sexy chess against him in this quintessentially 1960s heist movie, a breezy affair awash with split-screen and an infuriating earworm of a Michel Legrand score.

4. Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars
Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Photograph: Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock

Dunaway plays a fashion photographer who crouches down in weird split-down-the-side culottes to take edgy Helmut Newton-style sex-and-violence pics in this brilliant slice of giallo-esque baloney. She also has a psychic connection to the maniac who is stabbing her friends and colleagues to death, although this isn’t much help to anyone since each time her killer-vision kicks in, she stumbles around shrieking pointlessly.

3. The Four Musketeers (1974)

The second half of Richard Lester’s rollicking all-star Alexandre Dumas diptych provides Dunaway with a dazzling showcase as soignée arch-villainess Milady, lunging at D’Artagnan with a post-coital poisoned dagger when he uncovers her darkest secret, or posing as a victim to manipulate her Puritan jailer into – historical spoiler! – assassinating the Duke of Buckingham. Bravissima!

2. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking blend of nostalgia, slapstick, romance and ultra-violence, channelling the French New Wave, helped change the face of 60s Hollywood, rocketed Dunaway and her fabulous cheekbones to stardom, and launched a fashion trend for midi skirts and Bonnie berets. But it’s Bonnie’s last loving glance at Clyde (Warren Beatty) before they are gunned down that gives that shocking ending its bitter kick.

1. Chinatown (1974)

Faye Dunaway with Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown
Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray with Jack Nicholson as JJ Gittesin in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/Allstar

As Evelyn Mulwray, Dunaway has the trickiest role in this revisionist neo-noir, since she has to embody the archetypal femme fatale, all scarlet lipstick and duplicity, while simultaneously allowing the detective antihero (Jack Nicholson) to pick away at her defences and ultimately peel back the facade she has erected to shield herself (and at least one other person) from the unspeakable truth. It’s an astonishing performance, and utterly heartbreaking.


Anne Billson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jennifer Lawrence’s best performances – ranked!
As talk of another Oscar grows for her performance in this year’s Causeway, we rate the versatile actor’s finest work

Peter Bradshaw

27, Oct, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Kirsten Dunst’s 20 best performances – ranked!
To celebrate her Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog, here are Dunst’s star turns, from game-for-adventure girls-next-door to enigmatic and melancholy brides and widows

Peter Bradshaw

17, Mar, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Kristen Stewart’s 20 best performances – ranked!
From Spencer to Still Alice, and now David Cronenberg’s bonkers new horror sci-fi Crimes of the Future, we rate the Twilight star’s finest work

Anne Billson

18, Aug, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Frances McDormand’s 10 best performances – ranked!
Shortly to be seen on our screens in Women Talking, the actor is enjoying a fruitful – and Oscar-hauling – career third act, creating work that is empathic, political, and often doesn’t look like acting at all

Andrew Pulver

26, Jan, 2023 @12:18 PM

Article image
Robert Duvall’s 20 best performances – ranked!
From the horse’s head in The Godfather to the smell of napalm in Apocalypse Now, no one does chilling menace like the 91-year-old Oscar-winner. With the release this month of his new film, we rate his greatest roles

Peter Bradshaw

08, Dec, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Bill Murray’s 20 best performances – ranked!
As the actor swigs with Zac Efron and Russell Crowe in new comedy The Greatest Beer Run Ever – and celebrates his 72nd birthday – we rate Murray’s finest work

Hadley Freeman

29, Sep, 2022 @11:07 AM

Article image
Diane Keaton’s 10 best performances – ranked!
With the Oscar winner’s romcom Love, Weddings & Other Disasters out next month in the UK, we run through her greatest roles

Hadley Freeman

11, Mar, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Adam Driver’s 10 best film performances – ranked!
Ahead of the release of Annette, we rank the actor’s greatest roles, from the insufferable hipster of While We’re Young to his severe missionary in Silence

Peter Bradshaw

26, Aug, 2021 @11:19 AM

Article image
Daniel Craig’s 20 best film performances – ranked!
With Craig about to return as Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion, we take a look through the blond Bond’s action-packed filmography

Andrew Pulver

24, Nov, 2022 @12:22 PM

Article image
Anthony Hopkins’ 20 best film performances – ranked!
Anthony Hopkins has been nominated for a Bafta and an Oscar for his role in The Father. But how does it compare with his performances as Hannibal Lecter, CS Lewis, Odin and an ageing Zorro?

Anne Billson

08, Apr, 2021 @1:01 PM