Gram Grammar: Faye Dunaway by Terry O’Neill

Written by Johnathan Mahon-Heap

Faye Dunaway, the morning after her Oscar win; 6am in silk and heels poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Twelve acres of lush gardens surround the Beverly Hills Hotel, but on the morning of 29 March 1997, all was silent, and Hollywood was still asleep. Terry O’Neill’s portrait of Faye Dunaway, at the hotel, in the early afterglow of her Best Actress Oscar win for Network, has become iconic — an intimate, off-hand glimpse at one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Dunaway appears in three of the AFI’s 100 Greatest Films, Chinatown, Bonnie & Clyde, and Network).

The storied pink-paved walls of the hotel — the very Hotel California of which The Eagles forlornly sang — house many secrets. Faye Dunaway herself had learned how to swim doing laps in its pool. Yoko Ono and John Lennon staged one of their ‘bed-ins’ within a bungalow; a barefoot Sidney Poitier danced in its lobby after his Best Actor Oscar win; Joan Crawford rolled up in a chauffeured, money-coloured Rolls Royce for lunch, and Elizabeth Taylor honeymooned in its bungalows — after all six of her weddings. 

The hotel’s folklore and Dunaway’s towering status make the image arresting. Oscar wins are career-defining moments, for better or worse. The spiritual hangover of an Oscar win can last for decades (just ask Halle Berry or Mira Sorvino), just as the ecstatic high of a reaction can capture audience hearts anew (as in Olivia Colman’s acceptance speech or Roberto Benigni’s couch jumping). But we rarely see the empowered glamour of Faye Dunaway, a true film star, off-guard, and in reflection.

“I wanted to capture the look of dazed confusion to capture that state of utter shock that Oscar winners enter, where they go to bed thrilled, then overnight, it dawns on them that they’ve changed, that they’ve just become a star. And not just a star, a millionaire.” Terry O’Neill said of the shot. He and Dunaway were married six years later and divorced after three together. They had only met the week before this shot, on a magazine shoot together, and became friendly. 

The shot offers a side of Hollywood unseen, conjuring to mind the uneasy intimacy of the final moments of The Graduate. It speaks to a time when the Hollywood system was still a superpower in itself, beginning to feel its first shivers of mortality. Dunaway here exhibits the emptiness we feel after a victory; the liminal moment before the highs and lows have borne themselves out on you physically, before you knew what was to come next. In silk, heels, and with news telling of her story splayed about her, she has, at last, a moment to contemplate what’s happened. Dunaway was an old-style star, (with the proud distinction of once having been branded a ‘maniac’ by Roman Polanski), and here had “reached the top of the tree,” according to O’Neill.

Last year (when we still measured time in such ways), The Guardian circulated a memo requesting its contributors to limit their use of certain words. ‘Iconic’ was among them. Sports staff, music writers, and film critics were all accustomed to drizzling it into their reviews like a pinch of salt. There are limits to language, though, and one would be hard-pressed to use a different adjective for an image such as this.

faye dunaway
faye dunaway
faye dunaway

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