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The Happening

The Happening(1967)

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teaser The Happening (1967)

Faye Dunaway was a self-described "starving artist" living in a tenement walkup in New York's Greenwich Village when her performance in William Alfred's 1965 Off-Broadway drama Hogan's Goat got the attention of Hollywood. (Three years earlier, the Florida-born actress had made her Broadway debut with a small role in A Man for All Seasons, opposite Paul Scofield.) Meetings, readings, and screen tests resulted in two nonexclusive movie contracts: a six picture deal with director Otto Preminger and a five picture deal with producer Sam Spiegel. For her first feature film, Dunaway received only sixth billing: all the better for The Happening (1967) to afford her a special introductory credit. Director Elliot Silverstein's follow-up to his Academy Award-winning western comedy Cat Ballou (1965), The Happening was another exploration of the generation gap separating the experienced and affluent from the young, eager, and powerless. In the role of a bored campus seductress who plays an integral part in the kidnapping of affluent businessman Anthony Quinn, Dunaway spoke the film's first line of dialogue ("I'm hungry."), an apt epitaph for an actress whose characters were distinguished by a likeminded animal cunning.

Produced by Columbia Pictures under the working title Mr. Innocent, The Happening underwent the name-change when Spiegel secured the rights to the Supremes' chart-topper of the same name, which hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1967. A gifted director with an auteur's aesthetic, Silverstein played Herb Alpert music for his actors to suggest a tempo conducive to wild abandon on the verge of catastrophe. Accustomed to the demands of stage acting, Dunaway found herself liberated by the comparatively experimental nature of picture-making. "I took to movies, and everything about them, like a duck to water," she wrote in her 1995 memoirs Looking for Gatsby. "I was truly in my element." Harder to accustom herself to was her status as "the girl" in a Hollywood film starring such name actors as Quinn, George Maharis, Michael Parks, and even Milton Berle, cast as Quinn's duplicitous business partner. Rather than be offended, and grateful for a chance to play someone other than a dutiful daughter or wife, Dunaway threw herself into the process of becoming a movie siren. "I took my voice down a register, a low husky sound," she recalled in 1995. "I wanted to get to the kind of latent aggression that exists when you know down to your bones that you look terrific."

Returning to her Florida stamping grounds to make her motion picture debut, Dunaway could not help but count The Happening as a win. Billeted at Miami's Palm Bay Club, she enjoyed the attentions of the hair and makeup departments, as well as the company of her costars. By all accounts, everyone got along famously - one storm-off-the-set tantrum by Michael Parks (still in his fledgling period as the next James Dean) notwithstanding. Though Dunaway was cast as Parks' lover, she found more offscreen rapport with fifth-billed Robert Walker, Jr., namesake son of the late actor Robert Walker and actress Jennifer Jones. Rather than engage in the expected backstage affair, the two enjoyed a sibling relationship that endured through the end of principal photography. The Happening was only a modest success for Columbia and did little for the careers of all involved, though for Dunaway was pointed to greater things - costar status opposite Warren Beatty in Arthur Penn's groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and a trio of Academy Award nominations that resulted in a 1977 Best Actress Oscar for her role in Sidney Lumet's Network (1976).

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Looking for Gatsby: My Life by Faye Dunaway with Betsy Shakey (Simon & Schuster, 1995)
Sam Spiegel by Natasha Fraser Cavassoni (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

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