Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gown with the Wind

As mentioned in a prior post, The Towering Inferno was the movie in which I realized that actors actually were used more than once rather than only doing one film in their lifetime. I was already aware of Faye Dunaway as a persona thanks to her work in The Three Musketeers and so was especially excited to see her amid the gigantic cast of Inferno.

She has a fun introductory scene in which Paul Newman comes into his office and starts talking to a large, high-backed chair. He removes a hat from this person the viewer cannot see and then Miss D. rises up to plant a devouring kiss on him. She obviously has read Dr. Atkins 1972 book because she informs Paul that he's better than a cheeseburger. "All protein. No bread." After they enjoy a mid-afternoon romp in the small bedroom she has prepared right off his office, she is seen modeling the red lingerie he has brought back from an extended trip. Faye and Paul make, to my mind, close to the perfect couple despite their ultimate lack of scenes together.

Later, when it's time for the grand opening gala of The Glass Tower, the title edifice which unfortunately bursts into flame on the big night, we see Dunaway in a dark taupe chiffon evening gown that barely covers her top and two back panels which waft behind her as she walks. Though the color is nothing to shoot the cat over, the style of the dress is remarkably provocative and unspeakably glamorous, especially as the evening wears on.

Eventually, she is trapped at the top of this 138 story building and one of the rescue attempts involves knocking out the windows of the top floor restaurant. This creates a strong draft which gives Faye a chance to play with her dress as it billows around. Shortly thereafter, she ascends to the roof of the building to meet a rescue helicopter and here things go really wild, with her gown flying all over the place. Finally, she is placed inside a scenic elevator that is knocked off its tracks midway down. Again, she is placed in a situation where her dress is given life by the air around her.

I can't possibly understand why this sort of thing appealed (and appeals!) to me, but it instilled in me an obsession with light fabric caught in the wind that has never left me. I suppose our early experiences at the cinema tend to leave an imprint on us and this was mine. All I know is that I could watch any clip of Faye Dunaway in this movie on a continuous loop and never tire of it! There's something also about the way she is clearly trying desperately to make some sort of impression in the film when her role is thankless window dressing. She imparts all of her few lines with a delicious repressed urgency and parades around like a goddess, frequently using her dress to draw attention to herself. (Check out, especially, the scene in which a crowd of people is listening to Paul Newman announce the use of the glass elevator and when it starts to break up, she remains behind on purpose and then grabs her dress in a way that grabs our eye!)

Costume designer Paul Zastupnevich (yes, that Paul Zastupnevich! LOL) worked almost exclusively with producer Irwin Allen and was Oscar-nominated three times for his trouble. Astonishingly, he was NOT nominated for The Towering Inferno, in which he created one of the most remarkable dresses of all time. In a bizarre twist, critics and audiences began chiding the man for having Faye "wear chiffon to a fire." This is lunacy! Of course, she was wearing chiffon to the dedication party of the world's tallest building that just happened to catch fire. The clothes he designed for the movie lent incredible visual interest to it and wouldn't have been the same if the ladies had been in brocade or velvet. It's one of the great oddities of Academy Award history. However, even he knew that Faye's dress was, perhaps, attention-getting for the wrong reasons. He was quoted as saying that "half of the suspense was wondering whether Faye was going to fall out of that dress." Remarkably, she never employed anything such as tape to hold it on. Her regal posture was all that was necessary.
Her descent in the scenic elevator is one of my all time favorite shots in a movie. As the car begins to descend, she turns to face the outside of the building, clasps her hands together in an almost prayerlike formation and holds her head a certain way under the overhead light. This serves to turn her high-cheekboned face into a skull-like death mask. And the ride down does turn out to be a deadly one for one of the passengers.
Faye spent countless hours making sure she looked just so for this movie and she caught some major heat for it from William Holden who was tired of waiting for her on the set. Reportedly, he pressed her up against a wall and gave her what-for and her punctuality improved afterwards. In any case, I have never been more grateful to an actress/designer collaboration than I am to Faye and Paul (Z.) who together presented the movies with an unforgettable image.

Someone decided that a hefty chunk of her scenes would be better left out of the final print. Thankfully, an extended TV version included these and the 2-disc DVD includes them as well, as a bonus feature. I can think of quite a few other story fragments which could have been snipped instead, but at least they're available to see!


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