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Mommie and Daddy Dearest: Remembering Terry O’Neill + Faye Dunaway’s slightly angry voicemail

“Apparently, Faye Dunaway had her favourite dog made into a pair of boots when it died. Well, that’s nothing to Jacks — she had her second husband made into a small cagoule when he died.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. A cagoule? Whoever heard of such a thing? It was small waisted evening jacket with Chanel buttons. As in life he was a tight fit that never suited me very well.”

Absolutely Fabulous, Happy New Year, 1995 

Remembering the irrepressible photographer Terry O’Neill on the third anniversary of his ascent to the great darkroom in the sky.

He was that legendary lensman, witty raconteur and ex-husband of Faye Dunaway who lived to tell the tale, until 2019 that is. In fact, he passed exactly two years to the day after his Bowie book launch at the absolutely fabulous Conran Shop in London’s Marylebone. And which I was fortunate to attend on 16 November 2017, having made a flying visit back to Blighty to catch a Bananarama reunion concert later that week. My desire, so bite me.

Talking of nanas, having also attended the opening of an exhibition of his work in Beverly Hills the year before, I can safely say that O’Neill was certainly one of the more interesting people that I’ve met (my Aussie companion who took the earlier 2016 ‘Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground’ photo remarked afterwards how despite Terry’s advancing years, there was a boyish cheekiness about his demeanour). 

A diminutive, natty dresser with a cockney accent, Terry was an Essex boy who loved jazz (he had ambitions to be a drummer before he fell into photography). And despite his who’s who portfolio boasting some of the most recognisable celebrity photos of all time, because he’d come up through the press ranks he never regarded himself as anything more than a “smudger” — Fleet Street slang for a news photographer in those pre-paparazzi days.

He was responsible for many of the most iconic, evocative images of our time, from the Swinging Sixties, the seminal seventies and beyond: Brigitte Bardot smoking a cheroot; Audrey Hepburn with a white dove on her shoulder; Elizabeth Taylor and David Bowie looking like star-crossed lovers; Elton John hamming it up at a packed Dodger Stadium; Sean Connery playing golf on the moon landing set of a Bond film; and Frank Sinatra storming over a Miami boardwalk with his heavies. Through El Tel’s lens, the viewer was often able to detect a more human side to the subjects than had usually been portrayed.

But although spent his life among the world’s most famous people, Terry had little time for the glitzy glamorous lifestyle so prevalent in this corner of California (“This is a strange town,” he told me at the Los Angeles launch). 

Well, despite marrying one of Hollywood’s most recognise female faces, that is. Another of his most famous shots is that of then girlfriend Faye Dunaway lounging next to the swimming pool at the crack of dawn at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the morning after winning the Oscar for Network.

Two years before they finally got hitched (and had son Liam), Terry was credited (as Terrence O’Neill) as an executive producer of the 1981 biographical drama Mommie Dearest, an “unintentional comedy” and camp, cult classic which saw diva play diva: Dunaway, portraying screen legend Joan Crawford as the self-obsessed, abusive and manipulative mother depicted in the book of the same name. 

The brutal biopic was critically panned, ridiculed and lambasted for a strange script and scenery-chewing acting, but it did win an award: Worst Picture at the 2nd Golden Raspberry Awards. 

Despite decent box office, the failure of the film infuriated Dunaway, and since its release has very rarely chosen to speak about it in interviews. Once an acclaimed actress of Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown (my personal fave, opposite Jack Nicholsonet al, she even blames Mommie Dearest for causing a decline in her career, and regrets taking on the role.

Did somebody mention coat hangers?

In 2006, the ferocious Faye left a series of hysterical voicemails for the producer of a documentary on her life called Jack, of whose work she, well, she was clearly not one of his fans. The one that leaked reveals she demanded all mention of her being booted off of the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard be excised, where she wasn’t up to the demands of singing and playing a fading Hollywood star at the same time. She didn’t want to include anything about Mommie Dearest either because it’s a “stupid cult … exploitation movie.”

Can we get this lady a Xanax?

In the audio, an extremely anger-fuelled Dunaway can be heard on expressing her contempt towards the film. She states that she is not interested in “dilly-dallying and tarrying over Mommie Dearest” and that she “does not even want to discuss it”. The hilariously frazzled actress even scorns the former hubby, sternly stating

“Look, I’ve, uh, raced some of the stuff from the O’Neill interview but I’m not really interested in Terry O’Neill. He’s a BIG, BIG liar and I’m really not interested in him and, you know, all the dilly-dallying and carrying on… Don’t even go there.”

No, let‘s…

Throughout the almost-two-minute rambling rant, the horrendous harridan frequently returns to the topic of Johnny Depp and the recently deceased Marlon Brando, asking the writer why they have failed to include any information about the film she did with them, Don Juan DeMarco (1994), however, the poor lady seems to have forgotten the name of the film she was so “brilliant in” and exasperatedly asks “why can’t you be obsessed about positive things?”. 

It’s hard to tell if Faye Dunaway become crazier than Joan Crawford, but anything is possible in La La Land.

Though to be charitable for a second, the tape recording does emphasise her frustration with the media’s obsession with highlighting the embarrassing and weaker moments of celebrities’ careers they’d rather forget, and despite the unintentional humour in her inflection, you can’t help but feel slightly sorry for Dunaway, who desperately wants to move on from Mommie Dearest and her ex husband and regain her top drawer status. Crikey, she could’ve made the most perfect Norma Desmond.

I bet El Tel was laughing all the way to the lightbox.

Memento Nori.

Terence Patrick O’Neill, photographer born 30 July 1938; died 16 November 2019

Steve Pafford

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