NEW YORK -- Her arms swinging, cigarette in hand, Faye Dunaway cuts across the flagstone floor of her New York apartment, the spikes of her high heels exploding like they were rigged with firecrackers. The apartment, which looks out over the reservoir from high up on Central Park West, is spacious, cluttered, lived-in. It's decorated (by Charles Gwathmey), but not in grand palais diva-style regal. It's more Milanese modernismo. Cassette tapes are scattered everywhere. Bowie. The Pretenders. Suzanne Vega. It looks like what it is: a place where a woman lives with her kid. Still, it provides Dunaway with plenty of runway for takeoff.

Faye Dunaway likes to make an entrance. And those strides of hers eat up a lot of ground. Before hitting her mark, though, there's a brief flourish offstage, a gargle of voices, a ruffling of the curtain, and then ... CLICK!CLICK!CLICK!CLICK! ... there she is, wearing a bright scarlet miniskirt and matching jacket, standing in front of the sofa.

"You're in my seat, kiddo!"

Faye Dunaway isn't your ordinary, everyday, garden-variety star. Dunaway is like a force of nature, a nimbus of temperament, a hurricane. Emotions -- big emotions -- pour out of her. Drama pours off of her. There's drama in the way she lights a cigarette -- which she does repeatedly, one after another -- drama in the way she laughs (head thrown back, the sound somewhere between a cough and a burst from a machine gun -- hoarse, robust, full of nervous intensity). Just sitting there on the sofa she's dramatic.

But at least in Dunaway's mind there's been a real change, a metamorphosis, a return to basics, professionally and personally. After five years in England, some well-received stage work in London, the release of a new movie and plans for more, the real woman is emerging. This is low-key Dunaway. Upbeat Dunaway. Dunaway on the rebound. Solid, down-to-earth, regular -- Dunaway the way Dunaway wants her to be. Well, sort of.

"I think it's finally buried, this bigger-than-life persona," Dunaway says, her bracelet jingling as she sips on her Perrier. "I really do. And thank God. Wanda has done it, I think, but if she hadn't, I would have found some way to do it, you can damn well be sure of that."

The Wanda she speaks of is Wanda Wilcox, the character she plays in her new film, "Barfly." The movie, which costars Mickey Rourke and was taken from an autobiographical script by Charles Bukowski about a pugilistic writer/drunk named Henry Chinaski, has received generally favorable reviews and, because of the uniformly enthusiastic notices for Dunaway, has jump-started her stalled movie career.

"It really has put to rest, what? ... I hate to call them the Crawford years ... but the years where I was perceived as someone who was overly strong. Overly dogmatic. Cruel. I'm exaggerating to make a point, but ... I think that it's made me human again."

In films like "Supergirl" and "Mommie Dearest," and TV movies like "Evita Peron," the Diva Dunaway was on display. This is the Dunaway who screamed, "No more wire hangers!," and, at a real low point in "The Wicked Lady," gave a topless lass a sound bullwhipping. Now this Dunaway is given the back of her hand.

"In those movies," Dunaway says, "I think people could have said, 'Where is she in this? What does this have to do with her?' At the time I thought, 'I don't know what I'm doing here. There's nothing of me here. It's not who I am.' And I've been working very, very hard not to let the grass grow under my feet. I've said, 'I want out of this.' And Wanda has given me another chance."

When Dunaway talks about "the Crawford years," they come across like the description of a bad car wreck. "I was horrified at the thought of doing Joan Crawford," she concedes. "I looked at it and went, 'What!?' But at the time, for whatever private reasons, I said yes. I still to this day do not know how I let myself do it, but ...

"Anyway! It was the worst. It was the one part I should never ever have done. It was nightmare time. I couldn't shake it.

"But I came through, though," she says, pulling herself up in her seat. "I found my own identity and nobody's ever going to tell me what to do again. I want to play real people. Real women. I want to be where the fun is -- closer to humanity."

Wanda is definitely a "real woman," and, for Dunaway, a character unlike any other she's ever attempted. "Wanda has absolutely no power. No power," Dunaway says, describing why this woman with filthy hair, a scar over one eyebrow and a five-piece wardrobe attracted her. In the movie, the Bukowski character, Henry Chinaski, describes her as "some kind of distressed angel." When they first speak, at a bar on L.A.'s skid row, and Henry asks, "Whaddaya do?," her answer is simple: "I drink."

"Bukowski said the best thing to me about that," Dunaway explains. "I said, 'How'm I gonna play this part, Hank? Gimme a clue.' And he said, 'Don't try.' And I said, "That's pretty tough for me, Hank. I been trying all my life.' And he said, 'You've done pretty well.' But that's Wanda -- don't try."

For Dunaway, not trying is death, which is why her performance in "Barfly" is such a triumph. There's a new solidity and groundedness in Dunaway's performance here, and a different kind of beaten-out sensuality. Wanda may be alcohol-ravaged, a burned-out case, but Dunaway has never seemed more womanly, more there on the screen. Playing a loser, she seems almost serene.

But if in "Barfly," Dunaway is scaled for real life -- human-sized -- the offscreen Dunaway is built to grand proportions. In person, her indomitability and lightning-flash intelligence can be formidable. At 46, she's a mixture of iron will and high-strung fragility, sort of a cross between Medea and Blanche DuBois (both roles she has played). Once she settles down on her end of the couch, though, the edge is smoothed out of the voice, which becomes a kind of smoky purr, and the tone becomes friendly, confidential. Still, talking to her requires intense concentration: It's a bit like charming a cobra (though she's not the least bit cobralike) -- a second's relaxation and she's off, bored, closed up shop. After 30 minutes, she looks down at the tape recorder and barks, "What is this -- a five-parter!?" She will not have her time wasted.

There is, perhaps, no other way for Dunaway to be. She is larger than life. If you believe the reports (some of which she owns up to), she can be just a trifle hard to work with. The stories usually have the same general shape: slavish attention to makeup and hair, half-day-long delays, tantrums, fights, recriminations, bad blood. After directing her in "Chinatown," Roman Polanski called her a "gigantic pain." The common thread, though, isn't that she's too wacked out to do the work, but that she's too neurotically perfectionist -- too driven.

This is the word that comes up over and over again, when Dunaway is talking or others are talking about her. There's a little passivity, a little give, in most actresses -- a desire to be molded into something else. And in order to do what they do, most of them leave a little open space inside themselves, a little room for their characters to fit into.

But there is none of this passivity in Dunaway. Her personality is full up, brimming over. There's more of her than she can hold, and it's that extra bit -- the surplus -- that she pours into her characters.

All that this amounts to is a definition of star acting. And since she emerged from "Bonnie and Clyde," there has been perhaps no more potent female star presence in the movies than Dunaway. As a performer, Dunaway is naturally extroverted. You can see this most obviously when she's playing a part like Diana in "Network" or the photographer in "The Eyes of Laura Mars" -- or the preacher's wife in "Little Big Man" or Milady de Winter in "The Three Musketeers" -- where no attempt is made to subdue her own vitality and forcefulness. But it's true as well of Evelyn Mulwray in "Chinatown." Or the reluctant accomplice in "Three Days of the Condor." Or Bonnie. Or Wanda. While she can be completely in character, the force of her own personality is always present.

Which brings us back to "driven." And to draw a bead on that one, we have to go back to the beginning.

"I think that somehow I got the notion that I had to be successful," Dunaway explains, her features backlit by the sunlight streaming in through the big window behind her, "to be the best in the world. But I didn't feel like the best in the world. I felt like" -- and here she goes into her little-girl voice -- " 'I'm only Dorothy Faye. I'm not the best in the world. I'm only 1 year old or 2 years old or 5 years old. And I really feel lost here.' It was an incorrect and maybe an uneducated interpretation of the American Dream. That kind of accident can happen and I think it happened to me. A lot of time has passed and I think I've gotten through it. Or I hope I have.

"But you're never completely through it," she says, lighting another cigarette, "are you?"

Dunaway's mother dressed her up in frilly dresses like Shirley Temple, sent her to ballet, piano, and tap classes and told her she was the most beautiful little girl in the world. At 5, Dorothy Faye made her performing debut. Her whole life, she was hellbent to become an actress. Then, having attained that, to become a star. There was no choice in this: It had to be.

But first there were bridges to burn. She was born in Bascom, Fla. -- a dusty backwater in the Panhandle area about a half-hour drive from the Georgia border. Her father was a farmer for a time, then made a career in the Army. The family -- Dunaway has a younger brother, Mac, who practices law in Washington -- traveled around from Army base to Army base in Texas, Arkansas, Utah and Mannheim, West Germany. When Faye was 13, her father left and she moved with her mother to Tallahassee.

After high school she went first on a scholarship to Florida State University, then transferred to the University of Florida and, finally, moved to Boston University's School of Fine Arts, where she studied acting and waited on tables.

In her senior year, she played the lead in the school's production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," directed by Lloyd Richards. Richards, knowing that he had uncovered an impressive new talent, recommended to Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead that they accept her in the actors' training program they were setting up at the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre.

At this point events rush by at a dizzying pace. As soon as she was informed of her acceptance at Lincoln Center, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She turned it down and stayed at Lincoln Center.

She wasn't destined to be simply another acting student for long, though. Almost immediately Robert Whitehead asked her to be a replacement in his production of "A Man for All Seasons" on Broadway. And so, on June 24, 1962, three weeks after her graduation from Boston University, she made her professional debut. In an article the following day, Dunaway remarked on her "Cinderella-like" good fortune by saying, "It's what's known as 'the break.' "

Looking back from a distance of 25 years, she says, "I was working. Doing the best I could. It was interesting."

Interesting, yes, but was it exciting? Was it ... fun? The question doesn't seem to register. In the instant before the answer comes, she seems to be mulling over the word in her head ... fun? fun? ... as if it were an alien concept.

"I've never had too much fun until lately, you know," she says quietly. "I was very determined. The straight-A girl. I wanted to succeed. Driven. Let's face it. Very driven."

The key to how Dunaway sees herself -- to her fantasy of herself and perhaps to what has driven her through her life -- may be in her identification with the character of Bonnie. "Bonnie and Clyde" begins with a close-up of Faye Dunaway's half-parted, cherry-red lips. As Bonnie, she looks at herself in a frosty mirror, and there's a faint smile of self-approval on her face -- the look of a girl reveling in the animal power of her own beauty. But the smile fades as she crosses, naked, to the bed. Stretched out on her back, she reaches up to the bars at the head of her bed and begins pounding them with her fists. And as she pulls herself up, the camera moves in tight on her eyes, and the whole girl is captured in them, all the frustration and anger and need to make a getaway.

"The closest I ever was to what I want to be to the public was Bonnie," Dunaway confesses. "And I feel that way because she's a Southern girl who really didn't have anything. Was always frustrated. Who wanted to go somewhere and to have control of her life. Who had a great hunger. For living, which is true of me. She's really quite tragic as well, which is not true of me. She's touching to me -- she's like a disillusioned child. She has that wonderful line where she says, 'I thought we were really going somewhere, but this is it, isn't it? We're just going.' In fact, she was going straight towards death. And that sort of thing wrenches your heart."

But what has this girl got to do with her?

"I grew up thinking," and here Dunaway's voice becomes an avid whisper, 'What else is there, where do I find it ... ?' I wanted to live." She breaks off here and her voice stiffens. "Anyway, I don't know what I'm trying to say really. I am who I am and, you know, I've done the best I can with what I've been given."

Some sense of harmony -- a balance in her life, an equilibrium among work, ambition, love and family -- is also clearly something Dunaway has sought, and largely in vain. She talks about her psychoanalysis, which Elia Kazan encouraged, and which, she claims, "has changed my life." And with greater conviction, about her 7-year-old son, Liam, who she says "has helped me put things in perspective."

"These children, I tell you, they give you a second chance," she explains. "You look at them and you think, 'Oh, so that's what's important.' We went to the beach this past weekend and it's like the movie cameras should've been rolling. In the middle of it all, I said to myself, 'This can't be happening to me. I don't believe this. It was just GREAT! GREAT! He's helped me a lot -- saved my life really."

According to Dunaway, things are better now than they've ever been. But over the years this sort of announcement has been made fairly regularly. In 1984, she told an interviewer, "I feel more in balance with myself and with everything around me -- my home, my family life, my career." On another occasion, some years earlier, she put it this way: "I'm calmer, more in control of my career, and having much more fun because for the first time I am not denying all the facets of who I am." In 1975, she was "never more together." And so on.

So why all the seesawing self-assessments? Well, for one thing, Dun-

away's romantic life -- which is off-limits for interviewers -- has been rather a mess. Let's take out the scrapbook, throw the snapshots on the bed. Here's a 1969 picture of Faye on the set of "A Place for Lovers" in Venice with Marcello Mastroianni, her off-again, on-again lover for two years. (When it was over, Mastroianni accused her of "having bony knees," to which she replied, "All Capricorns have bony knees.") And another one from '74 with Faye and her then-husband Peter Wolf, the lead singer for the J. Geils Band, wearing matching aviator glasses. Here's Faye again in the late '60s wearing a Bonnie-style beret with Jerry Schatzberg, then a photographer ("I don't think they make great life partners," Dunaway says) and later her director in "Puzzle of a Downfall Child." And here are two more shots: of Faye and her ex-husband, the British photographer Terry O'Neill, at a party, with Faye decked out in black silk taffeta with organdy ruffles; and Faye and Terry, casually dressed, wheeling Liam down a New York sidewalk in his stroller.

And what's the bottom line on this subject: "There is more to life than being someone's woman."

There's another, fairly well-known photograph in the pile too. This one is by O'Neill. It's a morning-after picture, taken poolside in 1977 after she won the Oscar for "Network." In it, Dunaway is slumped down in her chair, her head resting on her right arm, wearing a soft pink silk robe and black high heels with one long leg exposed up to her thigh. Scattered all around are newspapers, most of them open to the Oscar stories. And standing tall on the table in the midst of all this is Dunaway's own gleaming statuette, but the faraway look in Dunaway's eyes isn't the one we'd expect. So what was the Oscar-winning actress thinking on the morning after her triumph?

"Is that all there is?" she says after pausing half a beat. "Terry got me up at the crack of dawn to take that picture. And it had been a very long night. I collapsed!" she remembers, laughing.

"I mean, the Oscar's the pinnacle. To me it's a great honor. So the look didn't say, 'Who cares?' I was just saying, 'Yeah, but what's next? Where's my life?' "

All this Oscar talk prompts Dunaway to walk over to the table and pick up the object from its resting place. And when she does the bottom falls off.

"Here, check out this little sweetheart," she says, plunking the thing in her interviewer's lap. "First of all, it's heavy. It comes apart. It's not real gold. And believe me, when you're walking up there in spike heels and they hand you this thing, you think your knees are gonna give way. I think I said, 'This is heavy.' And, yeah, it is heavy. But it's not what you're working for. What it is is it's very nice. Very nice. But it's not really your business."

This said, she scoops the thing up again in both hands and coos, "Go back behind the angels, baby. Go behind the flowers," she eases it back into its space on the table.

At this point Dunaway takes off her belt, takes off the jangling bracelet, and slumps down a little farther on the sofa. "It's been a long day," she says, breathing out a sigh. "I hate talking about myself. It's so exhausting. I'd rather be listening to Suzanne Vega or Bob Dylan."

The sun is setting behind her and she has to take a nap before going to see U2 that night. She talks easily now. The brazen edge she showed at the start of the interview has given way to a kind of pleasure in the give-and-take. She seems actually to enjoy the contact and, as a result, it makes her seem less daunting and immensely likable. When she says, again, that things are better for her now, you almost believe her. Or want to.

The real question is whether Dunaway will ever be free enough, as she puts it, "to have a few relaxed, easy moments," to let up on the throttle. To be a little more like Wanda and "Don't try." Now, at least, she can look back over her career and say she's "sorta pleased" with the work, that is, up to a point. "It can never be perfect. I've watched Bonnie at various times over the years and sometimes I think, 'Oh my God!' At other times I think, 'It's not bad at all.' It's not actually bad. It's not actually bad.

"But I could never say that I thought I was good. I don't actually ever feel satisfied with my work. No, you gotta push towards that edge, otherwise you'll never grow, you'll never learn anything, you'll never achieve anything. You'll never reach that moment of freedom."

Then she pauses and thinks for a minute. "Maybe I'm still too hard on myself. I suppose I shall be till the day I die.