Star 80 May 15, 2017
Hollywood’s first century.” Making its debut in 2014, each season has been sonically varied. One might tell tales of actors and actresses who stayed home during World War II. Another might cover the Charles Manson nightmare of the late 1960s.
The most recent season, subtitled “Dead Blondes,” has done exactly what one might expect: tell the untold stories of golden-haired beauties who died before they could reach their prime, usually tragically. Some choices have been obvious — Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly are among the harem of subjects. But most have been unusual, ranging from Marx Brothers wing-woman Thelma Todd to the self-destructive Barbara Payton, who saw fame for a brief stretch in the early ‘50s only to eventually descend into a life of alcoholism and prostitution, dying at the age of 39.
The results have been illuminating. Recurring is the hard truth that many of these actresses burned so brightly at the peaks of their careers that even the smallest of a falter in public interest could derail their senses of self entirely. Because when you’re so ethereally beautiful and grow accustomed to being Hollywood’s hottest commodity — no matter how short a period — the inevitable decline is not such an easy thing to psychologically handle. Unless you’re like many of the actresses spotlighted in “Dead Blondes” — then maybe you’ll meet your demise before that inevitable decline arrives.
In anticipating the season finale of the podcast, which occurred on the 25th, I found myself expecting to hear about an actress in sync with the better known subjects of the series. Maybe someone like Betty Grable or Jean Seberg. But Longworth’s choice was unexpected. Her pick was Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy model-turned-actress who was murdered at the age of 20 by Paul Snider, her jealous husband, shortly before she was poised to hit the big time.
Coming into the episode, my knowledge of the blonde beauty was baseline. She’s forever etched in my mind as Peter Bogdanovich’s would-be muse and short-term love who never got the opportunity to really prove herself artistically. But in the aftermath of listening was I distinctly disturbed. So many of the actresses discussed in “Dead Blondes” had mostly been victims of their own self-destruction, usually influenced by the misogyny of the foul men to whom they chose to give their bodies and/or by the accidentally short attention span of the general population.
But Stratten’s story takes on an entirely different tone. Here is a woman — unassuming, defenseless, young, beautiful — who could have had it all. But she lost everything, not because of bad decisions but because one man’s desire to control her eventually became so powerful that she unfairly ended up playing the price for his dementia. And that makes her brief life all the more heartrending: had Stratten not been so barbarously destroyed, she could have been a somebody not simply known for being great at taking off her clothes. During her life, she didn't let fame affect her self-perception — it pushed her to work harder, to better herself. She had talent.
And every moment of 1983’s Star 80, Bob Fosse’s magnificent — albeit harrowing — account of Stratten's rise to fame and her relationship with Snider, is dipped in a palpable melancholy. A terrific Mariel Hemingway, still a relative newcomer who had been nominated for an Oscar for her supporting performance in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), is transformed into a sex goddess as Stratten. An excellent Eric Roberts, pornstached and sputtering, fashions himself not into a despicable brute but rather a vulnerable, distinctly unhinged soul who made the tragic mistake of meeting the wrong woman.
Star 80 was the second movie made about Stratten and Snider’s relationship. The first was a Jamie Lee Curtis-starring 1981 TV movie I suspect is tasteless considering how soon after it was made after the murder. But this film, adapted from Death of a Playmate, the Teresa Carpenter-penned, Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice article, never feels exploitative. It is respectful of Stratten’s legacy, analytical toward Snider’s raging inner demons, and warns of the dangers of our male-dominated society’s tendency to look at women as property and not as women. It’s terrifying. But it's brilliant.
Star 80 opens with a fleeting glimpse of the grisly murder, ensuring that every moment in the film which features Stratten happy and hopeful be undermined by unfathomable sadness. It is mostly a straight-laced biopic, beginning with Stratten and Snider’s initial introduction and ending with Snider’s demolition of her potential.
Originally, we see Stratten as a teenager working minimum wage at a Dairy Queen. She aspires to someday be a secretary, a wife and mother. She’s simple, grounded. She doesn’t plan on doing anything particularly special with her life.
But when Snider, a small-time con artist and pimp, sees her for the first time, he’s hypnotized. In Stratten, he sees a sex goddess in the making. (Or, as he puts it, a woman who could make him a lot of money.) Though he’s nine years older, he takes it upon himself to become her Svengali. He decides that Stratten will be Hugh Hefner’s (Cliff Robertson) latest obsession, coercing her into posing nude for a series of Polaroid photographs to be sent to the pornographic king as an "audition." When Hefner voices his approval of Stratten, Snider forges her mother’s (Carroll Baker) signature of approval and the twosome makes their way down to Los Angeles.
Upon arrival, Stratten is immediately swept into the world of Playboy, becoming August 1979’s Playmate of the Month and, by the end of the year, the Playmate of 1980. Being that she’s stunning and a natural in front of the camera, she even begins receiving small roles in film and television. A transition from nude model to successful actress seems imminent, especially after she meets a big-time Hollywood director (clearly molded after Bogdanovich) who offers her a prominent part in a respectable production which could turn her into a movie star.
In a matter of 18 months, Stratten changes from naive teen to intelligent, self-sufficient woman. She knows what she wants, and she’s well aware that she has enough talent in her pocket to get herself to the high heights she wants to reach. But in the meantime, Snider sinks lower and lower into a vat of sex addiction, drug usage, and general sleaziness. He wants so much to be a part of Stratten’s progressively affluent world. But it’s clear that that isn't going to happen — estrangement is looming. And this causes him to snap.
Star 80 summarizes much of the disparity between Fosse’s work on Broadway and his work in film. In the theater, Fosse was a more cynical version of Stanley Donen, mostly directing sprightly musicals with a couple hints of sardonicism. But by contrast, his best movies were steeped in disappointment, tragedy, and overarching, naturalistic dread. Cabaret (1972) is a colorful musical which descends into the horrors of Nazi terror and sexual repression. All That Jazz (1979) is a startlingly bleak look at one man’s fall from grace.
Star 80, which ended up being the filmmaker’s last feature before his death from a heart attack in 1987, is the darkest movie he ever made. It’s hopeless, despairing; this is a film in which the sun doesn't shine, in which every smile bruises because the fate awaiting its toxically paired leading duo is so prevalent in our minds.
Some might ask why such a movie was made. What is the point of showcasing the grime future of a young woman en route to having everything? The answer isn’t easy. But I think Fosse didn’t go into the making of Star 80 with the intent of using a potentially money-making true crime story to further his career. I think he aimed to tell something of a cautionary tale. To tell of the wrongs of treating a human like an object to be altered and manipulated for one’s own gain. To try to bridge the gap between obscurity and notoriety.
Most punishingly, Star 80 centers its scathe around Playboy, and how the company’s perpetuation of sex without consequences and the accessibility of images to fantasize over really can have horrifying repercussions. Snider was undeniably an unstable man. But would he have so obsessively forced Stratten into exhibitionism if he weren’t subtexually told time and time again by Hefner and his scuzzy associates that all your sexual wishes could come true if you pushed hard enough to make them a reality?
Upon release in 1983, Star 80 was, of course, met with backlash by many of the people depicted in the film. Hugh Hefner sued the film’s producers following the feature’s release. (Odd, considering that the movie doesn’t generally characterize him negatively). The names of Bogdanovich and Stratten’s mother were changed to avoid legal consequences, though Bogdanovich was still not a vocal supporter of the feature.
But critically, it was triumph, famously deemed by Roger Ebert “an important movie.” Roberts was nominated for a Golden Globe. And yet Star 80 has faded into the twilight. Understandably — it’s too painful to watch a second time. But this is a movie which needs to be seen. In our inherently misogynistic society, a feature like Star 80 should serve as a cinematic alarm, a call to action. A
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
very Tuesday morning since Jan. 30, 2017, I’ve undertaken something of a ritual. I wake up — say around 8:15 a.m. if I’m feeling particularly punctual — crawl out of bed, and dive into the latest episode of my favorite podcast, You Must Remember This, as I get ready for the day. Hosted by Karina Longworth, the former film editor for L.A. Weekly, the show puts its attention onto “the secret and/or forgotten history of