Dorothy Stratten will be America’s dream girl, the Playmate of the Year. But the camera snapping her beauty doesn’t capture the whole story. out of view is Paul Snider, the man who steered Dorothy to stardom…and finally killed her.
Star 80 7.75
eyelights: Eric Roberts’ unforgettable performance. its unusual structure.
eyesores: its unusual structure.
“You won’t forget Paul Snider.”
Dorothy Stratten was a Playboy Playmate from Vancouver, BC. She rose to prominence very quickly after being found in a Dairy Queen by Paul Snider, who became her manager and spouse. Within less than two years, she was Miss August 1979 and, in 1980, became Playmate of the Year. She started to land acting roles in a variety of movies, including a Peter Bogdonavich film.
Then she was murdered.
‘Star 80’ is the story of Stratten’s rise from Paul Snider’s perspective, as he hustles his way through the club scene trying to make a buck and bed women and then tries to get a foothold in Hollywood through Stratten’s connections at the Playboy Mansion. Transparently fake, however, he finds himself rejected by everyone he meets, eventually even Stratten, and spins out of control.
And shoots her. Then himself.
Released in 1983, two years after the TV movie ‘Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story’, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, the Bob Fosse picture wasn’t a success. It also famously found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit courtesy of Hugh Hefner, who didn’t appreciate how he was portrayed onscreen. But it’s widely recognized for Eric Roberts’ performance.
Playing Paul Snider, Roberts is every inch the two-bit player and opportunist, smooth-talking his way into ventures that would eventually fail and into the lives of people he would use. In many ways, Roberts’ disquieting performance is reminiscent of Willem Dafoe’s turn in David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’: all teeth, artificial grin and glimmer emanating through the sleeze.
It’s an unforgettable incarnation that Hefner described as being entirely accurate, having been host to Snider many times before eventually barring him from the Playboy Mansion. Personally, though I find the character credible I’m always left incredulous watching Roberts, looking as if he’s merely acting – forgetting that Snider himself was a performance, a fraud.
Watching him practice his greetings in the mirror, narcissistically flexing his toned body and flashing his crafted smile, made it clear that he was a self-styled fabrication craving acceptance and success. This is mixed with an insecurity and rage that makes him unstable and dangerous – so, from the onset, we are aware that we will be watching a slow downward spiral.
How Roberts didn’t get more awards nominations for his performance is unfathomable.
Mariel Hemmignway took on the role of Stratten and is perfectly lovely and credible in the part – though she resembles in no way the original. The problem for me is that she plays Stratten sweetly in the same way that she played Tracy in Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ – except nude, much of the time. She appears ill-fit, Stratten’s glamour hanging awkwardly on her.
Bob Fosse chose to reproduce a lot of Stratten’s pictures with Hemmingway in the latter’s stead and all these glamourous and sexy shots pepper the picture to tremendous effect, but he also chose a structure that is very unusual, alternating between the past and present, romance, ambition and tragedy: from the onset, we know that Snider has murdered someone.
Of course, by 1983, Stratten’s tragic fate was well-documented and known, so perhaps Fosse chose to avoid the usual chronological build-up for that reason. It works, but it makes the film a bit creepy because it mixes Stratten’s initial freshness with Snider’s complete breakdown. The contrast is so jarring that it can make the picture a bit difficult to swallow.
And it’s also why it works so well. By focusing on Snider, instead of Stratten, Fosse showed us a different perspective than you’d expect: that of a loser desperately trying to cling to a winner, instead of just showing us a beautiful and lovely girl becoming a victim. This was probably the only way to make this story work, to make it stand out from other similar tales.
But it still feels awkward – perhaps, intentionally so.
Fosse also chose to intercut the picture with “interview” footage of the many people who knew Stratten and Snider, telling us their impressions of both, gradually growing the distance between the two. It also adds interviews with Mariel as Stratten being interviewed by journalists, talking about her experiences as a Playboy model, fleshing out her public personality.
Ultimately, ‘Star 80′ is a fairly unforgettable motion picture. Though its tale is familiar in many ways, Roberts’ performance and Bob Fosse’s approach make sure that it leaves an imprint on your mind, whether you like it or not. It gets you into the mind of its main characters, makes you wonder -if not care- about them in ways that most picture never do.
And then it devastates you with its outcome – even though that had been in your rear-view mirror all along.
Such is the power of inspired storytelling.
Date of viewing: October 23, 2016