STAR 80 (1983)
If the only movie Bob Fosse had directed was Cabaret (1972), he would deserve an honored place in film history for creating the modern movie musical. In only 14 years between 1969 and 1983 Fosse not only redefined the movie musical, he also became an accomplished and inventive dramatic director. With All That Jazz (1979) he created an incisive yet entertaining portrait of a director facing his own mortality as he simultaneously finishes a feature film, mounts a Broadway musical and tries to manage an increasingly tortured personal life.
Star 80, the last of Fosse’s five films, is a dark examination of fame and its corrosive effects on a sociopath. It is the tragic true story of Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), a struggling young hustler who gets his big break when he discovers Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), an innocent and beautiful high school girl working at a Vancouver Dairy Queen. Against the better judgment of her mother (Carroll Baker), Dorothy accepts Paul’s offer to escort her to her high school prom. After a whirlwind courtship the couple are married and Paul begins taking cheesecake photos of his young wife. Soon he has a professional photographer take pictures of Dorothy to be submitted to Playboy magazine. Dorothy is chosen for a photo shoot by the magazine’s publisher Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson). The couple relocates to Los Angeles for the event. Soon Dorothy is regularly attending parties at the Playboy mansion with Paul in tow claiming to be her “manager” (even though he has no contract with her). Paul awkwardly attempts to ingratiate himself with “Hef” but he soon realizes he is out of his league. Ultimately Dorothy’s charming “girl next door” quality leads to her being named “Playmate of the Year.”
Always controlling of Dorothy, even at her first professional photo shoot in Canada, Paul attempts to control her in Los Angeles as well. But his influence slips away as Dorothy’s professional commitments to the Playboy organization, and later to Hollywood studios, leaves Paul as the odd man out. Eventually Dorothy graduates from roles in low budget “B” movies to a featured role in a film by major director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees). Dorothy confides in Aram about Paul’s behavior and he encourages her to make a clean break from her abusive husband. Dorothy begins an affair with the older sympathetic director as Paul becomes even more jealous and unhinged. Naively believing that Paul will be reasonable, Dorothy decides to deliver the breakup news in person at their apartment. Paul’s rage at this time is so out of control that he resorts to a horrific act of violence.
In All That Jazz, Fosse delved into the ill effects of fame on a talented creative person. Snider had no talent but he was a show business wannabe who was at once narcissistic, crude, manipulative, insecure, and emotionally immature. The title Star 80 itself comes from the vanity license plate Paul Snider got for an expensive sports car he bought counting on Dorothy’s potential earnings to pay off the loan. In Star 80 Fosse also dissects how the system of fame can corrupt anyone it touches. Even Dorothy’s mother is not immune from the siren call when her daughter becomes a star. Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner seems to be a perfect gentleman who treats Dorothy with a degree of respect. But without missing a beat after her death he evaluates slides of the next potential Playmate. In the movie Fosse continues the semi-documentary style he developed in Lenny (1974) with characters speaking directly to camera as if they were in a candid interview situation. He also cuts back and forth in time as he did in both Lenny and All That Jazz. With Star 80 Fosse foreshadows the film’s conclusion as he flashes forward to snippets of Paul raging in the Los Angeles apartment.
Fosse perfectly cast his two leads. Mariel Hemingway skillfully portrays Dorothy’s guilelessness. Eric Roberts is downright scary in the role of Paul Snider as he shifts from masculine bravado to self-loathing to manic destructive fury. Star 80 is a brutal and frightening film to watch, made even more so by the fact that the incidents really happened and that Fosse artfully depicts the milieu in which they occurred. Vancouver and Los Angeles serve as the backdrop to luminescent cinematography by Sven Nykvist, longtime cameraman for Ingmar Bergman. Sharp editing by Alan Heim and original music by Ralph Burns are topnotch. Star 80 is not only one of the best true crime films ever made, it is also a masterwork by one of America’s greatest directors.
It should be noted that some names were changed in the movie. The film director portrayed in the movie was actually Peter Bogdanovich. The movie he made featuring Dorothy Stratten was They All Laughed (1980). The film is a charming romantic comedy starring Ben Gazarra, Audrey Hepburn, and John Ritter. It gives us a glimpse at what Dorothy Stratten’s future might have been as an actress.
Unfortunately there are no extras on the Warner Archive release of Star 80 because it is a “Made on Demand” DVD. We can be grateful, however, that the movie is now available in its original 1.85:1 screen format because it had previously only been available in the old 1.33:1 television format. For more information about Bob Fosse I highly recommend the abundant extras on the Criterion Blu-ray release of All That Jazz and the biography Fosse by Sam Wasson.
DIR: Bob Fosse. PROD: Grace Blake, Wolfgang Glattes, Kenneth Utt. SCR: Bob Fosse based on the Village Voice article “Death of a Playmate” by Theresa Carpenter. CIN: Sven Nykvist. ED: Alan Heim. SCORE: Ralph Burns. Color. Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1. Running Time: 103 min. Alan Ladd Company and Warner Brothers release. DVD release: Warner Archive (www.wbshop.com).