Retro Cinema: Star 80

Andrew reviews Star 80, the story of Dorothy Stratten.
"Honey, I just love your sexy knees!!!"
The final film of Academy Award winning director and famed musical choreographer Bob Fosse tells the tragic true story of the murder of Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway). And yet Star 80 is less about the late starlet than it is about the man who ended her life, her husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). 

Loosely based on the Pulitzer Prize winning article Death of a Playmate, the film is told through a series of recollections from colleagues, friends and relatives of Stratten’s and how all could smell trouble from miles away in Snider. Cutting between Snider’s past as a small time scam artist manufacturing weight lifting machines, part time pimp, and eventual founder of the male strip club Chippendale’s, the film notifies us immediately of Stratten’s death as a manic and murderous Snider looms over her lifeless body. Soon we are drawn into the story of how Snider saw a star in Stratten and brought her to the attention of Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson). As Stratten begins to realize Snider is a drag on both her professional and personal life, so too does Snider’s violent anger, jealousy and self-loathing boil over into a volatile explosion.
Not completely unlike an E-True Hollywood Story (inevitably one was made), Star 80 isn’t so much about what happened as why. How could the budding career of an up and coming film starlet end so violently? Why didn’t Stratten see the writing on the wall everyone else she knew saw so clearly in Snider? Perhaps the question can best be answered by Eric Roberts’ portrayal of Snider, in a spectacular performance that begs the question: why wasn’t he nominated for an Academy Award?  Few actors portray characters with this many demons so completely without making it feel forced or phony. With Roberts, you really could meet this man in passing before thinking of the nearest escape route. Take for instance a scene where Snider is in Hugh Hefner’s mansion and is mingling with Hollywood screenwriters and other top names. Wearing a clean cut suit, smiles and a firm handshake, Snider’s desperate bluff clearly comes across as no different than a con man. But Roberts’ Snider goes beyond desperation and reveals a truly pathetic human being beneath the façade. This is the kind of acting that should be studied as an example to learn from and respect! Newcomer and eventual Academy Award winning actress Mariel Hemingway is equally powerful as the naïve, voluptuous beauty who just nearly approaches the prowess and maturity of a professional business woman before her life is sadly cut short.   

Star 80 is also not completely focused on Snider’s exploitation, but the collective commodification within the Hollywood system. Stratten is bounced back and forth between Snider, executives, and eventually a film director (Peter Bogdanovich, though the name was changed for the film), each man taking advantage of the woman to some degree or another before she too begins to play the game of using people to climb the social ladder. No one is completely innocent here, and next to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Bernard Rose’s ivansxtc, this is one of the most actively anti-Hollywood films ever produced. With pristine cinematography by Ingmar Bergman’s director of photography Sven Nykvist and a brooding electronic score by Ralph Burns, Bob Fosse’s Star 80 is a downbeat yet powerful, unforgettable masterpiece, a deeply sad meditation on the sordid underbelly of the entertainment industry from one of cinema’s most beloved entertainers.  

8/10 -Andrew Kotwicki