The last film directed by acclaimed choreographer and director Bob Fosse, is a a bleak tale of obsession, both for fame and romance, swathed in questions regarding public persona and the exploitation of women. Watching Star 80 is even more dour, because it shows how little our desire to consume, particularly the nude bodies of young women, have changed.
Star 80 documents the life and tragic death of Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) at the hands of her obsessive ex-husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts).
Director Bob Fosse’s last two works are painful autobiographies of a life in decline. Certainly, 1979’s All That Jazz was a testament to Fosse’s life and career, along with the doubts and guilt he felt about getting older. Star 80 continues that “What if…” element of his career, albeit with absolutely nothing positive or cathartic present. It’s a film both completely different from any of Fosse’s previous films, yet commenting on ideas he kept referring back to, particularly regarding masculinity, torturous relationships, the struggle to stay on top of one’s fame, and the introspection coming from turning the spotlight back on Fosse. Mostly, Fosse’s movies focus on fucked-up men and the women who love them.
Filmed just three years after the real-life events, Fosse said he made Paul Snider the main character because he identified with him. Fosse was quoted as saying had he not made it in Hollywood, he could have easily become Snider himself. This might give Snider a bit too much credibility, but Fosse’s male characters are almost always driven to the harsh lights of stardom, ultimately giving their lives away for it. In the wake of Joe Gideon, Fosse’s representation of himself in All That Jazz, it’s easy to see Snider as a companion, albeit catering a bit too much to Fosse’s neuroses than being a representation of the real person.
The film’s opening sequence hews close to Gideon’s “It’s showtime, folks,” with Eric Roberts’ Snider trying on various ways of introducing himself, in the hopes of helping him stick out. For all his beliefs he’s a people person – he always makes sure to remember names – others just know there’s something creepy and off-putting about him. It’s this intangible creep factor Roberts taps into, presenting a man whose charm always feels fake, although, on the surface, it is nice. He’s the spider setting the web for the innocent fly, in this case, Dorothy. Much like other Fosse men, Paul dreams of being a big shot; he wants to be able to tell people he knows Telly Savalas and have it be the truth. Ultimately, one big hit – the loss of Dorothy – leaves him floundering of an identity. Unlike Gideon, Snider never feels guilty about his own actions, merely wronged at what a woman has allowed him to become.
Eric Roberts isn’t just chilling as Paul Snider, but there’s an added layer of fear for his portrayal of an emotionally manipulative and abusive husband. Inserted throughout the movie are moments from the actual Stratten murder (and they actually filmed in the real apartment where the murder happened). These aren’t moments of gore, but illustrate Snider’s deteriorating mind. He feels he’s been wronged, that Hollywood’s popularity contest has counted him out. Furthermore, the amount of people commenting throughout the film about Snider’s obsessive tendencies leaves audiences questioning why no one stopped him. When does someone take another’s quirks seriously, before someone else gets hurt?
Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine where Stratten’s pictures were published, ended up suing the producers after the film’s release for how he was depicted (played by Cliff Robertson). Where Hefner probably took umbrage was the comparison that Playboy, and himself, peddle just as much flesh as Snider does. Stratten’s pictures constantly flash across the screen, coupled with Robertson’s Hefner analyzing photos of the next “girl next door.” Stratten becomes just another month in the Playboy centerfold calendar, toeing the party line about the magazine being a family, meanwhile she is taught the “bunny dip” and becomes an object to oogle in the magazine and the mansion. We continue to live in a world where women’s bodies are purchased and served up for male consumption. Fosse attempts to zero in on that, but considering Snider is the main character, Fosse never tells us what we should do with that information. There are countless Paul Snider’s out there in the world
This leads questioning the agency of Fosse’s female characters, and none of them are perfect. Dorothy Stratten falls somewhere in between Shirley MacLaine’s Charity, of Sweet Charity (1969), and Valerie Perrine’s Honey Bruce in Lenny (1974). Mariel Hemingway is gorgeous but it’s hard seeing Dorothy as anything more than a doomed pawn in a man’s game. She has little agency, dragged into the world of Playboy by Paul, and eventually finding love with director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees, the character is inspired by director Peter Bogdanovich). Paul’s meltdown stems from Dorothy’s progression from little girl to grown-woman, but she never has her own identity outside of the men she dates. Even her mother (played by Carroll Baker) is impotent in stopping Dorothy from entering the Playboy world, her signature mysterious forged on the release waiver. The film’s saddest element is left unspoken: that, too often, women are consigned to whatever their male significant other wishes them to be
One of the more outrageous scenes comes during Stratten’s demise (and, 32 years later, plays on a similar controversy found in The Wolf of Wall Street) where she offers herself up to Paul in the hopes of placating him, apologizing to him, take it how you will. The scene blurs the line between consensual and rape so much so, that Dorothy’s death leaves the audience wondering if Dorothy really wanted the sex. The true series of events will never be known, but the movie never even touches on the fact that, it was assumed, based on the positioning of Stratten’s body that Snider raped her. Here, it plays as an ambiguous “did she or didn’t she” moment, almost romantically binding the two lovers together when that was far from the case.
Compared to other true crime stories, Star 80 takes the basic premise – and there are far more similarities than omissions – and injects them with a fair bit of social commentary regarding the societal demands for fame and glamour built on women’s backs. Warner Archive’s recent rerelease of the DVD (with a new aspect ratio of 16×9) will definitely entice those wanting to finish the fantastic films Bob Fosse directed. Eric Roberts is a perfect psycho.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.