Sunday, August 30, 2015

Star 80 (1983, Bob Fosse)

It's a testament to the intensity and visceral impact of Bob Fosse's final film Star 80, that a few days after re-watching it, Star 80-inspired dreams (nightmares?) were waking me up at all hours of the night. The recent Warner Archive-issued DVD of the film is its first-ever widescreen release on home video, at least in Region 1 land, and it has been long overdue.  The reality-based drama is not an easy watch by any means, due to its very upsetting, sordid subject matter--it dramatizes the rapid rise of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (played by Mariel Hemingway) and her tragic murder at the hands of her estranged husband Paul Snider (Eric Roberts).  It's almost unbearably dour and I debate with myself whether we really needed Fosse to turn his considerable gifts towards such a painful, relentlessly downbeat storyline.  All that said, large swaths of the film are eminently watchable due to the dexterity and fluidity with which former dancer and choreographer Fosse moves the narrative; it's a master-class in the "based on a true story" film, seamlessly weaving in and out from harrowing crime scene re-enactments, flashbacks to happier times, talking head-style interview segments, and some propulsive, entertaining montage sequences. Music--source cues and a period-specific, pop score by Ralph Burns--is expertly spotted throughout the picture and is an important part of Fosse's storytelling.  It's a shame that Burns' excellent music, which includes several original songs, was never released on a soundtrack LP so that it could have a life outside of the film.

After undergoing rigorous training to get in shape for her role as an Olympic athlete in Robert Towne's Personal Best, Hemingway transformed her looks again, including breast implant surgery, for the part of Dorothy Stratten in Star 80.  Where Eric Roberts was far prettier than the man he was playing, Paul Snider, Hemingway faced unfair criticism in some quarters for not being pretty enough to play Stratten.

Cliff Robertson is a very convincing Hef, though Hef himself was not so pleased with the depiction and sued the production because he did not like how he was portrayed.

Based on Teresa Carpenter's Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Village Voice, Star 80 is one of the grimmest major studio films I can recall, which is saying something considering the film was made and released at a time when serious, cynical dramas were rapidly going out of fashion.  Like Cutter's Way or Mike's Murder, Star 80 is a "'70s movie" that somehow got made in the '80s.  As mentioned, it's a downer and, on top of that, it's a damning critique of Tinseltown and the star-making machinery. With those things in mind, it's not surprising that it was made by Alan Ladd Jr.'s Ladd Company, which, along with Orion Pictures, was one of the beacons of adventurous and uncompromising films in '80s Hollywood.  That such a film was financed and released at the time is also indicative of Fosse's clout, following three Best Director nominations and one win in the previous decade.

Longtime Playboy photographer Mario Casilli (whose subjects included Dorothy Stratten) was responsible for re-creating Stratten's Playboy layouts for the film. 

Star 80 is one of a handful of movies that I remember watching on late night network television when I was an 8 or 9 year-old kid in the guest room at my grandparents' house.  Obviously this is not a children's film and I could not appreciate or comprehend it wholly at that young age.  That said, as with Class of 1984, another film I discovered in much the same way, I watched Star 80 with rapt attention, and I point to it as a formative film for me, one that I think directly led to my longterm interests in character-based drama, more generally, and true crime stories in a more specific sense.

Hef's brother Keith Hefner portrays the photographer who takes the shots that get Dorothy into the Mansion. 

Although Hemingway is top-billed, it's Roberts' Snider that takes center stage and is the film's prime focus.  It's the kind of big, Method-y performance people usually go crazy for and for which awards are handed out...except for the fact that the character he's playing is such a piece of a shit.  Roberts would have other quality leading roles following this film, but I don't know that he could ever totally get out from under the shadow of having played Paul Snider.  

Mariel Hemingway with Lisa Gordon, playing Dorothy's kid sister Louise, called "Eileen" in the film.  When she was 20, Louise Stratten married Bogdanovich and they remained a couple for 13 years.

Much like Hemingway's prior film, Personal Best, Star 80 is based on very recent events, and both films benefit from the fact that they were made so soon after said events, before their respective milieus had changed too much.  Had Star 80 been made just a couple years later, I think it would've been considerably more difficult to re-create the period-specific details that the film revels in.  At the very least, it would probably have required a significantly higher budget for the art department (which included Academy Award-winner and previous Fosse collaborator Tony Walton). Even if one is not taken too much with the narrative of Star 80, I maintain that anyone with even a fleeting interest in disco-era Hollywood will find the film's textures and pop-culture content (apart from some legally-mandated name changes) riveting.  The art direction is specific enough that I caught a barely-visible (on the standard definition DVD-R, anyway) The In-Laws poster in the background of a 1979 LA street scene.

Hemingway's role in Star 80 has parallels with her previous star vehicle, Robert Towne's Personal Best, in that in both films she plays naive characters not developed or confident enough to extricate themselves from problematic relationships. 

Fosse and his music department (the aforementioned Burns) use Rod Stewart's (and Jorge Ben's) "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" to perfect effect (I suspect the song was an inspiration to the real-life Snider), as well as the Billy Joel catalog ("Big Shot" and "Just the Way You Are"); the latter artist is also featured prominently and similarly effectively on the Personal Best soundtrack ("Rosalinda's Eyes").

In an inspired bit of casting, Fosse brought in Carroll Baker, whose starring role in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll had made her a sex symbol in the '50s, as Dorothy's "take no bullshit" mother.  Seen here refusing to sign necessary release forms for Dorothy, she is ultimately the film's most redeeming character.

Was the real Dorothy as sweetly naive and innocent and easily manipulated as Hemingway's Dorothy? She was a far from fully formed 20 year-old when she was murdered, so it may not be so far off from reality, but it doesn't completely jibe with other accounts I've seen and heard.  In Fosse's film, she is constantly acted upon, whether by Snider, Hefner (Cliff Robertson), or "Aram Nicholas" (Roger Rees). The film would have been stronger and less one-sided if Fosse had followed Dorothy to New York and shown her growth as an actress, her developing independence, and her love affair with Nicholas (Bogdanovich); however, this would have taken away from his thesis that everyone--Snider, Hefner, Bogdanovich, Playboy, Hollywood--exploited her, benefited from her, and deserved some share of the blame for her demise.  Instead, Fosse stays on Snider to the bitter end, while Dorothy remains a cipher throughout, and the film takes on an increasingly numbing inevitability and ugliness.  To be fair, I'm not sure this material could ever really be terribly revelatory or just would've been better--and more affecting--if Fosse had any interest in making Dorothy a three-dimensional character with agency.

In his feature film debut, the late British actor Roger Rees plays Aram Nicholas, the fictional character meant to represent filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.  Bogdanovich's They All Laughed is dubbed "Tinsel Time" for legal purposes in Star 80.

Roberts has related that Fosse told him that Snider was Fosse, if Fosse had not become a success.  So I think it's apt that my favorite section of the movie--and which I think Fosse probably had the most fun doing--encompasses the scenes that depict the constantly-scheming Snider in his element in Vancouver, before he ever met Stratten.  I'd have rather seen Fosse keep on that track, making a movie about that disco-era scoundrel, who's plenty interesting and unpredictable, without veering down the road to murder.  

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