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STAR 80 (1983)
d. Bob Fosse; pr. Wolfgang Glattes, Kenneth Utt; scr. Bob Fosse; article. Teresa Carpenter; ph. Sven Nykvist; ed. Alan Heim; m. Ralph Burns; cast. Mariel Hemingway, Eric Roberts, Cliff Robertson, Carroll Baker, Roger Rees, David Clennon, Josh Mostel (103 mins)
Rise & Fall of the All-American Girl
The brief life of Dorothy Stratten became headlines following her brutal murder at the hands of her husband and former small-time pimp Paul Snider.
A naïve girl from Vancouver Canada, Stratten became 1979 Playboy Playmate of the Year and had just begun to find starring roles in low-budget movies (the most notable being the sci-fi parody Galaxina). However in a fit of jealous rage she was killed by a close-up shotgun blast. Her murderer, her husband, then killed himself. The headlines came and went as they tend to do when dealing with the strange American obsession with celebrity and fame, and a minor cult of sorts began to develop around Stratten. For others, including famed director Bob Fosse whose previous autobiographical film All That Jazz had gotten positive reviews, there was something far more sinister in the case and in the personality of the murderer that was representative of a decadent and declining American popular culture. Thus, Fosse turned his film about the case, Star 80, into a somber assessment of the destructive American emphasis on glamour and the expectations raised by the so-called Playboy lifestyle.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Mariel Hemingway (who had her breasts enlarged for the role) plays the innocent Dorothy Stratten and Eric Roberts plays her oily seducer Paul Snider.
Snider, a small time hustler and sometime pimp meets Stratten in a fast food diner. Enchanted by her innocence he seduces her, although her mother seems to sense that something is off with this unbalanced man. He takes nude photographs of her, slowly stripping away her inhibitions, and convinces her to pose for a professional photographer and to submit the shots to Playboy magazine, with the intention of turning her into a Playmate and possible centerfold. Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson) sees the pictures and is impressed. Stratten then goes to the West Coast to pose for Playboy and is initiated into the Playboy “family”. Snider is thrilled to accompany her to the Playboy mansion and tries to impress the people there although fails, reinforcing his disappointment and neurotic inferiority. As Stratten gets a job and movie roles, Snider is financially dependent on her and she longs for greater independence. When she leaves for New York for a film, Snider has her followed. He is shattered by what he discovers and barely able to control his temper, seeks to confront her.
Confronting a Patriarchal Legacy: Consequences of the Playboy Lifestyle
The film of Star 80 (named for the vanity plate that Snider bought for Stratten) is a harsh indictment of a peculiarly American obsession with style and sexual glamour. That said, it is one of the few films to examine and all but indict the potential cultural ramifications of the Playboy lifestyle so valued at the time.
The focus of the film is less on Stratten than it is on Snider, whose vile and insecure machismo dominates the film. Snider is a walking paradox, a narcissist with an inferiority complex. He is obsessed with his own nature as a sexual being and longs to be a part of the glamorous lifestyle he sees around him, and that is epitomized and perpetuated by the Playboy image. However, he hasn’t the “class” to achieve it and instead immerses himself in the low end of sexual sophistication. He loathes the strippers he beds and finds in Stratten’s innocence the opportunity to finally attain the sophisticated Playboy lover and role denied him. He wants to turn her into a Playmate less for her benefit than so that he can draw attention to himself as her discoverer and indeed owner. When she becomes a successful money-earner and gains considerable independence and even maturity, he senses his ideal image of himself crumbling irreparably, for without her he is insignificant, a fate that he cannot tolerate, doing what he finally does to teach all those who looked down on him a lesson. Unlike Hefner, Snider cannot let her go on.
The irony deepens, for the Playboy experience rather than being simplistically exploitative indeed leads the insecure Stratten down a path towards independence and fulfillment. Although she realizes that she has outgrown the need for Snider, she still has a well-meaning loyalty to the low-life. Robertson as Hefner emerges as the most ambiguous figure.
On the one hand he is the ideal of the world to which Snider aspires, but on the other, despite his open family, will easily move on to another young woman to glamorize and sexualize and “liberate”. The two men are perhaps sides of the same figure. Both Snider and Hefner arguably fail Stratten, although Hefner provides her with the means for her self-actualization, however relative it initially is to male images of desirability. If she is the sexual ideal of the Playboy image, then Snider represents the man for whom that ideal is out of reach – in his mind she is his link to fame, but he is destined to be on the periphery. Still, director Fosse sympathizes somewhat with Snider’s dilemma, and Roberts brings out the intense struggle for self-control raging within this man forever, at least in his own mind, reminded of his personal inadequacy. Whilst Hefner would encourage the independence and even non-sexual fulfillment of the playmates, Snider cannot get beyond the superficial values of the Playboy lifestyle, failing to even see what opportunities it may open for the woman he professes to love. In his possessory way he does love, but he cannot control his increasingly violent paroxysms. His desire to be a part of the glamorous lifestyle proves disastrous.
Deliberate Distanciation & Brechtian Alienation as Hallmarks of the Fosse style
The visual transfer on this DVD is something of a disappointment, not least for the fact that it is presented in fullscreen only.
At times the grain makes the film look like greasy videotape, and frame edge problems make the blacks look bluish. The novelty of the narrative’s fragmentary progression (framed with mock documentary interviews from people in contact with Snider, deliberately distancing the viewer from the drama) works well as the constant flashes to the murder from the outset make for a heavy fatalism. Photography becomes a motif, the candid snapshots of a life together that Snider holds onto being nicely opposed to the glamorous images of Stratten as a sexually desirable individual ideal / commodity. Some critics however found the film lurid and voyeuristic, although it is complex in its treatment of Playboy’s fickle immortality. The look of seedy bars and strip-clubs is nicely contrasted to the Playboy mansion, as a kind of spectrum of sexual sophistication into which the Playboy aesthetic effectively categorizes both men and women. Subtleties in the design chart Stratten’s relation to the world around her as she gains independence and no longer needs Snider to modulate the space for her. The final scenes are masterfully tense and a powerful piece of drama, fully bringing out the ordeal which this woman goes through as well as her killer’s last loss of self-control, a process nicely essayed by Roberts throughout.
The Destruction of American Innocence
The sound transfer is also something of a letdown although not as consistently flawed as is the visual transfer. It has all of the limitations of traditional mono, but some of the benefits of even this limited form at its peak.
Nevertheless, the subtleties and ironies of the sound design carry through. It consists of a most ironic use of song selection, nicely anchoring the film in late 1970s popular culture and its associated sexual lifestyle – the consequences of sexual revolution linger over this film. The open sounds of life in the Playboy Mansion are contrasted to the coarse vulgarity of Snider’s preferred hangouts and the intense scenes between the couple. Voices in quiet are thus nicely contrasted to various levels of aural energy, and much of the film’s momentum comes from the instability and mounting danger in Roberts’ voice. Hemingway’s demure and naïve voice makes for a nice contrast to those with whom she interacts, and the film does suggest how it was this almost peaceful innocence that captivated the men around her – thus adding to the sense of loss that comes with the violent ending, as if American innocence has been destroyed. It is a sparse and subdued mix, making much of silence, tense voices and the aural openness of the 1970s at its end. The final gunshots are a most despairing end to the dramatic build-up, and Roberts’ final words carry the full criticism of the cult of celebrity and fame.
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(UPDATED: January 13, 2013 18:36 )
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