“A Little Like a Soap Opera”: The Sleaze and Sympathy of Star 80

“He really believed in this girl, or else he just wanted to screw her. I’m still not sure which. Maybe both.” This is a photographer’s depressing assessment of the relationship between Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten and her husband/manager Paul Snider, a relationship portrayed in harrowing detail in Star 80, Bob Fosse’s final film. Its examination of these slippages between the ways men view women–as sex objects, as images, as commodities–makes it a movie that is both dripping with sleaze and thoughtful through its experiments with tone. 

Star 80’s story (Fosse adapted the screenplay from a Pulitzer Prize winning article by journalist Teresa Carpenter) is several cautionary tales rolled into one. Teenage Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) is working at a Canadian Dairy Queen, blissfully unaware that she’s a total knockout. She’s “discovered” by Snider (Eric Roberts), a small-time pimp with showbiz dreams. Playing on Dorothy’s youth and insecurity, Paul seduces her and persuades her to pose for nude photos. Once success actually arrives and Dorothy becomes a playmate, Paul initially revels in his access to celebrities and in spending Dorothy’s money. But once more doors start to open for Dorothy, and she finds her own footing in the world, Paul’s jealousy and controlling nature grow even more intense. When Dorothy wants a divorce, things proceed with a horrifying predictability.

Perhaps the most frequent criticism about stories of real-life crimes is that they fail to adequately focus on victims. This reflects a well-intentioned but ultimately unattainable desire. In homicide cases, the victim can never be present to fully share their perspective. It’s also unclear what yardstick we should use to measure portrayals of victims; it’s easy to mistake quantity of screen time for quality of representation. It’s also all too easy to replicate paint-by-numbers models that smooth out all the rough and idiosyncratic parts of an individual and flatten them into paragons of saintly innocence. 

In Star 80, the audience spends a lot of time with Dorothy, and may feel like they get to really know her. But Fosse is keenly aware of how difficult it is to fully represent anybody, especially a woman who was famous in the way Dorothy was. He opens with Dorothy (in what we will learn is a heavily coached interview) towing the party line about what makes Playboy different from your run-of-the-mill smut. Playboy girls are fresh, naive and innocent; their pictures are classy works of art. Dorothy really fit this mold, but it’s still hard to know where the hype ends and Dorothy begins. As he continues to juxtapose fluffy interviews with increasingly nightmarish scenes of Dorothy’s real life, it’s difficult to find the woman between various men’s fantasies. Hemingway plays Dorothy with a convincing innocence and warmth, and there’s a luminosity to her that explains her unique star quality, with a gentleness and humility that shows how easily others can take advantage of her. 

Roberts’s portrayal of Paul is a towering portrait of an incredibly small man. His bland good looks and callow gallantry are enough to win over the incredibly naive Dorothy, but the higher she flies, the more he’s exposed. Snider has a pathological belief that celebrity will fill a hollowness inside. He chases it relentlessly, studying the lifestyles of the rich and famous with pathetic detail. When Dorothy’s own fame gets him into the Playboy mansion, the Hollywood elite are patronizing, dismissing him as a slimy try-hard. He’s put in all the legwork, but the real stars are all more taken with Dorothy’s authentic, naive innocence. His resentment mounts, and Roberts ratchets up the tight ball of anxiety just below his veneer of smooth brown-nosery. 

Fosse maintained that Star 80 was a film about Snider—a position that would no doubt cause controversy today, with the constant push for the victim-centric model. But just as spending more time with a victim does not necessarily honor or reveal more about them, following a perpetrator does not necessarily glorify him. Watching Snider devolve from a garden-variety creep into a mercurial, ever-shifting blend of rage and pathetic remorse, does not generate an empathetic reaction from the audience. Showing us more of his emotional experiences helps paint an absolutely devastating portrait of domestic violence, as he increasingly deploys his emotions to manipulate Dorothy into staying. 

These performances are carefully, if uncomfortably, calibrated to fit Fosse’s exercise in style. Star 80’s script follows the beats of a made-for-TV murder movie. (It even includes “talking head” interviews with various witnesses.) It’s almost as if Fosse is setting a challenge for himself, to see what he can do visually and thematically to elevate that melodramatic formula. He succeeds: framing and camera movement work to establish both the glamour and glitz of Hollywood and mounting moods of entrapment, isolation, and terror. Legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist perfects transitions from the glam to the grimy. It all looks and feels very fun, while leaving you with the feeling that you have to wash something off of your skin. The most powerful and emphatic motifs are the juxtapositions between Dorothy’s real life and the photographs that both sexualized and idealized her. She is doubly trapped, both in her star image and in the tragic trajectory of her life. She never had anywhere to hide.

“STAR 80” is available for digital rental or purchase.  

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

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