Star 80 (1983) – A Review
Young Dorthy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway ) is the quintessential girl-next-door. She’s pretty, sweet and innocent. She never even had a real boyfriend. One day while working at a Dairy Queen small-time hustler and wannbe big-shot Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) walks through the door. He’s immediately smitten with Dorothy and begins to romance her.
Snider then believes that Stratten has the potential to be a Playboy model. After some coercion he convinces her to take some nude photos, he sends them to Mr. Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson) and almost immediately Stratten becomes the magazines most prized model and she’s crowned 1980 Playmate of the Year.
Soon film offers start rolling in and Dorothy finds herself to be in demand as a model and actress. Snider is loving all of it. After spending years concocting tacky schemes that have failed one after another never being able to reach any level of success, Dorothy becomes Snider’s gateway to fame.
Unlike the enamored and vulnerable Dorothy who feels committed to Snider everyone else sees him for what he is – a cheap hustler. As Stratten’s star rises and more opportunities and more important people become interested in her, Snider feels threatened he’ll lose her and convinces her to marry him.
Snider’s stranglehold on Dorothy increasingly becomes smothering. He wants to handle all her money, he has dozens of ideas how to make a cheap buck off her image, It isn’t until working with director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees) who she begins to have an affair with, that Stratten finally decides to end her relationship with Snider.
But as most people know this obsessed jealous man wouldn’t allow the woman he discovered to leave him. The shocking murder of Stratten by the hands of her estranged husband and his suicide would become one of Hollywood’s most famous tragic stories. And subsequently make Stratten one of the most famous Playboy playmates in history. I suppose she would be ranked second-place behind Anna Nicole Smith.
Hemingway is decent as Stratten. She convincingly plays the innocence and small town quality that people found so engaging about her. You can tell she’s not completely comfortable in this big Hollywood environment as she awkwardly tries to say the right things, is unsure how to behave and has trouble adapting to the showbiz world.
Hemingway was obviously committed to the role having breast enlargement surgery and being very willing to do nudity. She’s good looking and has a sweetness about her. The only downside to this portrayal is that it is a rather a one-note performance. Hemingway does good with what she has, but the film doesn’t give her anything more to play than simply the beautiful innocent girl.
The supporting actors do a good job. The biggest secondary characters are Roger Rees who plays Aram Nicholas, the fictionalized film version of Peter Bogdonovich and Cliff Robertson as Hefner.
I always thought the casting of Robertson as Hefner was an inspired choice. I always found it odd that Hefner sued the producers saying he did not like how he was portrayed. I actually thought Hef came off pretty well here. He’s a father figure to Stratten, he appears to be protective of her and immediately sees Snider for what he really was.
I actually thought Nicholas (aka Bogdonovich) and Hefner were portrayed too good. It would have been more interesting to see a bit more seediness in them. As if they were more successful versions of what Snider was aspiring to be. They were simply viewed as more respectable opportunists using Stratten for financial or personal reasons as much as Snider was attempting to do.
One could argue Hefner had been exploiting young naive girls such as Stratten for years and she was just the newest one at the time.
Bogdonovich began an affair with a married woman. He knew full well she was married, so what does that say about him? That could become a whole discussion, but I think the film would have benefited a bit more had the two not been portrayed as such shining white knights in Stratten’s life.
For instance, Stratten’s surge in popularity and the fact she was suddenly being offered film roles and TV work was something of a feather in the cap for Hefner and Playboy. Stratten had the potential to help legitimize being a Playmate. A Playmate’s career now didn’t necessarily have to peak with simply appearing as a centerfold, but could lead to bigger things – an acting and modeling career.
Hefner must of known this and most likely wasn’t just the good old father-figure who took a liking to her as the movie portrays, but also had some business interests in seeing Stratten succeed.
This aspect of the film would have been more compelling making his affection for her a bit more grey. Making the comparison that the mansion, the magazine, the whole Playboy enterprise isn’t that too far removed from Snider’s business dealings in seedy stripclubs, it’s just more successful.
Seeing that portrayal probably would have pissed off the real Hefner, but I think that would have made the character much more interesting in this docudrama.
The big performance in Star 80 is undoubtedly Roberts. This was his first big role and it has consistently been praised since the film came out, with some saying it still remains the performance of his career. To this day many feel Roberts was robbed for not getting an Oscar nomination that year.
Snider is really the central character and its not surprising why. He’s the most complicated and interesting to watch. As Dorothy begins to mature and adapt Snider continues his pattern of failing.
Even when he goes on a shopping spree to buy new clothes for the Hollywood setting he has found himself in, he ends up looking more pimp-ish and sleazy than he did before. No matter how many times he rehearses what to say staring into mirrors it’s all futile attempts in him trying to be the person he wants to be.
His behavior increasingly gets more and more erratic as the story progresses. He yearns to be an important person and his failures just eat him up inside. Rather than stepping back and seeing that he’s his own reason for it, he blames others around him, particularly Stratten.
There’s some great moments of Snider first meeting Hefner and the smug hustling attitude that just oozes from him. He’s clearly trying way too hard to make an impression and the lack of sincerity he exudes is very uncomfortable. From what I’ve read this was accurate to Snider’s personality and Roberts does a terrific job selling it. I really feel disgusted by the guy, but yet can’t help wanting to see what he’ll do next.
Director Bob Fosse (which this was his last film) clearly knew of the perverse fascination people had with Stratten’s gruesome death and he certainly didn’t shy away from dramatizing her final moments inside Snider’s bedroom – which he filmed in the actual real location for the scene.
The film is not only bookended with her murder, but occasionally snippets behind that bedroom door crop up as transitional scenes within the film – along with character interviews.
When we finally get to it play out in full it is an extremely unsettling sequence. Even watching it today it is truly a disturbing scene. Knowing this was a true story, how it’s shot, along with Roberts performance all make it a horrific and disturbing end to the story.
Ironically, the story of Stratten is almost like a clichéd Hollywood story and the movie tends to verge into television movie quality at times. Small town girl, gets on the road to stardom and becomes the toast of Hollywood. The way that part of the story plays is rather routine and I don’t think there’s anything special about it. Plus, it doesn’t give Hemingway very much to do other than be the innocent girl dazzled by what’s happening to her.
It’s as if not as much care was taken to make that journey as exciting or engaging as what goes into the filming of her death. It’s sort of fun for film fans to pick out the real films they’re talking about her starring in and stuff like that (which they changed the titles for in this movie), but it plays as a very standard sort of rags to riches story.
So that part is rather average, it’s not terrible or anything but just average. However, everything becomes elevated by Roberts performance and Snider trying to latch onto Stratten’s rise. Roberts is always a presence throughout the movie, even when he’s off-screen.
While we’re seeing Stratten being interviewed or being offered film roles, it all feels somewhat flat and all the while those portions are happening I’m waiting to see how Snider is going to react to it, how his short temper is going to erupt and what will he do. His reactions and jealous behavior to all the attention she’s getting is what’s really riveting.
Looking back on this movie it would have seemed crazy had they not shifted the focus on Roberts’ Snider. I wonder if the film would be as remembered as it is had another actor been cast as Snider. I don’t think so. I think had Roberts and his unhinged Snider not have been such a dominant presence Star 80 might have been as forgotten as the 1981 movie about Stratten, Death of a Centerfold: The ‘Dorothy Stratten Story’ which starred Jamie Lee Curtis.
Roberts really holds it all together and makes the movie worth watching. He’s what makes Star 80 so special.