Star 80

I picked you up, I turned you out and turned you around
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1983
Director: 
Bob Fosse
Starring: 
Eric Roberts, Mariel Hemingway, Cliff Robertson, Roger Rees
The Setup: 
Bio of the last few years of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten’s life.
Discussion: 

I watched Dorothy Stratten in Galaxina, and that’s what prompted me originally to put this on my list, where it languished for a while, until one of those listless time where I scan my queue for something that strikes a chord. Desperate for some 70s / 80s cheese—with the added bonus of being set in the sleazoid world of pornography—this one shot to number one, and OH, it was SO easy going down. Why can’t everything take place in the 70s? Why can’t everything take place in the sleazoid world of pornography? I totally need to find more films set in the world of porn.

This movie begins with a photographic introduction to the corpus of Dorothy Stratten, while we hear snippets of interviews with her discussing her life and her feelings about being Playboy Playmate of the year. If you’ve seen a Bob Fosse movie before, you know that they are both very intense and very intelligent, and that is very much the case here. We are soon introduced to Eric Roberts [Julia’s brother] as professional narcissist Paul Snider. We see him working out, then posing in front of the mirror. I love that Fosse is adult enough [and assumes that his audience is adult enough] to show Snider adjusting his cock and then admiring his bulge. Paul practices various ways of saying “Hi, I’m Paul Snider,” until he hits upon just the right one, and a few seconds later we hear him use that exact intonation. These first few minutes are interspersed with interviews with various people [as well as shots of Roberts just after killing Stratten], one of whom uses the word “pimp,” thinks about it, and says “Yes, I think you could say Paul was a pimp.” The next thing we see is Snider at an auto show, setting up two women to be fucked by three guys. The guys are the sleazy older men that I just love. Unfortunately for me, however, a large portion of my attraction for them is dependent on them being attracted to women. But enough about my fucked-up sexual imagination. Suffice to say that this film has got massive amount of hot sleazy late 70s guys. Hello—a lot of it takes place inside the Playboy Mansion!

Snider sees Stratten working at a Dairy Queen in Canada and comes on mega-hard to her. He takes her to dinner, where he leaves her at the table for a bit [while he is at the salad bar, I believe], and when he returns, he sees another older guy leering at her, leans down to the guy and says “Excuse me sir, but your fly is open and the entire restaurant can see your dong,” then sits down with Stratten without a look back. Soon after, there’s a wonderful lounge cover version of “Just the Way You Are” at what appears to be a high school dance or something. He later takes a multitude of Polaroids of her [he seems to have a LOT of film cartridges on hand], with the whole “why don’t you unbutton your shirt just a bit” content firmly in place. An important moment is when Stratten gives in and officially starts posing, showing herself off and having fun.

One of the more affecting moments is with Carroll Baker as Dorothy’s mom, who refuses to let Dorothy go to L.A. with Snider. Dorothy goes anyway, and later Baker has a good but short interview segment about how she never should have let her go. Soon Dorothy is living with Snider and when about to have sex, she says “I don’t think I’m any good.” She tells about her first time, with a football player, who later spread around the school that she was a lousy lay. This is one of the only things we find out about her life before she met Snider. He takes her out and shows her around, and soon after, one might she calls him from the Playboy Mansion. The next time she goes, Snider goes with her, and tries desperately to impress Hugh Hefner, played by Cliff Robertson. Between this and Obsession, I really want to send a special thank-you note to God for Cliff Robertson and his willingness to take these parts. Hefner takes an instant dislike to Snider, as well he should. When Snider gets home, he excoriates himself for being such an ass, lashing out in fury at Dorothy, then abruptly turns his self-hatred against Hefner and everyone else there, saying what stupid posers they all are. Then he decides that the reason they didn’t like him was his clothes, and he goes out and buys a bunch of duds that make him look like a gay hustler.

As Dorothy becomes a Playboy bunny, then appears in the magazine, moves into the mansion full time, and starts accepting film roles, Snider gets more and more marginalized. One of the jobs we see him at is as a manager of a male strip club. His expressions of eroticized delight while watching the men strip and thrust their crotches gives a hint [thankfully not hammered in by the rest of the movie] at what might be another of the motivating factors for his strange personality and sex life. Fosse let’s the sight of him watching the show with all the other women—essentially making him ‘one of the girls’—accomplishes all it has to, and there is no need for further hammering. Apparently Snider was the one who formed the Chippendale’s dancers, taking the inspiration of the bow tie and cuffs from the Playboy bunnies he saw at Hefner’s mansion. Also during this time, while Dorothy is busy with her stratospheric rise, Snider takes out Dorothy’s younger, high school-age sister. Fosse shows the troubled stares of children as Snider nearly humps the young girl on the merry-go-round. Stratten’s younger sister eventually married Peter Bogdonavich, the director parodied here as Aram Nicholas, who is interested in Dorothy for the last sections of the film.

Well, it goes on from there, as Stratten draws and is drawn more and more away from Snider, and he becomes more of a drag on her. He grows more unstable and upset, and finally kills her, then himself, after being unable to perform sexually with her. This is not a spoiler, as the murder is ostensibly what the movie is about, and we know he murdered her from the first minutes. Once the murder occurs, the movie is pretty much over.

The greatest strength of this movie is Roberts’ great performance. This might surprise you, as they guy was not able to sustain a successful movie career and ended up in a lot of crappy straight-to-video and cable work, but he is flat-out great here. He really sells the essential hollowness at Snider’s psychological core, and his all-consuming narcissism. His hinted-at homoerotic attractions and later inability to have sex with Dorothy, give a depth to his burning need to be seen as this hot stud who has access to the Playboy Mansion and is married to a Playmate. It’s a little shocking to see how brazenly he angles to pick up and later manipulate Stratten as his own personal ticket to the kind of fast life he aspires to, what little say she has in the whole process. Apparently the real Hugh Hefner sued the producers over how he appears in the film, but I don’t think he comes off that badly… once you accept that it’s Hugh Hefner and he does what he does.

The biggest problem with this movie is Mariel Hemingway as Dorothy Stratten. First, it’s difficult to play stupid, and from what we see in this movie Stratten was not exactly Susan Sontag. All of Hemingway’s line readings have that “I’m playing stupid, but I’M not really stupid” distance and tone about them, which constantly takes one out of the movie. Secondly, she’s very pretty, but she’s just not the sex bomb that Stratten was [you can pop over to the Galaxina page to see a few pics], which causes us to have to imagine the primal sexual force I think Stratten exerted over men. Another, non-Hemingway related problem, is that, since the movie was made just a few years after the murder and most of the non-Stratten / Snider principals were still alive, you get the feeling that the film is forced to be polite about a lot of the details, and this can be a little confusing. For example, one assumes that Stratten had sex with Hefner and several others while at the Playboy Mansion, but we only get oblique hints about it, which is confusing, as knowing to what extent she was required to have sex with Hefner and the guests is important information to understand what’s happening to her and how much she needs or doesn’t need Snider. The movie is also terribly vague about how many—or if—Snider is actually out having sex with others, which one wonders about based on the male strip club scene and his inability to do it with Dorothy at the end. Was this just a one-time occurrence because he was so upset? The whole film is more than a little shy about revealing all of these details, and one wants them for more than titillation—they would offer crucial insight into the story.

But the fact that this is not Fosse’s very best film doesn’t mean it’s not a good film. As I said, it’s intelligently presented and features what I see as the director’s trademark in-your-face intensity. I would watch All That Jazz and Cabaret first, but if you’re interested in Stratten or the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood, watching this definitely will not be a waste of time.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s pretty good. More for those who are interested in Stratten or just like the whole sleazy underbelly of L.A. thing.

RELATED MOVIES:
GALAXINA is a loopy space comedy that features Stratten in what I think is her largest role, and I was definitely glad to be somewhat familiar with her when I watched this.