The Savage Stack: STAR 80 (1983)

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The fourteenth entry into this unbroken backlog is Bob Fosse’s hate letter to Hollywood, Star 80

Few writer/directors were as adept at showcasing the sleazy side of stardom as Bob Fosse. Too often maligned for being the recipient of what many believe to be an undeserved Academy Award (beating out Francis Ford Coppola at the ’73 Ceremony for Best Director), much of his work is steeped in the seedier elements of the “rise and fall” story. Even his semi-autobiographical All That Jazz (‘79) is unflinching in its depiction of alter ego Joe Gideon’s drug addiction and womanizing, as Fosse was unafraid to turn the microscope on himself and reveal the stupendous flaws of a longtime showman. Yet none of his pictures are quite as scuzzy and brutal as Star 80 (‘83). An adaptation of the ‘81 Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice profile “Death of a Playmate," Fosse’s film isn’t so much fascinated by doomed Playboy Bunny Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) as it is the man who wanted to possess and exploit her. In Star 80, Eric Roberts is an absolute force of nature, turning small-time pimp Paul Snider into a raging monstrosity, hell-bent on ensuring that all of the other little people know he’s not to be trifled with any longer. Fosse’s final film is undoubtedly one the ugliest portraits of vanity ever painted, and is easily the most under-appreciated work in a too-often overlooked directorial oeuvre.

Star 80 begins and ends with murder, its elliptical narrative structure folding in on itself and jumping time periods as Fosse re-creates (or completely invents) interviews with characters who knew Dorothy and Paul. However, you won’t hear any of them say “he was a very nice man” or “I would’ve never seen this coming," as Paul is presented as an out-and-out bastard from the beginning. A hustler who tries to hide a sneering head-case under layers of Eddie Haskell niceties, Snider is instantly off-putting to nearly everyone he meets. He’s a hawk, swooping in when he sees dollar signs in seventeen-year-old Dorothy’s 36-24-36 frame, and is even willing to degrade himself in order to earn her trust (a scene where twenty-five-year-old Paul escorts the underage Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten to her high school prom is near panic attack-inducing). Nevertheless, the pervert’s paranoia is visceral and all-consuming, as he’s quick to either stab a schoolmate spreading rumors or verbally spar with a TV star once he and Dorothy have gained access to Hugh Hefner’s famed Playboy Mansion. His self-perceived persecution is neverending, until he finally picks up a gun and commits the most heinous acts imaginable against the girl of his dreams before turning the weapon on himself.

Every step of the way, Eric Roberts is not only convincing, but downright terrifying in his portrayal of the pimp. Sporting a sly lisp, porn mustache, and sheen of grease at all times, Roberts moves like an infectious disease, entering different bodies before they revolt and reject him. Paul doesn’t so much seduce Dorothy as much as he bombards her with affection that she doesn’t know how to reject. It’s like watching a one man re-enactment of a Nazi blitzkrieg, leaving a bewildered Stratten with nowhere to run. However, once he’s matched up against actual, functioning adults after Dorothy makes it in the modeling world, Snider begins to drown and, instead of swimming with the current, he punches at the waves like a petulant child. Roberts’ navigation of these different states of aggravation is both awe-inspiring and utterly nauseating, as the actor concocts an aura of continuous discontent that feels genuine and lived-in. It’s a marvelous tour de force and easily the best work of his career.

One of the most disarming elements of this dual pseudo-biopic is the fact that Dorothy Stratten isn’t presented so much as a human being as she is an ideal that is both coveted and corrupted by men. Stratten’s defining qualities are that she is beautiful and naïve, allowing Snider’s flashy veneer to steal her away from a Dairy Queen counter and deliver her into the wilds of Los Angeles. Where some may view this reduction of a once flesh-and-blood human being into a clichéd movie caricature as not just bad storytelling but downright problematic as an act of representation, Fosse does so in service of making a universal comment about the devaluing of female identity by powerful men. Even in the fictionalized interviews, Hefner (here played with leathery panache by Cliff Robertson) cannot describe Dorothy outside of calling her “a lovely girl." And as wholesome as Stratten is portrayed, her mother is rendered just as helpless; any control over her daughter’s ultimate fate ripped away with the stroke of a man’s pen. In essence, Dorothy Stratten becomes a symbol for those bulldozed by patriarchy, her body metaphorically sold into slavery via a few clicks of a camera’s shutter.

This doesn’t mean that Mariel Hemingway turns in a poor performance as Stratten; quite the contrary, actually. Though she’s slightly older than the model was at the time of her death, Hemingway sells not only the sleek, glossy Playmate image, but also the adolescent innocence which allows her to fall for such a conspicuous shithead. To wit, Hemingway plays Dorothy as an overgrown kid. Her eyes pop open, ostensibly overwhelmed once she gets to LA, unable to comprehend why so many people are eager to see her. While she could be perceived as being a bit of a dim bulb, Dorothy is merely uncomplicated, sheltered and too trusting to ever really realize how dangerous Paul is. It’s the reason why director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees, doing his best Bogdanovich) falls for her immediately after Hefner suggests he casts her in his next movie. He sees the girl for what she truly is: lost in a big world and earnestly struggling to put her best foot forward.

The finale of Star 80 still stands as one of the most horrific and disturbing moments ever committed to film. In an extended scene so tense that it will make viewers cringe with visceral discomfort, Paul’s psychosis comes to a head as he confronts his still kindly child bride. The genius is that, even though we know how the movie ends, Fosse still manages to wring the scene for as much subtext and suspense as humanly possible (just think about the placement of that giant portrait of Dorothy early on in the scene). As a director, he understands that telegraphing the forgone conclusion allows him to further explore the blackhearted “whys” behind this gruesome ordeal. By the inevitable end, Star 80 is a meditation on the abduction of innocence by a devil whose starry-eyed gaze gives way to a fear of perpetual inferiority. Only Fosse – an artist thoroughly versed in the evils of show business – could deliver such a thoroughly chilling picture.

Star 80 is available now on DVD and to stream.