Great Movies: Star 80 (1983)

By Christian DiMartino

Bob Fosse’s Star 80 is as uncommonly disturbing as they come, and perhaps it’s only truly disturbing because we believe every second of it. That’s not just because the film is based on a true story, but rather, because Fosse pulls us into the lives of its two central characters (one central character in particular, we know from the get-go, is not to be trusted) even without knowing the outcome of the story. It’s a film of tremendous, haunting power.

This was indeed Fosse’s final film before his untimely death in 1987. Fosse only made five films, but man, look at the impact that those films had: Sweet Charity, his first, is my least favorite, but still a solid musical with memorable songs and a few Oscar nominations to its name; Cabaret, his second, won eight Oscars and Fosse even won the Oscar for Best Director over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather; Lenny and All That Jazz, two damn great movies, were also nominated for Best Picture and Director. Yet his cinematic swan song, Star 80, wasn’t nominated for a darned thing. Which is strange, because it could very well be the best. Re-watching it recently, it didn’t take long for me to remember just what it was that affected me so much.

The film tells the true story of the turbulent relationship between Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) and her manager/ husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts). Snider, a narcissistic hustler with big dreams, spots Dorothy working at Dairy Queen one day, and not only believes that she could be a huge star, but that she could be apart of Playboy, which in his eyes is a humongous deal. Turns out, he was correct, as she ultimately ends up Playmate of the Year. She also ultimately ends up marrying him.

Here are two people who couldn’t be more different. Despite being a Playmate, she is somewhat naïve and shy. Paul, on the other hand, is larger than life. Yet there’s also something a little off about him. The bigger Dorothy becomes, the more that Paul’s jealousy enlarges. When she’s on the top of the world, he’s on top of it with her, practically living vicariously through her. She’s famous, and in his eyes, he is too because he discovered her. So when he begins to sense that she doesn’t need him anymore, a few screws are sort of knocked loose.

Fosse’s film truly is a fascinating one, and most of the intrigue of the story is due to the Snider character. That is no disrespect to Stratten, who is played wonderfully by Hemingway. Yet it’s Snider who gets under our skin and haunts us. Perhaps it’s because there’s something all too realistic about the way that he, and the film around him, unfolds. It would only make sense that if you were as self-obsessed as Snider that you would also be fascinated by being so close to the fame. He isn’t the fame, but rather, he’s married to the fame, and since he expressed his interest and opened her eyes to the potential, he more than feels entitled to the recognition.

Having said this, we don’t necessarily like Paul, and the deeper you get into the film, the more you find yourself terrified by Paul. The likability of Stratten and the terror of Snider is what adds to the film’s power, and the key to making the film work is not just in its filmmaking, but in its acting. Fosse, obviously, has style. He’s put his style to bigger use in his other films, like All That Jazz, but Star 80 more than puts his expertise as a filmmaker on display. Here he is telling a story that takes no prisoners; we know there is tragedy to come, and we feel the tragic and the anguish, even when the film has moments that feel as if they’re on pleasant terms. Fosse does not hold back here, particularly in the final act, which will haunt you long after it’s over.

It’s Roberts though that carries this film. Here is a performance that deserves to rank among the all-time greats, and most probably don’t even know about it. Together, Fosse and Roberts created a man who probably was never fully… well, “well,” and not necessarily sympathetic, and yet they take us on this dark journey with him. We may not like Paul, we may fear Paul, and yet we can never take our eyes off of him. Roberts’ masterful acting, like Fosse’s masterful film, has gone unsung for too long, so hopefully Star 80 can finally have its day. It’s deserved.

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