The Conversation is a feature at Sound on Sight bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their sixth piece, they discuss Bob Fosse’s film Star 80 (1983).
To say that Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1983) has a bad reputation is a bit of an understatement. Even after the critical and commercial success of his previous hit All That Jazz (1979), 20th Century Fox executives turned their backs on Fosse. Less than three years after the rape and murder of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (to say nothing of the necrophilia), a film dramatization seemed to be in poor taste. To magnify the discomfort, Fosse not only left the filming of the grim finale for last – keeping his two lead actors in the dark – but decided to film in the actual house and bedroom the crimes occurred in. The grim subject matter and Fosse’s search for perfection clearly left a mark on his actors. After spending a night in the house with Fosse, lead actor Eric Roberts broke down crying during a visit to Stratten’s headstone. Needless to say, Star 80 is a dark, unpleasant experience.
This was the general consensus in its reception when it was finally released. Pauline Kael wrote that Fosse “piles up such an accumulation of sordid scenes that the movie is nauseated by itself.” Andrew Sarris called it one of “one of the most glumly misogynous movies ever produced.” Despite overwhelming critical praise for Eric Roberts’s performance, he was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. Roger Ebert later spun the snub into the hypothesis that “Hollywood will not nominate an actor for portraying a creep, no matter how good the performance is.” Budgeted at $12 million dollars, the film only grossed $6 million domestically. It would be Bob Fosse’s last film before his death in 1987.
Yet, three decades removed from the Stratten murder and theatrical release of Star 80, there is now enough temporal distance to engage with the film as a work of art rather than simply a macabre recreation. Yes, the film – which was recently re-released by Warner Archive on DVD (although it deserves a Blu-Ray release!) – is grimly unpleasant and is made all the more foreboding through its flashback structure. The film begins with the aftermath of the murder as the blood soaked Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) vents about how Dorothy (Mariel Hemingway) was his creation before cutting back to their origins as a low-rent pimp and doe-eyed Dairy Queen employee. “We had everything going for us…but you fucks wouldn’t let me in,” he wetly crows. Thus, we know in the first two minutes how the film is going to end and Dorothy’s later moments of happiness with her lover (based on director Peter Bogdanovich) are tainted with the knowledge of what is to come in the following reel.
However, the film is also incredibly rich for several reasons. First, it is innovative in its hybridization of the docudrama and documentary aesthetics. Fosse splices in faux interviews with subjects to elaborate upon the relationship Stratten and Snider shared. He utilizes recreations of Stratten’s press interviews at key moments to add characterization. Essentially, Fosse shatters the fictional diegesis and constantly holds the audience back at arm’s length. Through the self-reflexive techniques of non-linear editing, breaking the forth wall, and even a hybrid of realist/expressionistic mise-en-scene (the house is decorated with larger than life portraits of Stratten, which means her centerfolds are literally looking down upon the mentally disintegrating Snider), Fosse builds in a spectatorial distance.
This becomes particularly important because of his controversial maneuver to make Snider – the pimp, rapist, and murder – the anti-hero of the story. According to Fosse biographers, the director identified with Snider’s obsession with fame and, like he had done with All That Jazz, let the autobiographical guide him. He directed Roberts by saying “You’re playing me if I wasn’t successful.” Thus, the film approaches Snider with a mixture of empathy and judgment, like Shakespeare to Richard III. He tries so desperately to fit into this new society of wealth and fame that his over-eager personality ends up pushing everyone away. Alone and faced with the loss of the empire he has only partially contributed to, he rapes and murders Dorothy before committing suicide.
This focus, teamed up with Eric Roberts’s fantastic performance that is equally pathetic and terrifying, is no doubt what made audiences queazy at the time of the film’s release. Sarris drew out the analogy between Snider and Fosse and tried to diagnose the director with a psychological disorder. After all, how dare we empathize with such a horrible person? The moral ambiguity inherent in Star 80 seems to have driven the American audience – not accustomed to such ambiguity then and now (hence the ridiculous criticism of texts with “unlikable” protagonists) – to equate Fosse’s depiction of Snider’s crimes with an endorsement of them.
Yet, that is not the film Fosse made. Yes, we are meant to empathize with Snider to a degree and that is a terrifying proposition. However, the aforementioned distancing effects suggest that Fosse’s intent was to indict Snider’s unquenchable thirst for socioeconomic success as the cause for what carried him down this path. Thus, it wasn’t pornography that corrupted Snider, it was the ideological tenets of the American Dream. While Sarris may describe Star 80 as misogynist, the film seems to be more concerned with the intersection of class and masculinity.
Moreover, Fosse’s empathy towards Snider does not come at the expense of Stratten’s characterization. Yes, to a certain degree, Stratten is an unknown variable. Her character only slightly evolves from being a star-eyed kid to a moderately more worldly woman. However, this has more to do with her character and youth (she was 20 when she died) than Fosse’s treatment. If she comes across as naive, in the midst of a process of development, it’s because she very likely was at the time of her tragic death. The final moments she has when she tries to comfort the distraught Snider, despite knowing she should leave the house immediately, are the perfect manifestation of this.
Secondly, despite Kael’s assertion that the film is overly sordid is a bit of an overstatement. While the film does not shy away from the crimes Snider committed, it does not ruminate upon them or poeticize them. In fact, much of the finale is shot by Ingmar Bergman’s frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist in close up. Paired with the non-linear and elliptical editing, the result implies much more than it represents. As the last scene comes to an end, after twenty minutes of emotional stress, Fosse directly forbids catharsis, making it feel as if the film ends in the midst of an uncomfortable inhale. Obviously, Star 80 is not going to be film for everyone, but its combination of innovative form and sympathy for the Devil result in a potent and scathing critique of fame, wealth, and capitalism.
In Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), Marissa Ribisi’s Cynthia gives a memorably optimistic take on the future when she ruminates, “The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked, the ’70s obviously suck…Maybe the ’80s will be radical.” With the historical benefit of watching a film about the ‘70s made in the ‘90s, the intended irony is abundantly clear: the ‘80s would, of course, hardly turn out to be the radical utopia Cynthia imagines. Instead, the decade would be characterized by excess and hedonism justified from the top-down by a shortsighted, self-congratulatory ideology of free enterprise, with the “me” generation trading in idealism for material status.
We see this transition distinctly represented within cinema to the point of cliché. When the 1980s hits, the party’s over. No other film illustrates this transition from the quiet post-revolutionary free love of the ’70s to the dystopia of the ’80s as bluntly as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, which features William H. Macy’s emasculated, put-upon cinematographer go on a murderous rampage against is wife and her lover at a New Year’s Eve party before turning the gun on himself, followed by an immediate cut to the minimal text “80s.” Miles of cocaine and broken dreams to follow.
The intertwining themes of sex, stardom, and the American Dream present throughout the widely celebrated Boogie Nights are available just as potently – if even more pessimistically when detached from Anderson’s story of a self-made family – in what was no doubt one of Anderson’s subjects of influence, the far less celebrated and Star 80. What may have read upon its release as – with Drew’s summation of the film’s reception history in mind – a sordid delve into the mind of an unforgiveable monster now resonates, in the light of the 70s/80s divide erected by many films since, as an astute, almost prophetic take on the new material world. When Roberts’s Paul Snider emblazons his car with the words “Star 80,” it is both a bold declaration of aspiration and a tombstone that will inevitably – as the film’s back-and-forth narrative framework promises – bury their story in blood.
It’s a fascinating choice of title, certainly more evocative than Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story, the title of a NBC made-for-television film covering the same glossy cover story that aired two years before Fosse’s film was released in theaters. Star 80 at once evokes the impersonal, dislocating assembly line logic of stardom – an arbitrary number that reifies Dorothy Stratten as one of a multitude of interchangeable young bodies ripe for commodification and exploitation, whose rise and fall is certain, if not the potential for such a spectacularly violent demise. On the other hand, Star 80 evokes a toxic intersection of ambition and era, and it is in this regard that Fosse’s film is far more trenchant than its contemporaneous reception allows.
Fosse, as Drew suggests, was himself obsessed with the institutions and means of fame and celebrity, a topic that connects all his films as a director. While he dove into fame’s capacity to simultaneously produce a powerful platform for expression and a surefire path to personal corruption in his excellent Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny (1974), never does Fosse examine the institution of fame itself as an intoxicating force of id as he does in Star 80, which no doubt explains his need to conceptualize Paul Snider as simultaneously a subject of identification and an object of revulsion in this film, a difficult task to which Roberts is more than game. I would certainly not go so far as to proclaim Star 80 a feminist film, but Fosse’s deft situating of Snider as both pimp, starmaker, and rider of coattails craetes some fascinating and critical glimpses into the insidious relationship between celebrity, sex, and capital.
Snider’s desperate need for relevance within a privileged, exclusive culture of insiders (or, whether or not he’s allowed in Hefner’s mansion) manifests through his attempts at both sexual and social control, which are treated here as one in the same: who you fuck is correlated to who you know which is then signified in a status readable by your car and an unrestrained statement of a license plate. Hemingway’s Stratten is thus his step ladder and, tragically, his collateral damage when she chooses to assert herself as an independent human being – Snider’s “love” for her is the same thing as his longing for the life he imagines. And one of Star 80’s most shrewd maneuvers is to always look at Hemingway/Stratten’s body through Snider’s eyes, whether with polaroids in her bedroom or when leering over a professional photographer’s shoulder, to gaze at her through a shared lens of lust and exploitation – not only for conquering her body, but the life her body could afford him.
Instead of making a one-note tabloid movie about a depraved murderer, Fosse opted to stage a film that uses a murder as a means to delve into an implicit id at the heart of Playboy’s empire, the walled-in-glass exploitation within the guise of a sexual liberation not available to every body in the same way. Hef’s once-radical image of bachelor autonomy could not be more retro. Bereft of the nostalgia that imbues Boogie Nights’s ‘70s porn cinephilia, in Star 80 the ‘70s are well and truly over. And while there is a lingering topicality still pungent within this film – inevitable by the proximity of its production to the events depicted, but also as a byproduct of the great porn debates of the previous decade – Star 80 also exhibits a remarkable foresight into a helplessly nihilistic sensibility that would come to structure so many representations of the decade, the toxic combination ambitious self-aggrandizement and scorched-earth self-destruction that so often functions in cinema as a metonym for the ‘80s.