Bob Fosse, who delivered a razzle-dazzle like no other director, couldn’t help but convey with a horrifying verisimilitude the darkest side of the glamorous life he cherished.
What drew Bob Fosse, legendary choreographer and director of movie musicals such as Cabaret and All That Jazz, to the lurid true crime story of Dorothy Stratten, the Playmate of the Year murdered by her ex-husband Paul Snider? According to Fosse biographer Sam Wasson, the connection was twofold. In the young Stratten, Fosse saw his more innocent self; in the obsessed, violent Snider, who shaped Stratten as if she was so much property, Fosse too, with horror, saw himself. That conflict and self-knowledge is part of what makes Star 80 (1983), made just a few years after the incidents it depicts, such a revealing, personal and unsettling film.
Fosse’s previous film, All That Jazz, had been a kind of autobiographical confession. In the alter ego of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, who only won the role after his Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfuss backed out), Fosse, who wrote and directed, took himself to task for his workaholic obsessions, his womanizing and his health. Seen in the light of that honest, if dazzling, self-assessment, Star 80, which thanks to editor Alan Heim shared the same quick-shot rhythms, was an entirely different kind of choreography. This showtime, in all its rapid cuts and precise blocking, was all too real, an American Dream of fast food (where Snider “discovered” Stratten), sex and movie sets turned nightmare.
That nightmare is set in motion by Eric Roberts, whose recent career, with the notable exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, has been largely occupied by trash auteur David DeCoteau. Where now Roberts seems to sleepwalk through a series of VOD supporting roles, he immersed himself in the role of Paul Snider, so much so that he alienated cast and crew. All that desperation comes through the moment he appears on screen, vamping in from of a mirror and rehearsing his unctuous arrival in the Playboy mansion, imagining himself the picture of charm. Being Eric Roberts, he is not without charm; but Roberts gets under the skin of this character, handsome yet pathetic and ultimately dangerous.
Mariel Hemingway plays the part of the tragic victim, and she famously got her breasts enlarged for the part. Despite the enhancement, she doesn’t look much like Stratten—it’s hard for Hemingway at this age to look anything less than innocent, and that’s exactly why she’s so good in the role of fresh youth corrupted by glamor. Her youthfulness makes it even more uncomfortable to watch when everyone in her path exploits her, and it’s certainly not just Snider.
There’s Hugh Hefner, who talked Fosse out of casting his first choice to portray the magazine owner: Harry Dean Stanton; Hefner approved of Cliff Robertson, because who wouldn’t? Robertson can’t quite make Hef avuncular but he at least makes him seem more of a businessman than a lech. Even Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees), a thinly disguised Peter Bogdanovich, though he seemed to have less ulterior motives than others in Stratten’s circle, does not come across as blameless. Bogdanovich went on to write a tell-all book, The Killing of the Unicorn, that blamed Stratten’s murder on Hef and the Playboy lifestyle, but it seems somehow untoward that the director married Stratten’s younger sister.
In supplemental materials for All That Jazz, frequent Fosse dancer and one-time Fosse lover Ann Reinking suggests that Joe Gideon’s fate points to a moral that must have devastated the director: glamor kills. Fosse’s creative life had been dedicated to the human body: To making art out of the body in motion—or in the case of his Lenny Bruce biopic, out of performance. Yet the culmination of this, the final movie Fosse would direct, was an act of destruction. It’s a sober look at the double-edged sword of art, which creates worlds but also has the potential to destroy.
Star 80 was mostly shot in sequence, and the director dreaded the climactic murder scene, which was to be shot in the very house where it happened. He called up Reinking, telling her, “I really like these people. And I don’t want to see them die.” Bob Fosse, who delivered a razzle-dazzle like no other director, couldn’t help but convey with a horrifying verisimilitude the darkest side of the glamorous life he cherished.