Nick Clement on Bob Fosse’s STAR 80

Bob Fosse’s criminally underrated final film from 1983, Star 80, was clearly a work ahead of its time. The film is a showcase for a brilliant performance by Eric Roberts — his work in this film is some of the sleaziest acting I’ve ever seen in any movie, and the idea that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar literally boggles the mind. If this film were released this year, he’d be a front runner. Mariel Hemingway was perfectly cast as the ultimate innocent dream girl, so supremely naïve and honest and pure of heart, that she never stood a chance. For the unfamiliar, Star 80 tells the gripping true story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Hemingway), who was “discovered” at age 17 by a pimp/hustler named Paul Snider (Roberts), who breaks her out of her reserved shell, and brings her to the attention of the people at Playboy, who then made her into a brief star in the early 80’s (after posing nude she landed some bit TV and movie parts and caught the romantic eye of director Peter Bogdanovich), before she was cruelly murdered by Snider, after his descent into total and utter madness. This is an incredibly sad film, reminding me in many respects of last year’s equally chilling true life murder story Foxcatcher — both films expertly detail the inescapable reality of death, and how sometimes there are innocent people thrown into the orbit of a sociopath who will change their lives forever. Fosse delves deep into Snider’s mind, crafting the narrative more around him than Stratten, so as a result, you really get an up close and personal view of a man coming apart at the seams, and Roberts was more than up to the task with this emotionally turbulent piece of acting. Simply put, I’ve never seen a better performance from this legendary character actor, who over the years has become a go-to-guy for B-movie sliminess, but in Star 80, he was the center attraction, turning in a fascinating if disgusting portrayal of a man destroyed by his own ego, jealousy, limitations, and overwhelming desire to be loved. For her part, Hemingway conveys a natural ease which soon gives way to shards of paranoia and uncertainty; what Stratten saw in Snider will forever be a mystery, and it’s devastating to think that a woman like her would have ever crossed paths with a degenerate like Snider. And to notice the nods and influences that this film has had on other filmmakers was enlightening; there’s a scene towards the beginning where Roberts is flexing in the mirror, admiring his toned body and genitals, and it comes off exactly like the early sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights were Walbergh is checking himself out in his bedroom, making muscles in the mirror, talking himself up about how he’s going to be “a big star.” And the faux interview cut-ins that Fosse peppers the film with may have influenced Richard Linklater on his underrated crime film Bernie, which provided Jack Black with the best material he’s ever been given as an actor. But back to Star 80 — gorgeous and lit like a goddess by Fosse and his brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Hemingway projects an almost ethereal quality at times, which makes it all the more morbid to see what ultimately becomes of her. With expert editing by Alan Heim that ratchets up the tension and suspense, especially during the almost unbearable final sequence, Star 80 commands the viewer’s attention, never becoming anything less than riveting, and with Nykvist’s crisp, unfussy images and Fosse’s confident directorial hand telling this chilling story, the viewer is left with a lump in their throat by the conclusion. While never being exploitive, Fosse doesn’t shy away from the gruesomeness of Snider’s appalling final act on this planet, and the power that Star 80 demonstrates and culminates with is impossible to deny.

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