I like examining films about political corruption from decades ago that, if anything, were somewhat ahead of their time and are more potent these days in the age of the internet and social media. Rod Lurie’s The Contender is no exception, and looks at abuse of power by those with a lot of it to wield, and the frequently used and very bratty tactic of bringing up events from people’s past to run smear campaigns on the eve of elections, a dirty trick used heavily by both sides of any power struggle. Joan Allen is fantastic as a US Senator who is a strong candidate for Vice President until a fiery, amoral asshole of a rival played by Gary Oldman digs up dirt from her college days and threatens to derail the whole thing. This is a political drama and as such the script (courtesy of Lurie himself) has a whole truck of bells, whistles and supporting characters to give the film flourish, but at heart it’s a fascinating moral dilemma revolving around Allen and Oldman. The attack on her is vicious, below the belt slander and although not unfounded, it’s unwarranted by someone who is supposed to represent and uphold integrity with their position. The plot thickens when she discovers secrets of her own regarding his character and past, and struggles in herself whether to use this information to bring him down like he did to her, or rise above it and use other less sensationalist strategies to beat him. Her quandary culminates in a decision that many, including myself, would find fairly frustrating given the gauntlet of degradation she’s forced to walk through as a result of Oldman’s actions. That decision may not be what we want to happen emotionally as an audience based on what we’ve seen and felt, but it’s easy to remove ourselves and see why she does this, and view the example she has set for peers by making the hardest of calls. It’s mature, difficult storytelling and I’d forgotten what a thoughtful, prescient film this is. Many people from both sides of America’s divided masses and political parties could learn a thing or two from this story. Allen never overplays the role and uses that quiet observance she’s so good with to bring us closer to her character. Oldman is decked out in a strange curly wig and looks nothing like the sneering shark he becomes when he opens his mouth, it’s an interesting visual character choice. Jeff Bridges plays the President (I’d vote for him IRL) and the cast is stocked with excellent talent including Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris and William L. Petersen. Great film, and gets more important as each year passes.
The 1980s was quite a prolific decade for actor Kurt Russell. Sprinkled between the genre classics he made with director John Carpenter, the actor tried his hand at a wide variety of roles, from shifty used car salesman in the comedy Used Cars (1980) to a nuclear power plant worker in the docudrama Silkwood (1983) to a police detective in the neo-noir Tequila Sunrise (1988). Often forgotten during this busy decade is a nifty little thriller called The Mean Season (1985). Based on the bestselling 1982 novel In the Heat of the Summer by John Katzenbach, this well-executed film acts as the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page turner.
Set in Miami during the hot, late summer months, the film opens with an urgent brassy score by the great Lalo Schifrin that plays over shots of stormy skies juxtaposed with the busy printing presses of the Miami Journal, foreshadowing how both will play a prominent role later on. Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell) is a veteran crime reporter that has just come back from hiatus/job hunting in Colorado. He’s burnt out, lacking both ambition and drive. He wants a change of pace and threatens to quite… again. But before he can bring it up, Bill Nolan (Richard Masur), his editor, assigns him to cover the murder of a young woman that has been shot in the head.
The crime scene sequence speaks volumes about Malcolm’s character. He’s covered the beat long enough to be on friendly terms with homicide detective Ray Martinez (Andy Garcia) but not his partner Phil Wilson (Richard Bradford). He also knows how to get the guy who found the body to open up and talk then has the decency not to use the man’s name in the article. Malcolm is also tactful and understanding with the mother of the murder victim, listening to the woman’s reminisces about her child while still getting what he needs for the article. This is in contrast to Andy Porter (Joe Pantoliano), the crime photographer who shadows Malcolm on his assignments and has no problem taking a picture of the grieving parent during a particularly vulnerable moment. This scene is important because it establishes that Malcolm is good at what he does and he is a decent person so we like and identify with him.
Malcolm finally confronts Bill about his desire to quit in a scene between veteran character actor Richard Masur and Russell. Bill tells Malcolm, “You haven’t been at this long enough to be as burned out as you like to think you are.” Malcolm feels like he’s seen and done it all but still hasn’t found his Watergate yet – the dream of all ambitious investigative reporters. Malcolm sums it up best when he tells Bill, “I don’t want to see my name in the paper next to pictures of dead bodies anymore.” The editor counters, “Now we’re not the manufacturer, we retail. News gets made somewhere else, we just sell it.” It’s a nice scene that is well-played by both actors as their characters touch on the nature of ethics in reporting the news. How far are they willing to go to get a story that makes their career? Malcolm is about to find out as he gets a phone call from the man (Richard Jordan) that killed the teenage girl. He admires Malcolm’s writing and wants the reporter to be his mouthpiece as he plans to kill again.
Bill is practically salivating at the possibilities while Malcolm’s ambition kicks in as he realizes that he’s found his Watergate. However, as the murders continue, Malcolm finds himself getting more involved in the story until he’s as much a part of it as the killer, which puts his life and that of his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) in danger.
While the set-up and plot of The Mean Season are nothing special – the reporter who gets in way over his head – both are executed well enough that you don’t mind and this is due in large part to the engaging performances of the talented cast that do their best to sell the material. Kurt Russell certainly comes across as a believable newsman. He’s got the lingo down and seems to know his way around the newsroom and the beat that Malcolm covers. The actor does a nice job of conveying his character’s transition from someone reporting on the news to the one making it. He also manages to get a chance to show off some of his action chops in an exciting bit where Malcolm races across town to find his girlfriend before the killer does. His frantic, desperate race is intense because the actor knows how to sell it, running full tilt over several blocks like a man possessed, and because we know more than he does. We know just how much danger his girlfriend is in.
Mariel Hemingway is good in the thankless girlfriend role. She and Russell have good chemistry together. They make a nice couple together and her character ends up acting as the voice of reason when Malcolm gets too involved. Hemingway does her best to avoid the damsel in distress stereotype but it is pretty easy to figure out how it’s all going to go down. She is part of a solid supporting cast that includes Andy Garcia as the dedicated cop that cares and Richard Bradford (The Untouchables) as his older, more experienced partner who thinks that Malcolm is a parasite. The aforementioned Richard Masur (The Thing) is also memorable as the opportunistic editor who just cares about selling papers. The great William Smith (Darker than Amber) has a memorable bit part as a pivotal witness that helps Malcolm and the cops track down the killer. He has only one scene with a decent amount of expositional dialogue to convey but he nails it.
Director Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox) also does a nice job orchestrating the cat and mouse game between Malcolm and the killer thanks to the smartly written screenplay by Leon Piedmont. They manage to hit all the right notes and fulfill all the right conventions of the thriller genre – the grudgingly helpful cops, the ambitious reporter, the sociopathic killer, and so on – and stir it all up. Borsos employs no-nonsense direction like a seasoned studio pro, which lets the actors do their thing. I also like how he conveys a sense of place with the sweaty, summer weather, coupled with the impending hurricane that is almost tangible. It all comes to a head at the exciting and atmospheric climax when Malcolm confronts the killer in the Everglades.
John Katzenbach was a veteran crime reporter who based his debut novel In the Heat of the Summer on years of experiences and that of his colleagues. Producer David Foster, a journalism graduate, had been looking for a good screenplay about reporters for years. He came across the manuscript for Katzenbach’s novel and was impressed by it. He met with the author and they talked about how to accurately convey the life of a newspaper reporter on film.
In April 1984, Borsos and his crew arrived at the Miami Herald offices to study a typical day in the newsroom and on that day Christopher Bernard Wilder, suspected of kidnapping and murdering several young women, shot himself as the police closed in. The resulting flurry of activity at the Herald helped Borsos create a realistic newsroom atmosphere in his film. Katzenbach urged Kurt Russell to hang out with his fellow reporters in preparation for the film. To that end, Russell and Joe Pantoliano accompanied a reporter and a photographer from the newspaper to the scene of a grisly double murder in North Miami. Much like in the film, the actor found cameras were trained on him and later saw footage of himself on the evening news. In addition, Richard Masur spent days and nights on the Herald’s city desk.
Borsos’ previous film The Grey Fox (1982) did not make a profit and so to pay off his debts he agreed to direct The Mean Season. Unfortunately, he had creative differences with Foster over the tone of the film. According to Borsos, he wanted the film to look “somewhat stylized and slightly unreal, more what you would call a 1950’s film-noir type of picture.” In contrast, Foster wanted a more realistic-looking film as Borsos said, “Mr. Foster’s vision was more of action-packed thriller instead of a character-thriller.” It also didn’t help that the director resented the producer’s constant presence on the set. The newsroom scenes were actually shot at the Miami Herald late at night with several staff members used as consultants and extras. Russell and two fellow actors used three real newsroom desks that were outfitted with authentic-looking notepads, books, dictionaries and computer printouts. In addition, Katzenbach was frequently present during filming and acted as a consultant.
The Mean Season is an entertaining film that falters a little bit at the end with a clichéd “twist” that sees Malcolm suddenly transform into an action hero but Russell does his best to make it work. At times, it feels like there are two kinds of films competing – the character-driven thriller that Borsos wanted to make and the action-packed thrill machine that Foster envisioned. The result is a sometimes uneven effort. Not every film has to try and reinvent the wheel by offering some novel take on the genre. There’s something to be said for a thriller that has nothing more on its mind then to entertain and tell a good story and that’s something The Mean Season delivers on both counts.
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.
STAR 80 – 1983. Dir. Bob Fosse. With Eric Roberts, Mariel Hemingway, Carroll Baker, and Cliff Robertson
In STAR 80 Bob Fosse chronicles the true story of the short rise and fall of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. She was the embodiment of a Playmate: wholesome, naive, and the perfect girl next door. Mariel Hemingway (granddaughter of Ernest) plays Stratten and Eric Roberts, in a star making performance, portrays Dorothy’s boyfriend turned husband Paul Snider who kills Dorothy (I didn’t spoil anything, it’s told to you in the opening). Snider is a self obsessed small time hustler who is always looking for the perfect opportunity to strike it big. Snider accidentally stumbles upon Stratten while she’s working at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver and it’s love at first sight for Snider. Their relationship soon blossoms as Snider spoils Stratten with attention and lavish gifts. Snider then begins taking nude pictures of Dorothy, and sends them to Playboy. Dorothy is soon after summoned to the Mansion but there’s one road block – her Mother (played to perfection by Carroll Baker). Snider pleads with Mrs. Stratten to allow her daughter to travel to the Playboy Mansion and become a Playmate. She refuses, because she can see through Snider’s phoniness. She knows that Snider’s love for her daughter is more opportunity than real love. The film has interviews with characters from the film, chronicling Dorothy and
Snider’s life (as Fosse previously did in LENNY) and the film cross cuts between Dorothy’s story and to current time where we see Snider naked in their bedroom covered in blood. The film itself is edited much like ALL THAT JAZZ with Alan Heim returning as Fosse’s editor. The film is a pleasant mixture with the way it flows between ALL THAT JAZZ and LENNY. The murder scene consists of Snider speaking a monologue of contempt, self loathing, hatred and jealously of Dorothy’s stardom. It’s very Shakespearian the way the film allows Roberts to convey his emotions to the audience, allowing him the inner dialogue with the audience while he stands alone, bloody and naked in the room he murdered Dorothy in. It reminded me much of Richard III or Iago’s sadistic monologue from OTHELLO.
Eric Roberts brings down the house in this film.
STAR 80 is a true story, some events and characters are slightly fictionalized which gave the studio a blanket to help prevent a lawsuit, which didn’t stop Hugh Hefner from suing for deformation of character. Veteran actor Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben from Raimi’s
Spiderman franchise) plays Hugh Hefner. Robertson doesn’t necessarily look like Hefner, but his mannerisms and delivery tricks you into thinking it really is Hefner. The way Hefner is portrayed is that of a father figure, yet he’s just as much of an opportunist as Snider. Fosse explores, as he did in LENNY and ALL THAT JAZZ, the dark side of show business and humanity. He glamorizes it to a certain extent, but the pitfalls that are shown bring the film to a much darker and deeper emotional feel.
As Dorothy expands her horizons with Playboy and films, Snider begins to be left in the dust. He’s Dorothy’s self proclaimed manager and is sucking money from her to buy cars, houses and other materialistic items. He buys a vanity license plate for their new car entitled: Star 80. Snider is convinced that he and Dorothy is the new power couple and proposes marriage to Dorothy. Hefner is skeptical of Snider and sees him as a low level pimp and hustler and warns Dorothy about him and his intentions. As Dorothy’s star rises, Snider is convinced that he is rising along with her – until he realizes that he’s not ascending with Dorothy and he begins to become jaded and bitter.
Dorothy’s huge break comes from film director Aram Nicholas (who is a fictionalized version of Peter Bogdanovich director of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON) who is played by Roger Rees. As Dorothy spends more time in New York with Aram and less time with Paul who’s still in LA, she begins to see things more clearly. She is sucked in by Aram’s thoughtfulness, charm and attention. She begins to drift closer to Aram and further away from Paul. Paul begins to suspect something is amiss, and hires a private investigator and buys a gun. The way Bogdanovich is displayed in the film is much like Hefner and Snider. They are sweet men at first, and then they begin to manipulate Dorothy for their benefit and personal gain. Quick note: Bogdanovich was dating Dorothy at the time of her death, and then proceeded to marry Dorothy’s younger sister (of whom was 29 years younger than Bogdanovich) after Dorothy’s death. This is the main reason that caused the fast decline of Bogdanovich’s career.
Dorothy leaves Paul and moves in with Aram. She files for divorce and Aram begs Dorothy not to see Paul anymore. She agrees, but gets sucked back in and goes to see Paul one last time to propose him half of everything she’s worth so they can finalize their divorce. Dorothy returns to her old home with Paul, and the entire home is covered in pictures of Paul and Dorothy. Paul is at his weakest and most vulnerable point. He begins to beg Dorothy not to leave him, he threatens to kill himself (as I watched this scene, do we all think this when we are at our weakest?) and Dorothy begins to feel sorry for him, she touches him and he pushes her. He becomes spiteful and angry and yells at Dorothy with envious anger. The bedroom in the film that is the scene of Dorothy’s death is that actual bedroom she was murdered in.
It’s interesting how the film is structured; it’s almost as if Snider is the lead character. During my research of the film, I found an interview with Eric Roberts where he stated that Fosse told him that he decided to make Snider the main focus of the film, because if Fosse himself wouldn’t have become famous – he would have become Paul Snider. Damn Fosse – that’s honesty!
The climax of the film is much like ALL THAT JAZZ, but where as climax is a beautiful sadness; STAR 80’s is graphically violent and disturbing. This film should have been nominated across the board. Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (Bob Fosse for basing his film on Theresa Carpenter’s “Death of a Playmate” article), Best Actor: Eric Roberts, Actress: Mariel Hemmingway, Best Supporting: Cliff Robertson and Carroll Baker, and Alan Heim for Best Achievement in Editing. This was Bob Fosse’s follow up to ALL THAT JAZZ and his final film. ALL THAT JAZZ will always remain as Fosse’s masterpiece and as a filmmaker Fosse never had one misstep, and STAR 80 is my new staple for a filmmaker’s swan song. What makes this film even more interesting is that Fosse and Hefner were friends in real life, and there was a rumored love triangle between Fosse, Hefner and Stratten. As I said earlier Hefner sued for the way he was portrayed in the film. This film banished Fosse and Hefner’s friendship.
What I love about Bob Fosse is that he just doesn’t give a fuck.