Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 04 August 2006
Source Warner Bros DVD
Paul Snider looks in the mirror and he sees an unrealized celebrity, his muscles sharply defined, his face clean shaven save for a moustache, and his coiffure recalling — if not perfecting — what he perceives to be the latest fashion. The reflection obscures a deep, overwhelming insecurity; when Paul shakes your hand for the first time, he’s clutching on with both hands and wildly interested eyes, a castaway with a monstrous incentive to be pulled into the boat.
His jobs are various. Ostensibly, he is a salesman; any time he is seen working (or, more appropriately, profiteering) his façade is inauthentic. More experienced personalities see his desperation immediately, so Paul tends to associate himself with more naïve people, most of them women.
He meets Dorothy Stratten, a clerk at a Dairy Queen, and he is enthralled with her immediately. She is in high school, and even though unsophisticated, more beautiful than she knows. Paul’s attention is incessant, and in short time he is her prom date (afterward, he spends the night photographing her in his bedroom). She is his transport through the looking glass, and henceforth he is careful to protect his investment. At the prom, ignoring her pleas for behavior, he juts a nail file into her ex-boyfriend’s thigh.
This exposition, roughly Star 80’s first twenty minutes, is intercut with images from Paul’s conclusion: he paces about his bedroom, having inverted the face of his precious starlet with a shotgun, between collages of Dorothy’s Playboy photo shoots on every wall, narrating his virtues as he did before in the mirror. Only blood ruins his perfect face and body, and he sees with awesome clarity an evil he now personifies. He turns the shotgun on himself.
This violence is brewing throughout Star 80, Bob Fosse’s final film, because our knowledge of the murder-suicide that concludes it is made known from its opening minutes. It is leniently based upon the actual fates of the pair (the title is derived from Snider’s vanity license plate), whose dissolution was, among other factors, instigated by Stratten’s affair with Peter Bogdanovich, in whose They All Laughed she acted just prior to her death. Fosse’s approach is deft: faux-documentary interviews (with Stratten, et al) are interspersed between the “fiction,” told in flashback. Liberties are taken with many of the episodes’ components (Bogdanovich, for one, is rendered as “Aram Nicholas”; Cliff Robertson’s Hugh Hefner is, in contrast, an accurate facsimile), but the tabloid intrigue remains intact; the conclusion, even, was filmed in the actual apartment Dorothy Stratten and Paul Snider died in.
This is not to say Star 80 is mere exploitation. Unlike Paul Schrader’s telling of naïf corruption in Hardcore, Fosse is responsible in how impartially he renders his characters, many of them seen in voyeuristic close-up (enhanced, surely, by Sven Nykvist’s photography). Of major note is Eric Roberts’ brutal performance as Paul, modulating between a hysteric insecurity and stoic determination, often within a single shot. Any telling of Dorothy’s fate renders him a vicious, smarmy pervert, but Roberts makes him sympathetic, entrapped by Hollywood’s promise of fame and, significantly, the burden of obscurity it imposes when he fails to achieve it. Upon entering the Playboy mansion, Paul is hooked onto Dorothy’s arm, grinning with excited eyes, impatiently awaiting permission to find his friends on the most wondrous playground he’s ever imagined. This eagerness — this outright determination — is insatiable, and it will leave him a finished man.