Bob Fosse directed only five films and this, the one with the odd licence plate title, was his last. The dancer/choreographer/screenwriter/director had a penchant for the underbelly of society, particularly from a show business perspective, and all five of his films reflect that and benefitted from the resulting edginess he achieved. Sweet Charity was about a hooker (based on a Fellini character), Cabaret took on sexual identity and the rise of Nazism, Lenny a gritty portrayal of the controversial satirist, Lenny Bruce. With All That Jazz, Fosse took a long, hard, stylish look at his own proclivities with women and drugs, but he went really down into the pit of darkness with Star 80, the story of an opportunistic sleaze who exploits, then brutally murders his centerfold-turned-actor wife.
What you will not find in Star 80 are the dazzling set pieces so apparent in his previous films. These have been replaced by a hyperrealist’s vision of a brightly lit, soft-focused nightmare. It’s a reach that Fosse makes so successfully that the overall intensity and atmosphere of his film was too harsh for many. He had sought out the devil to make this film…and found him.
Paul Snider, played by Eric Roberts in a true tour-de-force performance, was an ambitious and morally corrupt con man who latched onto a beautiful 17-year-old Dairy Queen worker in Vancouver, Dorothy Stratten, luring her (and her mother, for consent purposes) into nude photography that led to Playboy magazine fame. Mariel Hemingway, in her fifth role and second lead, channels the innocent spirit and determination of Dorothy convincingly, with her brittle delivery and demeanor making the narrative all the more tragic.
Snider pimps and promotes his now wife with manic obsession, reaping – and spending – his profits as quickly as they roll in. Dorothy’s success at Playboy leads to offers from Hollywood, triggering a possessiveness and jealousy in Snider that exponentially grows with each step in Dorothy’s climb to success. When Dorothy meets and beds Aram (a fictionalized version of real-life Peter Bogdanovich), Snider snaps, knowing that his days with her, his cash cow, are over, leading to a ruthless murder/suicide. No jazz hands or song-and-dance Fosse to be found here – he takes evil by the neck and makes us, the audience, look him straight in the eye.
Roberts’s performance should have been a career-maker. Every emotion and thought that passes through Snider on his descent into madness is reflected in Roberts’ expressions and body language. It’s a rare portrait that, while in no way sympathetic, is understandable in a clinical sense – we know exactly to what level his character has sunk, minute-by-minute. As the descent accelerates, the portrait becomes all the more frightening. While critics recognized his performance, AMPAS steered clear of his bravura work at awards time – it was just too real and disturbing. Like Gary Oldman in Sid & Nancy and Michael Fassbender in Shame in later years, Eric Roberts’s performance was just too disturbing for Oscar consideration.
Cinematographer-extraordinaire Sven Nykvist, a veteran of providing the visuals for Ingmar Bergman’s varied and heavy visions, provides a the right amount of California light and greasy atmosphere, trading-off Fosse’s preference for choreographed camerawork with a voyeuristic stare.
I wonder if Star 80 might have a second life today, given the current tendency to face down exploitation and abuse rather than hide from it. In the 1980s, nobody cared enough to approach the subject. Snider’s murder of Dorothy received all of the attention in the press, but little was said about the events and manipulation involved that led up to the final crime, outside of an article in Village Voice, on which Fosse based his film. His harsh de-romanticization of gender abuse portrays it as an unacceptable norm that has gone too far for too long.
Bob Fosse always found magic within our imperfections and gave them life, both in dance and film. His demons always had a slouch or shoulder roll handy to accent the naughtiness behind the eyes. With Star 80, naughtiness is replaced by a cruel, narcissistic death spiral that feeds on the trappings of fame and festers in the dank corners of an industry based on sexism, money and drugs. Reaching capacity, it can handle no more, and it destroys its muse, then turns on itself. It’s a discordant exercise in blatantly honest – and brave – filmmaking that few were ready to receive in 1983.